The Perfect Technical Rider

by Rusty Strauss

Regardless of what kind of show you are touring with, often your first contact with the venue will be your technical rider. Tech riders seem to have little in the way of standards, and are as varied as the shows that go out. The only constants are that the shows write them and the theatres have to decipher them. The TD of every venue has seen a thousand riders, and the TD of a show has often seen very few. So the big question is, what do you want to accomplish with your rider?

  1. Get the show booked

    This first one throws off a lot of TDs. They don't feel particularly connected to the selling part of the business. The fact is that your technical rider will play an important role in whether or not the show is even booked. In modern theatre, the show is scheduled more than a year in advance, and the rider is made an integral part of the contract. That means that the people in the office are looking at your rider from a business standpoint even if they don't fully understand what's in it. They wear suits and skirts, and want to see a rider that is well thought out and professionally produced.

    Remember, other than a five-minute videotape, the technical rider is the only way a presenter has to judge the competency of your production. So spelling counts, and so does organization. They should be able to quickly identify any special needs or unexpected costs. They should also be able to see that you are flexible to changes. Try not to specify a mic that nobody stocks, or has to be rented from a supply house in London. Or if you do, offer more standardized alternatives that the venue might have in-house.

    The other criteria they will judge is the cost of your rider. Today's economy is not as robust as it has been. The college theatre circuit is getting hit especially hard as state funding gets cut back. That means that venues are looking more closely at shows that make money. When your show crosses the desk of a committee, the members are going to look at your potential draw, in terms of projected ticket sales, then multiply that by the ticket price for a gross number. Then they will subtract the show fee along with the cost of your rider. As TD of your show, it is up to you to keep that cost as low as possible and still deliver a good product. Now is the time to start thinking about that extra deck hand on the crew call who really doesn't do much. He's costing the venue five seats.

    Stephen Howe, stage supervisor of the Tony Award-winning McCarter Theatre in Princeton, NJ, says that some of the biggest wastes he sees are not so much in crew calls, but in rental. “A touring production has no way of knowing what I might have to rent, and what I don't. It's my job to make sure everything on the rider is here and ready when the company arrives. But at show time, when the Wildfires (blacklights) I rented are still in the cases, the office is going to want to know why.”

    Howe brings up the reality that the largest waste in riders comes from those that are out of date. Scenes get added and cut all the time, and it is certainly our responsibility as the leader of a production to let a venue know of major changes as they occur. I can't imagine any show that could remain unchanged long enough to go out on the same rider two years in a row. Yet any house will tell you it's done all the time.

  2. Establish a good working relationship with the theatre crew

    After the show is booked, the office will put you on the schedule, and forward your rider to the technical department. These guys haven't even seen the video of the show. This is the first contact they have with you and your company. So step right in with good contact information.

    Howe says, “These guys will need to reach you eventually. Don't make them dig for a number. All too often I see the agent's number on the header of every page, and no way to reach the production crew on the road. Give phone, fax, beeper, and cell phone numbers. Email addresses are great too. If you have to, attach a trained pigeon that knows where you live. Just give us the tools to find you. Five minutes on the phone, two weeks out, might save an hour and a half on the day of the show.”

    The rest of your rider should be laid out in sections that will be easy to distribute to the different department heads. Think about the different job titles of a standard theatre and write each section as if it's an individual document. The union steward, or non-union equivalent, has to know how many bodies, in what location, and for how many hours. When is a good time for breaks? Do you plan on splitting the lunch and dinner breaks, or do you plan to work straight through and feed the crew? Your knowledge of union etiquette will often help you keep unexpected costs down while still maintaining a good relationship with the union. This is all part of the crew call, and it can get a little tricky. Two theatres on different sides of town (one union, the other non-union) will have completely different needs. While it's not up to us as production crew to read the union contract of each venue, it is up to us to offer the needed information so they can make informed decisions.

    Tyson Smith, assistant TD of Ruth Eckerd Hall in Clearwater, FL, says, “Try to sum up the major parts of the day in this section. The amount of weight you plan to hang on the fly system will determine the number of people needed on the loading deck. How many moving lights are you bringing? How many costumes? What size is your truck? How many trucks? And don't forget the rigging. If you have more than six motor points, most venues will bring on an additional rigger. We can't just designate a stagehand as a rigger, and being short on riggers can really slow down the day.”

    The head carpenter wants a good stage plot that shows where props or sets will hang. A complete lineset schedule is the perfect starting point. Start at the plaster line, and give exact distances of where you want electrics, borders, legs drops, etc. Include the approximate weights of anything you are going to hang on arrival (drops, scans, etc.) so he/she will have an idea of how much weight will have to be loaded. We all know that some venues will have a giant orchestra shell that takes up the three centerlines. Your schedule will have to be adjusted, but offering no such schedule leaves a big gap in communication.

    The head electrician needs your lighting plot to be as complete as possible. Today's plotting programs not only make great plots, but also print full instrument schedules, gel cut lists, and even patching reports. These reports are valuable tools when an LD is trying to decide what he can “two-fer” and what he can't. A simple gel cut list makes it easy to budget the show's costs. Without it, an electrician will have to spend upwards of half an hour in counting instruments off the plot. We use a program called Light Plot from Crescit Software, but there are many other great programs available.

    Some TDs like to focus the whole plot on arrival. I prefer to give complete focus notes and then just do a quick touchup when I get there. This helps to establish a relationship of trust with the theatre crew. It also allows them to focus with only a few guys on the call, and I don't have a whole crew standing by while we point 200 PAR cans. Don't leave out the followspots, and remember again to drop in a whole paragraph about how flexible you can be to lesser-equipped stages.

