As part of our special anniversary celebration in July, we asked you to tell us your story: Which person, project, or event served as the inspiration for your entrée into the world of entertainment design and technology? The response to that issue was so overwhelming we've decided to continue running your contributions through the rest of year; if you still want to contribute your story, drop an email to editor David Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
MANAGING DIRECTOR, LDPS LTD.
I was in my early 20s and had dropped out of veterinary college in Edinburgh, Scotland due to my dislike of students! I began working for Friends of the Earth as a volunteer countryside campaigner, and part of my role was to assist local support groups in fundraising events. When you fund-raise for such a group, you get lots of bands wanting to do benefit gigs, so we did them.
Being unpaid, the sound company that I used, EFX Audio (the legendary Johnny Ramsey of Simple Minds fame) took pity on me and took me out as the spare man on shows and tried to turn me into a monitor engineer (I have since forgiven them for it). On the gigs, I saw the flashing lights and was quickly drawn to the one true faith — lighting.
After several years in rock and roll, I moved to theatre. Now I run a venue technical consultancy in Ireland and New Zealand, which means that I now have to stop whinging about all the badly designed spaces that we used to have to work in and make sure that we build user-friendly spaces.
At 13, like most 13-year-olds, I spent a lot of time in bed. Unlike most other 13-year-olds, this included time when I would normally be at school or out with friends enjoying myself. What eventually was diagnosed as ME was relatively unknown in my home town of Aberdeen, Scotland, so in between blood tests and examinations, I spent my time either in bed or sleeping due to being constantly tired. As you could imagine, my television consumption during this time went up rather dramatically. While lying in bed one day I watched a careers program that the BBC ran about studio camera operators. I had found my career.
My quest to enter the hallowed world of television production went off at a tangent due to my mother's interest in amateur dramatics. When you are 13, the backstage of a theatre looks much like the inside of a TV studio! I never did become a camera operator; I was seduced by “the magic of theatre” and this in turn led to working in lighting. I guess I felt the lighting department had better toys to play with!
My Eureka moment came the very first time that I saw a liquid projection way back in the year dot — you know, those luscious, organic, globby colors that slushed around on the screen but, inconceivably, never mixed. It completely blew me away. I just had to know how it was done, and that was what got me sucked in.
Career? That word is a little strong for a collection of happy accidents that started when messing around with the sound for a school play seemed like quite an entertaining way of passing the time. Then the inspirational Latin-teacher-who-directed-plays-after-hours, Jeff Shaw, decided to stage a school drama competition in-the-round but didn't think it could be lit. Unable to resist a challenge, I switched to lighting and have been doing it ever since.
If Jeff sparked the interest, the “career” began with the summers spent in Britain's fabulous National Youth Theatre and my friends and mentors Jerry Hodgson and Kevin Fitz-Simons. The main success of the NYT, which lets people aged 14-21 put on shows in the West End and on tour and treats them as professionals alongside professional creative teams, is that it's not a drama school. They're as happy if you go on to have a life outside the entertainment world as in it. Perhaps because of that, the list of former company members working at the highest level in this industry — backstage and front — is very long indeed.
PRINCIPAL, THINKWELL DESIGNS
It all started with Mrs. High (no, really!), my high school senior year creative writing teacher. She was the first person to validate me creatively (other than my mum, but that doesn't really count, does it?). She gave me the courage to share my creativity with others and encouraged me to express myself and do more. Without Mrs. High, I probably would not be here today.
PRESIDENT, GOLD LINE
How did I get into the audio measurement business? Well, I owe it all to a dog.
My company, Gold Line, has been in business since 1961 and we manufacture products for the CB radio industry. As some people know, that industry had a severe sales downturn toward the end of the 1970s and we were looking for new products to design and manufacture. One Sunday afternoon, I was relaxing at home in rural Connecticut when a neighbor came down my driveway. He had lost his dog and wanted to know if I had seen him. We started talking and found that we had mutual business friends. He told me that he had designed an audio spectrum analyzer kit that was going to be on the cover of Popular Electronics and he planned to market the product as a kit. It appeared to me that the analyzer might have potential as a complete wired product. After some weeks of discussion, we received rights to manufacture the completed product and that was our entry into the audio measurement industry. You can say we were pointed to the audio business by a lost dog.
