I have spent a great deal of time in sound shops in every position possible. I have been a designer and an assistant. I have been a mixer and in production sound. I have also been “label monkey number three” and “box pusher.” Working in rental shops is an integral part of doing sound, and it takes some getting used to. The different positions require different tools and sensibilities. Dealing with shops is a skill that is learned through mistakes, and every mistake takes time to be forgotten. Without the shop, you have no gear. Without the shop's support, you have no help. Without the shop on your side, it is a steep hill to climb, but once you get comfortable working with the shop, things get much easier. So after many personal mistakes, here are the five lessons I have learned about sound rental shops.
- Maybe it's your lack of preparation.
This is a classic stagehand adage: Your lack of preparation does not make this my crisis. Sometimes expressed as “not my problem” — and at one theatre where I worked, it was just simply “NMP,” which was printed in giant block letters near the pin rail — it is as true as can be. When I was just getting started, I ended up in the shop on several occasions with three days to do 15 days of work. I made the mistake of going to the shop in crisis mode, wound up and agitated at everything. “Why don't I have this Why isn't that done already ” It took me time to understand that the people working in the shop are there every day, and this problem was mine and not theirs.
- The shop is not the enemy.
My first experiences in the shop were as show labor. I worked under other people building shows, and I learned some great lessons from them. I learned how to build a show and where to put labels. Unfortunately, I also learned one lesson that was not so good and took me quite a while to unlearn: the shop is the enemy. The shop is not the enemy, and you want it on your side. It is easy to get in arguments and become unreasonable and demanding. I made that mistake too many times, and it gains you nothing. It is such a cautious balance, trying to get your show built on time and under budget with so much out of your control. Just remember that you might get the console and the RF rack just in time to push it on the truck, but you will get it.
- Learn your terminology.
Steck rails, G-blocks, mults, bundles, Waber strips, show key, and many, many more — there is so much terminology involved with building a show, and it takes time to learn. Different shops have different terms, and different parts of the country use different conventions. In New York shops, a bundle is a group of cables taped together. In other places, it is called a loom. Power strips are called Waber strips because that was a manufacturer at one time, and the name stuck. Same thing is true of a Sammy, a big wooden box affectionately named after the maker. This minutia is important to know. It makes working with the shop so much easier if you speak the same language.
- Build a relationship.
When I got my first big design job, I thought I was the stuff. I thought, “Look at me. All the shops are going to be clamoring to get my show.” Woof, was I wrong. I put together my equipment list and sent it out to all the shops and then waited by the phone like a jilted schoolboy. And then…nothing. No one called. After a few days, I called them and found out that no one was interested in my little show. I started panicking. I had a tour to design, and I needed equipment, and I had nothing. Finally, I found a shop that was willing to do the show, and that is when I realized how important it is to build a relationship with the shops. Until you have established yourself with the shop, they have no idea how legit your show is. They don't want to waste time if the gig isn't going to happen. Also, even though I thought I had a big fat show, looking back now, I realize that the budget was horribly low, so no wonder no one wanted it. Now that I have done lots of work with the shops, it is easier. The more I work with a shop, the more they know what I want and what my shortcomings are, which makes for a simpler process. At this point, I prefer going to a shop that I have worked with because it is much easier than starting from scratch.
- Have fun.
I have found that the more lighthearted I am, the better things turn out. If I roll with the punches, I seem to get punched less. If I am open and allow substitutions, then the process is smoother, and I usually get the system built faster. If I can accept that other people might have a better idea than me, then I usually end up with a better product. I have good friends at the shops, and I look forward to going and building shows. I know there are some people that remember some of my youthful mistakes and haven't forgiven me, and I don't blame them, but you don't make omelets without…well, you know. I am still learning the rules and trying to get better at the process of building shows and working with the shops. Maybe one day I will perfect it, but until then, I will try to laugh at my mistakes. After all, it is only production.