Managing people, technology, budgets, and expectations: it’s all in a day’s work for a technical director.
A good technical director is a jack-of-all trades, someone knowledgeable about the various disciplines and cultures that need to coalesce to stage a successful event. Marty Goldenberg is a good example. While he didn't set out to be a TD, by the late 1980s his wandering career path had given him all the requisite experience. He'd earned a degree in theater design, worked on Broadway and off-Broadway as a head electrician, fell into the role of audio engineer for several years, and here and there along the way dabbled in lighting design. By 1987, his transition to working as an independent TD was a natural outgrowth of all this cumulative experience.
Today, as president of Marlyn Productions, of Peekskill, NY, Goldenberg oversees a staff of seven staging professionals that offers a wide range of technical and event production services, including technical direction, stage management, production management, scheduling, budgeting, venue coordination, labor management, and more. In the last year, Goldenberg's company has staged more than 80 events for clients ranging from Pfizer pharmaceuticals and Paine Webber to Nickelodeon and Oprah Winfrey.
Marty Goldenberg served as technical director, stage designer, and stage manager for the “Faces of Ground Zero” art show when it came to Rockefeller Center on the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, on September 10, 2002.
Recently, SRO chatted with Goldenberg to gain insight into the typical challenges that face a TD in the live-event world, and also the process he goes through in selecting vendors to work with on those shows.
SRO: How do you define what a TD does?
Goldenberg: A TD is the point person between either the end-client and everyone else on the technical end of a production, or between the producer and everyone else on the technical end of a production.
We don't have a lot of end-clients, but we do have some. However, I'm not in competition with production companies, and that's very important to me. I will never go around the production company. What we do is provide the producer a point of contact to talk about the show — the creative part of the show, the logistical part of the show, and the budgeting part of the show. From there, we branch out into all the technical departments.
SRO: Do big production companies typically just take on the role of TD themselves?
Goldenberg: A Scharff Weisberg (New York) or AV Concepts (Los Angeles) (can usually) accommodate the client however they want. But it's interesting, because sometimes a vendor will actually recommend us to go between their client and themselves, because they know they do a better job when we're involved.
SRO: How so?
Goldenberg: One of the things we do well is interpretation. One of the things I tell producers is, ‘Don't tell me the equipment you want, tell me what you are doing. Don't describe to me that you need four microphones, tell me how many speakers you are going to have, and then we'll decide if what you're (pricing) out is correct.’
We feel our value is to be able to translate the vision of what they want to see on stage to what that means technically. We do all the drawings, all the scheduling. We control the budget for the clients, we do all the organizing with the venue — ordering the power, ordering the catering, making sure the room is available, making sure the venue knows what we are doing and what we are rigging. We do all the coordination.
A shot of the setup inside a specially designed tent.
SRO: What's the most difficult part of managing a budget for an event?
Goldenberg: I think the difficulty is to control everyone's expectations. A producer has a certain amount of money and wants to do something. We can either do it for that money or not. So the question is, how do we fit the show into the budget? Do we change the specs of the show, or do we go to the vendors and ask them to do this type of show for this amount of money?
And it is a fine line between the two options, because often vendors want the job. They are very competitive. But there is a point where asking vendors to shave off money on their quote is not realistic and it is not fair. There is a point where we have to say, you just can't have that third screen. If you want to save this much money, you have to cancel the third screen. So that's what I mean by controlling expectations.
SRO: How do you decide which vendors you are going to work with on particular projects?
Goldenberg: There are a handful of vendors around the country that I consider to be the best vendors. And out of those vendors, there are several factors that come into play. One is obviously location — where the show is. That's a big issue. That determines which vendors are most likely to be used. That's why I think a lot of vendors are opening up offices in Florida, Phoenix, and Las Vegas.
Plasma screens mounted in water, for the opening-night party celebrating a Gauguin art exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum last year.
