What The Audience Doesn’t See
The less glamorous little details of A-V production that really do make a difference
You may have been to an event, conference, or concert and thought “What a great production!” If the production company has done their job correctly, you won’t actually think about the lights, video, or sound, just the message, tone, and overall experience that the technology is there to support. However, if you are a geek from the live event production industry like me, or just someone who appreciates such detail there is still a high probability you’ll be fascinated by the technology of a well-produced event. What most people do not think about though is what is going on back stage; the “Wizard(s)” behind the curtain so to speak. More often than not, this is an area filled with many more industrial, less sensational, but in no way less important aspects of the show.
Access and Egress
One key task for back stage management that most audience members are never aware of is the safe setup of backstage walkways and stage access and egress. In most events, the crew and stage talent is working in a low light environment backstage with heavy duty power distribution, large road cases, and other industrial equipment that could present a potential tripping hazard or other injury. There is often a crew that works very diligently just to ensure all pathways are clearly marked with brightly colored or high contrast tape and marker lights. After the show, it all needs to be neatly cleaned off the floor too in order to avoid venue cleaning bills to the client. This can be an extremely laborious and tedious job and the staff who do it are seldom thanked. For all you folks who have done this on my shows, I love you! You keep the crew and stage talent safe. If someone gets hurt, the whole show could go down, so we all count on and appreciate you!
Gaff and Cable Tape
Another thankless job that goes along with the backstage cleanup as well as other areas of the room is cable tape down and cable management. In conferences and conventions, our crews do a LOT of cable taping. It is a bit of an art that many in the hotel audio-visual world have mastered, but larger production companies are not as familiar with because they typically only use cable ramps, cable bridges, or fly their cables. We work on both sides, but if cables need to be taped down in a really straight line to almost remain hidden, we have crews that break their backs to do this masterfully. In larger productions too, even though we might have cable ramps or mats, or even rig cables from the ceiling for longer runs, there are times when you need special attention paid to cables so they remain hidden. A primary example might be to tape a cable to the back of a speaker stand or a video cable to the back of a video monitor stand so that audience members cannot see the cables. Keeping cables taped down for safety and aesthetics also may seem like meaningless, unimportant grunt work, but it’s not. For all the reasons I noted above, a safe production environment is critical and properly taped cables is certainly related to safety. However, the hard work that crews do to neatly tape cables for aesthetic purposes is also very important. One of the first ways an A-V or production company displays its level of professionalism on a setup is how cable is or is not properly taped down. Cables that can be seen easily by the audience show a careless attitude and lack of professionalism. More importantly, when the audience is reminded of our technology in the room because of cables that are visible, the audience is less likely to remain focused on the reason they came; to hear our client’s message. By doing the underappreciated job of taping down cables, technicians are keeping the audience focused on our client’s message, and that is what we are all working to do on every job. Thank you cable tape team! You’re the best!
The last bit of behind the scenes work I want to talk about that never gets quite the kudos it should, but which is some of the hardest work out there is the drape guys and gals. Whether it’s flying drape from a truss or putting it up on telescopic poles, drape is a pain-in-the-butt, hard work job. Every one of my clients wants or needs it, and from the staff side during setup, nobody really wants to be known as being “In charge of drape.” However, the folks that do just stick to it and get it done do a fantastic job. They are meticulous about even lines, measuring, and even distribution of pleats. Making sure no metal hardware is seen is also of key importance. Sometimes, for a variety of reasons, a crew may not have all the hardware they need to do a job either, but it does not stop the best of them. For example, on one show we needed a drape surround around our tech table. We were out of short vertical poles. We were even out of speaker stands which we often use in a pinch. It was actually our audio engineer who pitched in here and zip tied the last section of drape on to a vertical light truss tower that was right near the tech area. It looked great and no one would ever know it was not supposed to be set that way. Setting up drape has got to seem like the most menial of all event production jobs, but it has to be done with skill and by people who care. If I did not have people who cared, there would not be straight drape lines, there would not be clients who are awe struck by our work, and there would not be audio engineers who chip in to “MacGyver” drape solutions. Thank you drape team for caring about our work. We can’t do it without you!
There are many more jobs backstage and front of house that most of the audience does not ever hear about or see evidence of. The few I have highlighted here are some of the ones that have been on my mind lately. Although I do want to say a sincere “Thank you” to all the hard working people who are often overlooked, or who may not do what is considered the most “Prestigious” of event production work, that is not really the only purpose of this article. I am truly grateful for all of you and thank you for always making us look and sound great while remaining safe. However, all of this is also to make a broader point regarding the importance of seemingly insignificant details. Whether in life or in the planning of an event’s production needs, there are details we can too easily dismiss as being unimportant. In live event production however, if any detail, no matter how tedious or basic it may seem helps to create an experience, tells a relatable story, or effectively communicates a message to the audience, then the detail is mission critical and must be taken just as seriously as any other detail. To quote Constantin Stanislavski “There are no small parts, only small actors.” To put that quote into perspective for the A-V production world, I would close by saying the following:
All details that help us communicate the client’s message are important details. Anyone who looks down on someone who does any job to facilitate these details is narrow-minded or unprofessional. Any person who thinks that he or she is beyond doing any of those jobs because of their status or higher level skill set either needs a serious dose of humility or to consider employment in another industry. The best of the best in live event production, or any field of work are those who approach their craft being genuinely humble, thankful, and passionate about whatever it is they are doing. These are the folks who finish their jobs and then ask: “Where else can I help?” Again, my sincere gratitude to all the people on our crews who do their jobs so well, with so little expectation of credit or praise. Thank you for asking “How can I help?” You are the unsung heroes that keep our clients coming back. Thank you all so much.
© 3/4/17 – Jeffery F.B. Hess