September 5-16, a festival of free performances by world-renowned classical and modern dance companies was to be held on the plaza at the base of the World Trade Center's Twin Towers. Prism handled the lighting for these shows; the company lost much equipment but crew members on-site that fateful morning were able to escape harm. (Read lighting director Mark Van Tassel's account on www.lightingdimensions.com.) LD spoke with Prism owner Brad Mackie about the state of the industry in the aftermath.
Amy L. Slingerland: How did you get started in this business?
Brad Mackie: Back in high school, I wasn't good enough to be in my friends' band, but I was still hanging out, so what am I going to do? They're like, “Why don't you try to run the lights?”
ALS: Where was that?
BM: In the New Jersey bar scene — when there was a New Jersey bar scene — every bar had a band, and all the bands carried their own production, lights, sound, band gear. I got picked up by a bigger band, called Rhythm of Life, which, back in the early 80s, was one of New Jersey's top club bands. We started buying lights, borrowed my grandfather's van, and got paid a whole $50 a night, which we thought was the greatest thing in the world, and did that for about three years, seven nights a week.
At that time also I started working for the Ritz Theatre in Elizabeth, NJ. They started doing country music, which was their niche, because they were so close to New York they couldn't get rock shows. So I helped rebuild this old 1920s vaudeville theatre, and we painted it, reupholstered the seats — everything — and started doing shows there. I ended up becoming the stagehand and then lighting director, and after that became the stage manager, and worked there while I was going to college.
ALS: What did you study?
BM: I started in communications, live TV, TV shows, but I was still working for this band and this theatre, and was making a lot more money than not only everybody I was going to school with but a lot of the professors at that time. I said to myself if I could just learn lighting design a little better, I don't see a college education helping me at the end of this, so I transferred to Parsons School of Design and learned drafting, architectural lighting, color mixing.
I continued going to school, being a stagehand, building my company; as we got a show we bought another piece of equipment. In the late 80s, early 90s, the Ritz folded. I was doing my lighting company, we were just starting, we weren't really making a lot of money. I needed some extra income, so I went to see Andy Feltz at the Beacon Theatre in New York City, asked if he had any shows. He said, “Why don't you come work here? You'll be able to get some shows from here, and you'll get to meet everybody in the industry because they all come through this theatre at least once a year.” So, I worked there part-time for a while then became the full-time production manager for 10 years.
In the beginning, when Prism started, I was the everything guy — drove the truck, set up the show, maintenanced it, ran the show. As we've progressed from there, unfortunately, I've gotten more stuck into an office/production manager role. I production-manage a lot of the bigger special events. Shows that we've done include the grand opening of the Rose Center for the Museum of Natural History; I helped design that.
We don't do a lot of theatre, but it's something we'd like to get involved with, so doing this WTC show was a big help in that direction. The shows were coming off great, people were walking away happy. Everybody was a little skeptical about going to a rock-and-roll company to do a ballet show, but they were walking away at the end of the night thanking my guys.
ALS: Since the September 11 tragedy, what do you see happening in the near future for the industry and for small companies like yours?
BM: It almost got to the point that I didn't want to pick up the phone, because every call was “How are you doing? We're glad you're alive. By the way, our show is cancelled or postponed.” We watched our whole September go away, part of our October go away, some things have come back possibly for November, but who knows? Depending on what happens, if there's another terrorist act, I mean, yes, I believe we need retaliation, but I don't see our industry working if that happens. People aren't going to have jobs, they're not going to have money, they're going to be scared to death to go into venues with more than 2,000 people, so I don't know what's going to happen to our industry, to be honest.
We've seen in the last year our $20,000 special event/general session/corporate meeting turn into $8-10,000 events; they don't have money, but at least they're still doing things. If you hold their hand and walk through their economic hard times with them, the minute they're back on top they're giving you the money again. That was something we forecast anyway with the way the economy was going, but nobody ever thought it would completely shut down, and talking to a lot of other company owners, that's what I'm hearing. They can't believe it; they're looking at inventory and employees and thinking, “How am I going to pay everybody this month?”
We do special events with Piers 88, 90, 92, and 94, but they've been taken over by the Navy and the Mayor's office, so we have a lot of shows cancelling there too. Hopefully, if they get this thing resolved, maybe Christmas shows will be saved, maybe not. We're looking at it and saying, “I guess no income for that business this year.”