Masters Of Broadway - Production Electricians
A production electrician's primary responsibility on any production is to execute the design of the lighting designer. “Taking a production from blueprint to onstage is what we do — what we create,” says PE Jimmy Maloney. “The lighting designer asks for something on a piece of paper, and we take it and create what they are asking for. We also need to be as flexible as possible because changes can happen very quickly on Broadway.” The job of a PE is complicated, time consuming, and requires skills that range from the technical to organizational aspects like putting together crews and fitting designs into a budget. They have to walk both sides of the line as they are at once a stagehand and management, and the job requires long hours, hard work, and heavy responsibility.
I recently spoke with seven PEs that work on Broadway. Four of them are among the most respected — Rick Baxter, Jimmy Fedigan, and Jimmy Maloney, who have been working as production electricians since the early '80s, and Mike LoBue since 1991. Both Fedigan's and Maloney's fathers were also Broadway PEs that are still held in high esteem. Newer to the position but quickly establishing themselves are Michael Pitzer and Randy Zaibek, who have been PEs since 2004 and 2005, respectively. Kevin Barry has been working on Broadway as an electrician since 2000, then as an assistant/associate PE, and is now working exclusively with Maloney, who most often uses the title of production lighting supervisor.
Working as a PE on Broadway is not for the faint of heart, especially when it comes to the number of hours worked. Most work six days out of seven, 45 to 50 hours during a calm week that comprises prep and shop work, but getting into production and rehearsals makes those hours climb well into more than 100 a week. If doing a tour — or multiple tours — then throw in a lot of travel time. Some of the younger guys also run shows, which can be 45 hours during six days, plus about four days in the shop and hours of paperwork. It all adds up to a lot of time spent away from family and friends, a fact that was everyone's least favorite aspect of being a PE.
Those schedules repeat themselves as the number of shows worked increases throughout the year and at times even overlap. During the course of a year, Baxter tries to keep it to one or two shows and currently has four tours on the road; Fedigan works between three and six shows and also has one to two tours; Maloney works two to three, but has done up to five; LoBue averages between five to 10-plus works on industrials; Pitzer usually runs one show, does production on two others, and handles the installation of lighting on one cruise ship per year; Zaibek has been averaging four to five per year; and Barry took last year to just work on Mary Poppins, but is normally directly responsible for one to three shows.
When asked about the key tools that they rely upon, all agreed that the basics included a laptop, Internet, and a cell phone as their offices, wherever they are. Lightwright and VectorWorks were the top programs for organizing the data they need to wrangle. One thing all the interviewees echo is Maloney's answer: “The key tool for a production electrician is his crew. That is my philosophy. I have terrific people that work for me, and I have the best crews on the planet, literally, from doing Lion King worldwide. Wherever you are, the best thing you can have going for you is your crew.” A few other personal favorites were Fedigan's “scale rule” and Barry's Zebra Sarasa 0.07 black ballpoint pens. Zaibek adds, “A strong positive relationship with rental shops — strong support from the shop is what makes you look good. It's funny how key tools are really organizational rather than mechanical.
LD: How has technology changed since you started?
Rick Baxter: The first show I laid out in 1975 was for piano boards. I had already used a computer console at the University of Michigan several years before that, but Broadway was a few years behind the times. Now it tends to be on the cutting edge as it has become so expensive. The progression then from analog control to DMX control and now to Ethernet control has definitely had major effects on the industry.
Jimmy Fedigan: Forget since I started — it's changing from last week! I started just as moving lights and color scrollers became the norm for shows (I don't miss those ColorWiz scrollers.) The biggest thing that's changed for me is the reliability of the gear. Early on, it was nonstop maintenance and swapping of automated gear. Things now are built much better, which enables us to have more gear on the shows without worry. City Theatrical's WDS wireless DMX system has been something that has really made a change in touring automated gear. The road company of Jersey Boys is almost entirely run off of this system. This is a huge timesaver for tours.
Mike LoBue: No more gas-powered Lekos! Control and source technology have come leaps and bounds since I started.
Randy Zaibek: I was lucky to jump into the field at an exciting time. Sometimes you feel more like an IT man rather than an electrician. It's been enjoyable to try to stay on top of the game with the latest technology and try to figure out which routes the industry will take and what will fall away. Really what has changed our business the most is simply the computer chip. Barring the Source Four and cable, it's hard to find any other component that does not now have a computer chip inside.
Kevin Barry: I am lucky to be fairly young in the business — I'm 34 — but I have seen a lot of changes since 2000. Moving lights have become a huge part of every production; big shows on Broadway have gotten even bigger. Small plays have refused to stay very small when it comes to a lighting package.
LD: Are there any quirks to being a PE on Broadway?
JF: The only real quirk working in New York is that you are in a position of stagehand and management. You are working among your brothers but are responsible for coming in on budget. I've never really had a problem with this. The reason is that the stagehands in New York are among the most talented people you can come across and have a tremendous amount of pride in their work and in being able to put some enormously high-tech shows in and on time. I've always felt that they respect the fact that most of us production guys started with them and are their brothers. They work hard to make us look good.
JM: In this business, you work your way up to being a production electrician. I've been fortunate working with Neil Mazzella, Gene O'Donovan, and Artie Siccardi, so I have been lucky to meet and come up with these talented guys along the way. I am working with Neil Mazzella as we speak on Cyrano de Bergerac with Don Holder designing. That is how you get your jobs on Broadway — you build a name for yourself, and designers request you. You do one show, you do a great job, and people call you the next time.
ML: I think the hardest part may be assembling a good crew that could be together for many years to maintain the shows. It's important to have people that work well together. I find collaborating with the house electrician in each theatre prior to production is a positive way to get a great group of people together and do what is best for the production.
