When concerts and shows come to town this fall, someone has to prepare the stage. Here in Spokane, it's usually Local 93 of IATSE, the International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees, celebrating 100 years in Spokane this year. The Local let me tag along on June 29 as they prepared the Opera House for a concert by the Goo Goo Dolls. I wanted to see what goes into making a show happen.
I arrive at the Opera House after weaving my way through the Hoopfest crowds. Members of the local crew mill about near the Opera House fountain, waiting for the tour trucks to arrive. While we wait, I meet the call steward, Pat Devereaux. This workday for the local crew is a "call," and Devereaux is the man in charge for today. He'll coordinate with the road crew manager to direct the efforts of the local workers. But right now, he's trying to figure out how to get three semi-trucks through a couple of active Hoopfest courts.
The first two trucks back into the Opera House loading dock, after a brief interruption of the games on the Boulevard. This initial hurdle has frayed the nerves of some of the road crew and they frantically work to make up for perceived lost time.
"Ordinarily, the trucks would have been here sooner, but they were coming from Vancouver and had to go through customs," Devereaux explains, adding that the road crew is perplexed by Hoopfest. There's a tense buzz in the air, but so far everyone remains calm.
The trucks have barely stopped rolling when the local crew begins unloading the first trailer. About two dozen local workers are on hand, along with a dozen roadies who travel with the show. The road crew boss directs the unloading of the trailers; local workers haul trusses, lights, cabling, flooring, risers, props, costumes, sound boards, and eventually instruments out of the trailers and onto the stage area in a choreographed dance.
Devereaux, who is chief electrician as well as call steward, works feverishly to connect the show's cables to the house electrical service while the roadies twitch nearby. Overhead, the riggers -- all local workers -- climb through the catwalks connecting chains to beams while not dropping anything onto the stage crew 75 feet below. The chains will raise the lighting grid, which is coming together rapidly.
The last box rolls off the truck. In 90 minutes, equipment from three trucks has been unloaded and moved onto the Opera House stage. The road crew knows the show; the local crew knows the venue, or house. Local 93 provides stage crews to both the Opera House and the Spokane Arena, so these workers are familiar with both houses. Between the two crews, they have the knowledge to make everything work, but communication is key.
"Yeah, we do anything the road crew asks us to do," Devereaux laughs.
The grid is hoisted a few feet off the floor. A team of local stagehands now work under the direction of the road crew's lighting expert to attach moving lights to it.
The lighting grid is now in position above the stage. About half of the local workers have been dismissed; they'll return late tonight for the load-out. "We need a whole crew at once, then people sometimes have to sit and wait for a while," Devereaux explains. "It's just the nature of the business. If the last piece of the puzzle doesn't fit or it doesn't all work together, you may need people to fix it."
This show is fairly extensive for a one-night rock concert, but its three truckloads of equipment pale in comparison to most of the touring Broadway shows, he says. "Phantom of the Opera had 21 trucks. Miss Saigon had 18. Even the average show we get in here is five or six trucks."
While this call employed two dozen local stage hands, a big touring Broadway show requires crews of 60 or more. Due to the sporadic nature of stage work in Spokane, most of the union members work other jobs -- some theater-related, some not -- in order to survive. The lack of work also leads to flexible workers: The more jobs a person can do, the more work comes his or her way. I meet wardrobe specialists who sweep floors and assemble lights; lighting specialists who rig; sound guys who move boxes and lay cable. The stage crew is not the place for prima donnas or big egos; it's the place to pitch in and do whatever jobs the road crew needs.
"The requirements are you show up with a crescent wrench, a pair of gloves and a Leatherman [a brand of multi-tool]," Rhonda Cyr explains. "It could be the Alberta Ballet, and you're doing wardrobe, helping little girls in tutus. Or it could be you're unloading a truck and using your crescent wrench to put together trusses. You show up and you don't know what you're going to do."
The stage is looking just about ready, although I can tell by the level of activity that there's still plenty to do. A portable floor has been rolled down on top of the stage's wooden floor and risers for the drummer and guitarist are now in place. The "drop" -- the fabric backdrop that'll be behind the band as they perform -- has been hung and adjusted with help from the local riggers. The road crew tests lights and continues to set up their own equipment -- including an astounding array of guitars just off stage right.
We hear that the band will be coming in soon for their sound check. The road crew manager determines that just about everything is ready for them. Devereaux will stay, along with one or two local workers, but everyone else is dismissed. I get my backstage pass for my return in the evening and receive instructions on what to wear -- all black, so I can't be seen by the audience. I'm mildly startled to step outside into the glare of a warm summer afternoon and the midday crowds of Hoopfest.
It's call time for the crew working the show. We all gather near the lighting board, stage right, in our black shirts and black pants, wearing the special backstage badges that are our tickets past security. The house is filling up and the din of conversation filters backstage.
The opening act steps on stage. During the main show, I'll be shadowing Helen Evans, one of the spotlight operators, but the opener only needs two "spot ops," so we hang out in the darkened wings, stage left, to peek out at the action.
Evans and another spot op escort me through the blackness backstage, down the offstage hallway, past the performers' dressing rooms. Clothing spills out of several trunks that are lined up like giant closets, but I can give it barely a glance. We emerge into the mezzanine lobby and make our way to the upper balcony level. Behind an unmarked door, we climb a set of narrow concrete steps to the spotlight booth. Four spotlights fill the front of the booth behind a panel of thick, sound-insulating glass. I can barely hear the music, despite its volume in the house. Evans finds a chair for me and I perch in the far corner of the booth, waiting and watching.
After the opening act concludes, the spot ops test their spotlights, making sure everything is working properly. There are color frames and aperture openings to control, along with aiming the light beam onto the target. The spot ops respond to directions given by the lighting director, who sits backstage. For a show like this, there is no dress rehearsal; the operators get their directions for the first time as the show happens. The directions use specific terminology: "Spot one, frame three, lead singer; spots two and four, follow your guy off, fade to black."
The show begins amid flashing lights and strangely muted drums and guitar chords. For an intense 75 minutes, the spot ops get their directions and execute them every few seconds. Time passes in a blur. When the spot ops change to a new color frame, the booth resounds with the clunk of metal frames moving in unison.
After a single encore, the Goo Goo Dolls head offstage, the house lights come up, and the spotlights all fade to black. The four spot ops sit back, remove their headphones, and take a few deep breaths. Then it's time to gather up all of the equipment and head back downstairs for the load-out.
The instruments are packed, the risers and flooring have been picked up, and now the lighting grid is lowered partway. The crew descends on it, removing lights and cables in a reversal of this morning's assembly. As boxes, cases and carts are packed full, they are rolled back toward the waiting trucks. Once again, it's nearly impossible to tell who's local and who's a roadie.
The grid comes down and disassembly begins. The stage area reverberates with the sound of hammers on metal. Other crew members pack up the miles of thick electrical cables that lie strewn around the periphery. More people now work to load the trucks.
The last cart is loaded onto the last trailer and the truck door is closed and locked. Just before leaving, the road crew manager hands out tour T-shirts to everyone in the local crew -- including me. He tells me I've earned it by simply lasting through to the bitter end.
The trucks drive off into the night, on their way to the next gig. In another eight hours, they'll start all over again.
Most of the local crew has been dismissed now. A few people stay behind to sweep the stage and close up shop. It's nearly one o'clock when I finally walk out the door. Despite the earlier festivities of Hoopfest, the streets are quiet for a Saturday night. I'm exhausted after a 16-hour day, even though I didn't do nearly the physical labor that the stagehands did. I yawn and look forward to a good night's sleep.