Life is unprecitable, and change is inevitable. With this in mind, we must always be aware that shows come and go, clients hire and fire, funding comes together or falls through, and life, much like the show, must go on.

One of the things we often encounter as programmers, operators, and even designers is filling the shoes of those who have come before us. Often a show gets rescheduled or makes an unexpected revival, or even simply returns year after year, and our complex work and personal schedules can’t always line up the way we’d like. Enter The Substitute, someone who can fulfill the duties required by the position and who also happens to be available. Having a sub is an invaluable commodity for those last-minute or emergency situations, and often a great asset, as it’s not always easy to jump onto someone else’s show and navigate through that world with any kind of speed. So what do you do when you’re the sub, and how do you maximize your time when sitting down behind someone else’s work?

The first thing you can do is to try to get as much information as you can from the last person. How does he like to do things? How did he set up this show? Any logic or advice he can relay to you about what happened or why things are the way they are is key. This will obviously shave hours or days off of thumbing through stuff.

A strong knowledge of the systems you are using also helps. The more you know about how it all works, the faster you can start to figure out what is going on and how to start making it work for you. The crossover point is usually the hardest to get to—where you can start to build yourself into the existing material. Creating views, macros, and presets that make sense to you based on what’s in the show already, without damaging or changing the material, is essential to moving forward and being able to effectively do your job.

The next step is to really get to know the cues in the show, as well as what the show is all about. Understanding how the cues are laid out and exactly what they do will help make sense out of things once rehearsals or tech starts. A lot of times, details can be deceiving when you’re just stepping through and watching the lights or video change, and you may think things are unnecessary or somehow redundant. However, within the context of cast, band, or music, suddenly things fall into place. Don’t be too hasty and start making changes without seeing and fully understanding what the end result is going to be. Just because you wouldn’t have done it that way, doesn’t mean it’s wrong. You don’t want to make a whole lot of new work for yourself by trying to correct something that wasn’t a mistake.

Now it’s time to change a cue. Hopefully you’ve gotten a full grasp on how your system is laid out, you’ve tightened all the cues you can, and you are ready to make a change that won’t bring the house crashing down. Make sure to block and unblock the right cues. Find out where your changes will track to, and try to consider what that will change before you actually change anything. Get in the habit of understanding the ultimate goal and its effects before hitting that record button. It will save you hours of fixing and catching up later—time you rarely get anyway.

As you go, you’ll find a rhythm with your new team members, and this will help you learn how they like to work. Experience will always be the best way to figure out what is needed. It’s important to keep in mind that you will constantly need to adjust to your surroundings. If you’re not used to working with people in this new way, try to adjust, or make suggestions on alternate ways to do things. Overall, remember that any show is a unique experience and a process. Let it evolve, and it will become its own entity. Next time you jump into someone else’s shoes, hopefully you’ll make it through unscathed!

Cory FitzGerald is a programmer and designer based out of New York City whose most recent work includes production and lighting design for the Bruno Mars tour.