This is by no means a “how-to” guide. It is merely some useful information I’m inclined to share with those of you out there who will find yourselves on one end of a phone conversation baffled at what you are hearing. You think someone just asked you to pull off the impossible, something that requires days, if not weeks, of planning, meetings, or at least tons of phone calls, budgets, approvals, assistants, department heads, and maybe even—heaven, help us—a site survey. And you were asked to do it in the next 72 hours or less. This is about the moment you realize you’ve just said yes, while you clearly thought, “absolutely-completely-no-way,” but hey, someone is going to do the gig, so it might as well be you, right?
Panic sets in, so now what? Who do I call? Where do I turn? What am I doing with my life? How did I get myself into this mess? How do you stop the night sweats?
Don’t panic. Focus! But where do you begin? First, find your physical limitations. Find out everything you can about the space. Get as much info as fast as you can. Websites of smaller venues often have full lists of in-house gear, and sometimes drawings, often PDFs not to scale, but they will have contact info, and contact them you must! What kind of power do you get? What is the rigging situation? What are the dimensions of the stage? Loading door? Weight limitations? Get your venue sorted, and then you can begin to think about what might be possible.
Hopefully, once you’ve gotten started on this, you can go back to your main problem: What do the artists or clients want? What is this show you’re supposed to pull off? How can you best manage to get what they are looking for into what they are looking at? As soon as you can, start a dialog about what they are trying to do in the space. When possible, try to manage expectations, not by saying no, but by coming up with concepts that will work with what you know about the space. Build a plan; you’re going to need it!
Now, you need to actually pull it off. You need to get the raw materials. Hopefully you’ve got some relationships with local vendors who can come rushing to your aid in these times of woe. Contact the folks at your favorite rental shop/dealer as soon as you know something is about to happen. Give them a heads up on the project even before you know what you’ll need, so they can at least know a rush job is in the pipeline. As plans come together, get the shop as much info as you can.
Then the fun starts. With absolutely no time to plan or prep, you are completely subject to availability of gear. This is where creativity meets reality, and you need to be on your game. Can’t get what you were looking for? Can’t afford it? Can’t get it in time? Looks like it’s time to substitute. Get the ideas out there, and make the client happy, no matter what gear would have been perfect. You now have what’s on the shelf, so make it amazing.
Once you’ve figured out what you can get, when it’s loading in/out, who is on the crew, what the final budget numbers are, etc., you get a few hours of sleep, and it’s show day—time to actually design and program all those songs you were told about. With any luck, you got a copy of the music as soon as you found out about the gig, but more than likely, everyone is just now thinking about it. Take your time to plan out what you want to do, and you’ll find you can move faster through the mess with a little light to guide you, so to speak. Stay focused, and keep your plan simple. Make sure you can remember what you’re doing when the house lights go out, and you can run your brand new show for the first, and probably last, time the best way you can. And remember, it probably won’t be so rough next time, unless, of course, you pull it off. Then, they’ll give you half as much time on the next one.
Cory FitzGerald is a designer based out of New York City who enjoys ample preproduction and casual Fridays