I was 21, working for the phone company in England, and doing amateur theatre in my spare time (which I'd been doing since age 15). I had no idea that you could design lighting for a career! Anyway, I realized one day that “you only come this way once — and you'd better do what it is that you REALLY enjoy doing.” And that wasn't working for the phone company.
I had Richard Pilbrow's book, Stage Lighting, so I wrote to him and asked him how to get into the theatre lighting business. He wrote me back a very nice letter explaining that there wasn't any “formal” training in the UK at that point, and to try and get a job in regional theatre as a technician, and just work my way up. So I wrote around, and got my lucky break — a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Stratford-Upon-Avon. I was there for 13 years from 1976-1989.
It was all Richard's fault - and we're STILL good friends!
INTERNATIONAL PRODUCT MANAGER MARTIN PROFESSIONAL A/S
My conversion happened while working with an amateur dramatic company. It took place in the southern part of the United Kingdom at the age of 14, the last night of a production of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, when all of the production personnel were dragged onstage for the final curtain call. It was at that precise moment in time, which I can distinctly remember, that I thought, ‘Can it be true that people get paid to do such a satisfying job?’
Despite my reluctance to be brought onstage, it was the feeling of a job well done, and an audience with their rousing applause, that made it for me. As I looked around, I saw the complete company with smiles on their faces. The feeling that we had completed our jobs successfully and removed our audience from their normal lives for a few hours was quite overwhelming. At this moment I also learned, albeit sub-consciously, that the show must always go on. Since, then I have never looked back.
How'd I get here? It's all because of a hat. I was working with the local doing load-in and such. Pete Feller, Sr. came into town with a NYSF tryout — A Doll's House, I think it was. Anyway, he noticed the guy with the hat (me). So all day it was, “Hey you with the hat. Do this. Do that.” I worked my butt off that day, but he knew who I was. Three months later I was working for him in New York City.
Jim van Bergen
I was acting (gasp, shriek) from the age of three and was a classically trained in piano, voice, guitar, and percussion. I had constantly performed in music and musical theatre my whole life without any understanding or appreciation of the technology or labor involved, even when recording cast albums or rock songs with my band.
I directed a project my freshman year of college and remember the importance that the selection of music played. Two years later, a director asked me to compose music for a show she was doing, and I said yes. Beyond the compositional work, recording, and editing of cues, I had to put the sound system together and make some practicals work as well for telephone rings, bird calls, and a door buzzer, so I started to understand what it was a sound designer did. I remember countless hours recording guitar takes and synth passes to get the cues the way I wanted. It paid off; I was showered with praise. After the show opened I found I had several admirers asking for copies of the score. It was at this point that I decided to look into a good grad program for sound design and take a hiatus from acting. That has been one heck of a hiatus, and I'm sure the world is better for it.
FOUNDER/OWNER, BALANCED INPUT
It was a cold and stormy night in an English industrial town. The rain did not dampen my anticipation as I approached the door to the Youth Club. On the door, a crudely drawn sign proclaimed “Over 13's Disco Party Tonight!” I pushed the door open, the music barely audible from the inner sanctum, paid the sixpence cover charge, and quickly slid into the main room.
I knew that I would become part of the entertainment industry the minute I entered that room. On a makeshift stage at the end of the room was Nirvana! No, not the band — a real DJ console and real DJ, Johnny Butler. I know that because he had a hand-painted sign that said “DJ Johnny Butler.”
Twin Garrard SP 25 Mk II turntables! A Shure 515 microphone — with switch! FAL 12" speakers! One hundred watts of high-distortion, solid-state amplification! This was surely the absolute pinnacle of sound reproduction. And there were girls!
By my 13th birthday, I was the DJ at my church youth club — twin BSR decks, cannibalized from box record players, homemade mixer and console, Williamson (kit) tube power amps, and EMI speakers. Yeah baby! Within weeks my audience had hit double digits and my addiction to vinyl was full-blown.
That was the moment I knew I wanted to get into this business. Some years later I knew the direction I wanted to take after being profoundly disappointed with so many sound systems. After I came to America I was fortunate enough to work with Mark Levinson on a project for Acoustic Research. The caliber of his work, from microphone pre-amps to modified bookshelf speakers simply expanded my horizons and rekindled my enthusiasm for performance audio. To this day I still want to make a better sound — and, you know what, I think my Mum may still have my sign!