But I think in terms of who gets the job, it's based on two things: price and service. Who responds to us, who answers our questions, who do we know that we can count on? And that comes from experience in working with vendors over time. Some companies have the best engineers in the business and they have very good equipment, but they are so busy that you can't get service from them. Other companies have very good labor that always seems to show up on my shows when I give it to them, and that creates familiarity, which is always a good thing. And it's also about knowing that you can go back to a vendor and ask for money off if you need money off.
And of course, quality of work is key. You have to consistently do a good job, which is the hardest thing for vendors. The department that has the hardest time being consistent is scenic, and I think it has to do with their workload and because everything is custom most of the time. Quality can be affected by when they start building the show, how quickly they have to build it, and what their profitability is on a given show.
It's easier for video vendors to be consistent because their world is very constant. Audio is tough because audio is so affected by the venue and the set design. So they can be inconsistent, but they are inconsistent more because of the environment.
SRO: Do you find that certain audio companies are more skilled in doing certain kinds of events?
Goldenberg: Absolutely. There are audio companies that are great for rock 'n' roll, but they don't really understand the corporate world at all. Then there are audio companies that are great at corporate work, but they can't do music. Those lines are getting more compressed, I'm glad to say. More rock 'n' roll companies are doing corporate, and more corporate companies have been doing bands, and they are starting to understand what they need to supplement their gear with.
SRO: Since it makes sense that you'd want to work with people you know, how does an unknown vendor get on your radar screen? Is it even possible?
Goldenberg: It's tough, honestly. But I think the way they do it is by being personable, calling up and saying hello. I have no problem with people calling up and looking for work, because we all do that. So it's being personable and not being too pushy. And then it's about — and this is a big one — a lot of times these companies have sales people who call to sell you their business. And then they become your point of contact.
Marty Goldenberg supervised the technical installation.
But they don't really know the technical side of it, so I can never get any real answers from them. What happens is you get a feeling that maybe these guys don't know what they are doing because their salesperson isn't technically knowledgeable, and that's a big deal.
There are times when we are asked to work with certain vendors that we may not know because maybe the producer has a relationship with the vendor, or maybe because of the location. And that becomes the vendor's opportunity to show us who they are and what they can do. I always say it's hard to get the first show, but it's harder to get the second show.
SRO: Are there certain clients that are easier to deal with than others?
Goldenberg: Absolutely. One of the things that we do is, we not only act as a go-between for technical specs, but we also have to manage people. Some people are so reactionary and they react to changes in a panicked way. If we have a producer who feels that everything is alarming and everything is a problem, we need to take her or his attitude and stop it there so our vendors don't feel the pressure that we are getting from our client.
And that's true all across the board, even when you are stage-managing a show. You might have a client screaming in your ear and being very nervous, and you have to stop that nervousness and just tell the crew what to do in a calm and professional manner instead of reacting to the way your client is talking to you. Otherwise everyone is going to blow their cues.
SRO: Are there any key issues facing the industry right now that concern you?
Goldenberg: Union labor is a big concern. That has to do with how hard it is to go into certain convention centers, how unrealistic the union contracts are, and how much more money it costs to go into certain cities. A given show can cost three times as much in one city as compared to another simply because of the labor costs, and that has always been a big concern. They are trying to make it better, but it seems to always be the same. I go into some convention centers and I need five unions to plug in a computer. Some of it is so absurd and so unfair.
Another interesting issue is the impact of new technology, and how it can cause confusion. Like the Catalyst system (from High End Systems), for instance. Whose domain does that fall into? Is it graphics, video, or lighting? It's an interesting debate within our world. As technology moves in that direction, I think there are going to be areas that are overlapping. So the question becomes, who is responsible for it and who can handle it?
The Catalyst is a good example because it is a unit made by a lighting company that is used to show video off of a laptop. So a graphics person needs to be involved in case they need changes, a video person has to provide the projector, but it is a lighting head that adapts to the projector. So it crosses three or four departments, and the question becomes, who is going to take on the responsibility for it?
Stephen Porter is a freelance writer who has been covering video, graphics, and digital content creation technologies and applications for more than 15 years. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.