RZ: Just the variety of theatres and crews you work with. Local One has a large amount of talent, and every theatre gets a different mix of personnel, which brings an enjoyable variety to the job. Also, the majority of the theatres were built pre-1920s, so space is always at a premium. Thank goodness for that sidewalk where you push so much gear during the day. It really is amazing that, for musicals, you can easily push at least 15 semis full of gear in a space that has a footprint of 40'×30'. Keeping track of what each theatre has power-wise is always a concern now as a 1,200A minimum is average, and still, there are a few theatres that only have 800A services.
KB: I like our role as support people. One of the things I admire about great PEs like Jimmy Maloney and Bobby Joe Fehribach is the way they deal with people. They make sure designers feel supported so they can do their best work.
LD: What is your favorite aspect of the job?
JF: The people, no question. The industry is a tight-knit family. I grew up in it — you have to feel like family that way as you sometimes spend more time with them than your real families. I've been very fortunate to work with amazing people who are some of the most talented and caring people in the world.
RB: I think the camaraderie is the best. Those of us that have been around for a long time can visit most any major city in the country and see old friends.
JM: I have been lucky to be working internationally; I have gotten to meet so many people all around the world. It has really opened my eyes — learning how to work with other crews, different types of gear, different types of dimmers. It is always a challenge no matter where you go, even if it is on Broadway. Working with the designers is always great. I started out in industrials and then moved to the Broadway market. My father was a production electrician; he worked for Hal Prince for many, many years and other producers. He retired 15 years ago, and I just wanted to be half as good as him. He was well known around the country, so it's a pleasure to go from city to city and meet guys that worked with him over the years.
ML: Meeting and working with new people all the time. Getting to try out the newest technologies and giving opinions to the manufacturers. Constantly learning something new!
MP: I like several parts of the job: the people; working as a team; and taking individual parts, prepping them in the shop, and turning them into a working system in the theatre.
RZ: Dealing with the many different people and combinations on each new production. Every show has such a different dynamic depending on who gets teamed together. I really enjoy having a strong, positive relationship with the designers and trying to achieve their needs. Also, the development of new technology keeps it all fresh.
KB: I love taking a lighting designer's plot and developing the system to make it work, from networking the consoles to making sure each and every unit will work when we need it. I like the way the work changes throughout the project from prepping in the shop to tweaking the final design and solving all of the technical problems that arise.
In speaking with these production electricians about what they love to do, it is clear that, for them, their job really is a way of life and what a fun, challenging, and sometimes unexpected life they lead before the house lights even go down.
Michael S. Eddy writes about design and technology. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
More Than Just A Job
Being a production electrician is a lot of hard work, but like everyone who works in theatre, it also requires knowing how to have a few laughs and appreciate the rich history of the profession. Mike LoBue, Jimmy Fedigan, and Rick Baxter share a few of those stories with Live Design.
Mike LoBue: During production of Spamalot in Chicago, Mike Hyman (head electrician) armed himself and the entire lighting team (Hugh Vanstone, Philip Rosenberg, Laura Frank, John Viesta, and I) with chicken catapult guns. Whenever something stupid happened, or someone said something goofy, we would all pelt that person with small plastic chickens! Made for a lot of fun with a great group of people during a long production period.
Jimmy Fedigan: We all have a tremendous amount of respect for each other. I've learned from some of the best: Donny Beck, Rick Baxter, Bob Fehribach, Mike LoBue, and Jimmy Maloney, to name a few. What I've noticed with all of the guys I've been in good company with is that they all pass it on without a second thought. I didn't want to be in the theatre as a career. I thought I would go into public relations at the end of college because I never got to see my dad on weekends; my father [Chris Fedigan] was the premier contract followspot man in the industry. I wanted weekends off. The week before college graduation, my dad had a heart attack; he was fine but had to be laid off for a few months to recuperate. I had eight brothers and sisters still at home so I went to work in his job as the front light man on Starlight Express. The crew treated me like family right away. They taught me and guided me on the way to do things. The production electrician on that show was Jimmy Maloney. Jimmy went out of his way to help me and explain things to me, not only about the technical aspects of the show but also on the way of life in the theatre. I would watch Jimmy and how he worked, how calm he was, and how he let his crew have the freedom to make decisions and encouraged them to take the ball and run, but still watching closely and stepping in when necessary. This is where I caught the theatre bug. The way I was treated reminded me of my college years playing football and the way we worked together to achieve success. It was the same, and I loved it. I decided then that I would like to be Jimmy Maloney. I later thanked him for all his help, and he looked at me and said, “Your dad did the same for me when I was a young guy learning.” After all, we are “family.”
Rick Baxter: One of the stories we've laughed hard about over the years involved Chris Fedigan, considered by many to have been the best front light operator ever on Broadway. We affectionately called Chris “The Doctor.” His son, Jimmy, is now one of the top production electricians in the city and a good friend. At any rate, we were doing a production on Crazy for You at the Shubert Theatre in NY and I had one of the best followspot crews a PE could ever hope for. Several of the men had worked on A Chorus Line, often considered to be one of the toughest spot shows ever, and all were excellent operators. I came in to check out the show one night, and Steve Altman (an original spot op on A Chorus Line) came up to me in a rage threatening to quit the show. He told me that, on the headset during the show the night before, he heard the design assistant calling spot cues tell Chris Fedigan that this was “the worst spotlight crew in the history of Broadway.” I couldn't believe what I was hearing. And on top of it, The Doctor was standing in back of me laughing his head off. I looked at Chris, and said, “What are you laughing at? I have a big problem here.” He then screams at us, “He didn't say crew, he said cue — the worst spotlight cue in the history of Broadway.” The thing was, Chris knew since the day before that these guys were mad, and he let them stew for all that time. We always got a big laugh out of that story.