    The audio engineer — this subject is a lot like calculus to me, so I went straight to an expert. Eddie Wilson, former pianist for Tony Orlando and now musical director for L'Harmonie in Northern Michigan, says, “A rock-and-roll show usually comes in with fairly complete specs. But dance and plays are often a little less complete. Your typical production knows a lot about their mics, canned playback, and even live musical instruments, but they often have very little knowledge of infrastructure things like monitor specifications, necessary power, speaker placement, or signal processing, so they're not even mentioned in the rider. They simply assume the audio team will give them what they need to perform effectively. The most overlooked items are monitor placement and house processing. Sound check is not the time to be telling your sound man about the big echo effect that you need in the middle of act two, unless he's been told to pack a suitable effects unit into his rack. Also, monitor placement may seem cut and dry, but only the people onstage really know where they need the sound to come from.”

    Wilson continues, “Do you need sidefills or not? Do you need wedges to cover the entire lip evenly? Or do you need to keep the lip clear? My advice to anyone who is not an experienced audio engineer would be, while you're on the road, find a sound man you like, buy him a nice dinner and ask him, ‘What is not in my rider that should be?’ “Wilson gives excellent advice that certainly transcends the audio department. By simply asking department heads about specific challenges they may have had putting up your show, you would indeed be able to fill holes you never knew you had.

    It seems like a pain to us big-shot TDs; we like to pretend nothing is important downstage of the main rag. But the reality is that the house manager really needs to know how many vehicles you need to park and what the running times for the show are. Are you selling concessions? Do you sell it yourself, or do they need to supply a concessionaire? If it's not in the rider, you can bet he/she will track you down during setup when you really don't want to be bothered with it. If you want snacks or food backstage, this is the place to put it. Be specific, but not too specific. You might like to snack on Fig Newtons, but after six weeks out, you can get pretty sick of them. A deli tray is always nice to have around. You've worked hard to trim the fat out of the rider. Here's your chance to add something in that won't cost the venue a fortune, but will make your life on the road a lot more comfortable.

  3. Have the things you need ready when you arrive

    This isn't all about sucking up to the venue. This is actually about getting you what you need to put on your show. We've all heard those death words: “It's not in your rider, man.” Translated: “You could have had it but it's too late now.” If you need it when you get there, get it in the rider. Remember that any question you hear regularly is a shortcoming in your rider. Take the time to answer everything once on paper, and when you call ahead, all you'll hear is the sweet sound of, “It all sounds pretty straightforward to me; we're looking forward to your arrival.”

Once you've written a full comprehensive technical rider, the final consideration is format. Again, there is no standard. Some people send attractive notebooks with the pages laminated so it won't be damaged when you spill coffee on it, while others send photocopies of scribbles on paper napkins. But I'm sorry to say that the majority of agents send faxes. Can you imagine trying to hang a lighting plot at 2am from a fax?

For my money, Adobe Acrobat rules. It'll cost you a couple of hundred dollars, but your professional image will go up immeasurably. With bookmarks on the right and the rider on the left, every detail is only a click away. You can even add links within the document to bring up diagrams and etc. Most important is the ability to zoom in for an intricate look at lighting plots and set design. Acrobat runs on both Windows and Macintosh platforms, is widely available, and you can print as many copies as you need.

Date your rider so it's always clear when it was revised. Old riders were the major concern of every technical person I talked to. You might even consider an expiration date so a venue can call and ask for the most current version. When you arrive at a venue and see the old plot hanging, you have no one to blame but yourself. It's not the agent's fault. You already know he's just a salesman who will send out whatever he has on hand. So it falls on you to be sure that each venue on the list is current and up to date. I'm the first one to tell you that rewriting my rider every year is right up there with doing my taxes. But the other option is a long and frustrating tour of answering the same questions every day, and asking people for things that should've been waiting for me when I arrived.

Finally, a note for theatres. Once you have a full detailed rider, the ball is in your court. Call us with questions and concerns, but don't expect us to rewrite our entire needs specific to your venue. Fitting us in your space is your job. I often get a 4lb package in the mail with all the specs and inventory of the theatre asking what I want to do. I want you to tell me what you think might work best based on your extensive knowledge of your space, and what you normally do when this comes up. If any of that won't work, we'll talk about it.

Rusty Strauss is the technical director for the Peking Acrobats. He can be reached at Cirqmaster@aol.com.

A Tool For Making The Perfect “Donut”

by John D. Ervin

Sometimes a gobo must be in crisp, clear focus — devoid of that blurry spill resembling misty morning fog. Professionally manufactured gobo cleaners are a big improvement, but rarely solve the problem completely. Shop built “donuts” often suffer from being cut to the diameter of whatever circular object is lying around and their success in cleaning the image is proportionate to luck. Math formulas based on aperture opening, focal length, and the like work great in a perfect world, but lighting units are blessed with human imperfection in their manufacture and human perfection in their subsequent demise.

Try mounting an iris on the front of a unit when attempting to discover exact “donut” openings. Cut masonite to the size of your gel frame and fashion a U-shaped opening for an iris to slide into. While focusing the unit, drop the assembly into the unit's gel frame slot and adjust the iris until the best possible cleaning is achieved. It takes so little time that there's no need to worry about heat bothering the masonite (Someday I'll probably make one out of sheet metal for safety's sake). Finally, trace the iris opening onto disposable aluminum cookware, cut it out, and rest assured that the only way to get a sharper image from an ERS hasn't been invented yet.

John Ervin is the technical director for the Colby College Department of Theatre & Dance. He can be reached at jdervin@colby.edu.