Returning the Favor and other Slices of Life

Returning the Favor
Returning the Favor
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Monday, November 27, 2006

Sunday bloody Sunday

A day in the life of a freelance lighting designer. This is not any kind of “live blog,” since there really isn’t any time to stop and blog while I’m doing these one-off gigs, but I thought I’d take a little bit and give folks some idea of what I do in my “free time.”

A little background – I’ve been doing most of the shows for the Charlotte Philharmonic Orchestra for about 4 years now. I do their events that take place downtown at the Blumenthal Performing Arts Center, because it has a nice white orchestra shell that takes light very well and has a lighting rig that supports a little bit of creativity. The Philharmonic shows aren’t your typical symphony shows, they like a lot a kitsch and flash with their music. The Christmas show in particular features a 250-voice choir, two different groups of dancing girls and a group of nine vocalists. I get one rehearsal. And I’ve usually never heard the music before that afternoon. It presents a few challenges. So here’s my life yesterday.

6:30 AM – Yep, on a Sunday. I roll over, beat the alarm clock for 15 minutes, then stagger downstairs to check email quickly, since I know it will be late before I get the chance to do so again. Nothing requires my attention other than the Delete key, so I’m all good.

7:30 AM – Roll out of the house. The theatre’s a touch more than 15 minutes from the house, and a stop for a pair of McD’s sausage biscuits with a large Coke will get me going with just the right mixture of caffeine and gas to get me through the morning.

8:00 AM – I walk into the crew area backstage right and meet up with Hank, my master electrician du jour. Because it’s a union venue, I can’t operate the lighting board without a union stagehand “shadowing” me to make sure that I don’t blow anything up. Them’s the rules, regardless of the fact that I’ve logged more hours on this particular brand of console than most people in a 4-state region, and am factory-certified to train people on how to program the consoles. I don’t mind, though, because Hank is invaluable in keeping up with all my paperwork over the course of the morning.

By the time I arrive, the orchestra shell is in place, and the choral risers are beginning. That crew was called at 6AM to get things rolling. I have a good electrics crew today, so I figure we’ll be done earlier than usual. Bonus – the other symphony was in last night and used a 4-color wash from one of the lighting positions where I usually put in a 3-color wash, so that’s 24 lights that I don’t have to haul up from the basement and put in the air. They even left their color in the lights, so that cuts at least 30 minutes work off my day. This is gonna be sweet.

I get Hank started patching lights into the console and get Tim, Larry and Cat on putting together my floor spoo lights. That’s a highly technical term for lights on plywood bases sitting at the base of columns that are scattered around the stage. Floor spoo. Don’t be afraid of the term, theatre goofs will understand. I decide that since we’re doing risers, we probably won’t have room for the full 6-column setup we’ve used in the past, so I plan for 3 colors on 4 columns, instead of 2 colors on 6 columns like I usually do. Regardless, there are 12 floor mounts for lights in the theatre, and I’m using them all. As usual.

9:00 AM – Jeff (stage manager) arrives with the company’s gobos and gels. Gobos are the metal disks that can be put into a light to project an image. Gobos can be of anything, and can be made with any custom artwork on them (if you’re got the coin). These are holiday-themed. A buttload of snowflakes, Santa, sleigh, Christmas trees, bells and a couple that say Merry Christmas on them. I’ll project these all over the orchestra shell for the different musical numbers.

Gel is the colored filter that goes in front of the lights to make different colors. I use a lot of reds, blues and greens on these shows, not just for the Christmas theme, but because I can mix colors to make a lot of different purples, pinks and yellows as well.

9:15 AM – We’ve got eight 1,000W lights hung on the first electric to wash the choir area. This big-ass choir has been a thorn in my side for years, but this should make all the mommies and daddies able to see their babies now. I send Cat and Larry up to the roof of the building to focus front light on the apron (the extreme downstage part of the stage in front of the main curtain) for the dancers.

9:45 AM – Front light is done. I’ve got 8 lights from the cove (way the hell up in the ceiling) and 4 from the balcony rail (not quite as high) for front face light for dancers and singers. Then we’ve got 12 lights on the mezzanine rail for the organ pipes. The orchestra shell has faux organ pipes in it, which are a nice brushed silver. It takes light very nicely, so that’s one of my main sources of color for the show. I use 3 colors on the pipes, red green and blue, because they’re the primary colors of light and I can mix them to make any color I want on the pipes. We’re now stuck until the crew finishes risers and we can close in the rest of the shell and focus gobos on the sides of the shell.

Break time.

10:00 AM – We’re back on. In a union house, breaks are pretty regimented. Every two hours (3 max), there’s a 15-minute break. Every 4-5 hours, there’s a minimum of a one-hour meal break. If you go longer than 5 hours without a meal break, you pay more for the labor. It’s called the “meal penalty.” My job as the client’s lighting designer is to get done without going into meal penalty. Crew is guaranteed to be paid for four hours for the setup, with the fifth hour optional. If I can get done in four hours, that’s great, but it’s no big deal if it takes five. If I go into meal penalty it’s a very big deal.

Crew also has to have a minimum of an hour break between load-in and a rehearsal, and between rehearsal and a show. This can be the dinner break, but there has to be an hour break. Period. Today’s running pretty smoothly, so there’s no worry about going into any meal penalties. I think we’ll finish in our first four hours, so that will mean a 2-hour lunch break before rehearsal.

We’re fucking off waiting for the shell to be ready. The crew’s running circuits for the floor spoo since I know pretty much where that’s going to happen, but they’ll leave a little slack in the cables in case of clusterfuck. It’s obvious now that the big fru will not be ready to light before lunch break, so I make plans to bring my spotlight operator back an hour before rehearsal instead of at half-hour to touch the focus on the Christmas trees and 6-foot Santas that are on the downstage corners of the stage.

10:30AM – Shell’s in place, so I send Cat and Larry each up into a box boom to focus the gobos. Box booms are vertical lighting positions usually on the walls of a theatre downstage, they’re really good for side lighting or for projections on walls (like I’m doing).

11AM – Booms are done, now time for the floor spoo. Get all that circuited, patched and colored, then head to the booth to program.

11:30 AM – Hank and I are in the booth setting up submasters. I’ll run this show on the fly, with no pre-programmed cues, so I set up all my looks on different faders, and “play” the faders as the show goes along. Each fader will get a different piece of the stage look, so the lights aimed at the pipes are on three faders, Red, Blue and Green. The gobos are paired, with each pair on a fader, and the downlight washes are on four faders. So as the song progresses I change the lights to go with how the song feels. It’s really “old-school” lighting, how we did shows before there were computerized boards, and I prefer this method for shows with limited rehearsal time and planning. It lets me be creative and correct things as they happen. After 15 years or so, I’ve gotten pretty good at this part.

Noon – Done in 4, time for lunch. Then come back, go through a rehearsal which will be done out of order, so I really have no idea what the lineup of the show feels like, take a dinner break, and come back and do a show for 2,200 people. At least this time I’ve seen all the numbers, which is not always the case. Add 250 high school singers, 30 baby ballerinas, two dozen hot college dancing girls and nine adult singers who can’t find their light, and I’m cooked by the end of the show. Fortunately my part of strike is quick, all I do is collect my gels and gobos, give them to the client, collect my check and I’m out the door by 10:30PM. So most of a 14-hour day for $350. Depending on your limits it’s either much better or much, much worse than your 2BB/hr. but the check always clears and there’s no risk of ruin.

And how was your weekend?

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Anonymous said...

Did you type "floor spoo" with a straight face? Really? REALLY?