Backstage: The People
Who Make it Fly
by CB Bassity
in Oklahoma City's Myriad arena, Robert Plant wails the lyrics to thirty-year-old
Zeppelin tunes, and Jimmy Page grinds out his signature guitar licks.
A few shadowy figures lurk offstage, emerging only to hand Jimmy a change
of guitars or to replace a bad mic. You've heard of roadies, guys
who travel with a rock-concert tour, and maybe you imagine them as burnt-out
hippies who tote guitars, shuffle some trunks around, and haunt the periphery
of stardom. But, with rare exception, these guys are dynamos, people
with a knack for getting the job done. What production company would
entrust several hundred thousand bucks worth of stage gear—lighting, speakers,
electronics—and tightly-scripted daily operations to anyone less?
It's 7:30 on Tuesday
morning. The arena floor is quiet: empty, but for a bare, elevated
stage the size of two livingrooms. Like a gym, hours before a big
game, the air seems hollow; the few muted voices give no hint of what will
come. A motley couple-dozen stagehands have arrived in ones and twos.
They stand or sprawl in the backstage entryway, waiting for the 8:00 call
to work. They're dressed overwhelmingly in black, the backstage non-color.
Some teeshirts sport the logo of the stagehands' union: "I.A.T.S.E., International
Alliance of Stage and Theatrical Employees, Local 112, since before statehood."
Most others are tour shirts, emblazoned with the names of stars and their
concert tour titles: Bridges to Babylon, the Rolling Stones, local crew;
Reba McIntyre; Garth Brooks; Rod Stewart, A Spanner in the
Works. A few shirts have cannabis leaf designs, or slogans like
"Rehab is for quitters." Tattoos, ponytails, pierced flesh, and headbands
predominate. Some guys wear shorts, some jeans; some patched, mostly
black. Attached to belts in black canvas sheaths are small adjustable
wrenches, pliers, penlight flashlights, knives, and other tools of the
trade. In a haze of cigarette smoke, the talk is raucous and raunchy,
although subdued at this hour.
it’s a small gig like the Page-Plant tour, or Elton John; or a massive,
flashy spectacle like the 1997 Rolling Stones' Bridges to Babylon
tour, each show tours with a supporting cast that far outnumbers the performers.
Without this behind-the-scenes battalion, Elton John, Jimmy Page, and Mick
Jagger would be just men flailing around on the stage, emitting feeble
squeaks and squawks in the dark. So who are these people in the background;
what do they do?
When Page and
Plant leave the stage and fans shuffle toward the exits, a horde of stagehands
hustles out of the wings and swarms onto the stage. The show goes
up tomorrow in Kansas City, and guitars, speakers, lighting—the whole production—must
get there overnight.
A swirling mix of people—many of
whom do look like Manson-family alumni—put hands to hardware for the "load-out."
As the stars duck into their limo around 10:48 p.m., their sweat hasn't
dried on the guitar necks and microphone stands before they are whisked
into cases and off the stage. In less than three hours the six semis
carrying the show will pull out toward Kansas City. (Thirty-two trucks
moved the Rolling Stones; Elton John got by with four.)
Moving with the
concert tour from one city to the next are: lighting fixtures, speakers,
dimmer racks, smoke machines, sound-mixing consoles, stage set-pieces,
and other stuff—everything from bicycles to cases of wine. Everything
moves on large casters, from the "meat racks," twelve-foot aluminum frames
holding lights and wiring harness, to four-by-five-foot cases filled with
neatly-coiled electric cables Local stagehands directed by road managers
pack delicate lighting fixtures into padded cases. They coil and
pack cables. Clockwise, guys—put the one-inch feeder lines on
the left side, and the ones marked 'downstage-left' on the right—and don't
mix 'em!—I don't want a cluster-fuck like they gave me in Albuquerque!
Others push cases and carts across the concrete floor to the trucks.
For a clear sense of backstage action, it's best to start fifteen hours
ago, when the Page-Plant tour began setting up.
Kevin, the union
steward, goes down his list of names, checking to see that everyone’s shown
up who's scheduled to work this call. If the production company specifies
twenty-six hands, they want twenty-six. The half-hour "call" before
starting work gives Kevin time to phone and roust a no-show, or call an
extra hand if the company thinks they’ll need one.
From the tour's
production manager, Kevin gets a sheet specifying: truck-loaders: 4;
electricians: 11; carpenters: 8; truck-loader/pushers: 4. Kevin
calls out, "Listen up, guys— Dennis, Tommy, Pete, and Brian, you're truck-loaders.
Electricians will be Billy, Rick Davis, Jeff, . . ." Truck-loaders
will be un-loading trucks this morning, and carpenters won't touch
a hammer or nails, any more than a teamster works with horses. Carpenters
handle props that fit together with bolts or pins; they hang backdrops,
build trusses, set up drum-risers, and more. Since electricity flows
into nearly everything in the show, “electricians” set up speakers and
lights, and run cables.
The elite of
this company, the riggers, are clustered inside the arena, each with a
satchel of tools and gloves, and a hundred-foot coil of rigging line looped
over a shoulder or draped over a seat. Much of the concert lighting,
speakers, and curtains ("drops" or "soft-goods") will hang suspended above
the stage. Riggers hang the show.
A semi, the first
of six, is parked in the backstage passageway, its rear doors swung open.
A roadie, speaking into a mike clipped to his shirt collar, guides the
driver of another truck as he backs his rig in next to the first one.
At 8:00 a.m.,
the local hands gather around steel ramps leading off the back of the trucks.
Four truck-loaders in each truck begin sending its contents down the ramp.
Everything comes on wheels: one at a time, twenty-four speakers roll out;
then trunks full of electric cables; aluminum carts loaded with racks of
stage-lights come clattering down the ramp. Stagehands on either
side of the ramp put hands on each piece, to steady it as it rolls from
the truck to the floor. A roadie guides the unloading in each truck.
Hey, be real careful with that case—there's a $40,000 mixing board
in there—keep it upright! And then, out the back of the truck,
Hey guys, let's get lots of hands on this console—it's narrow and top-heavy
and very expensive.
from the road company, stands just beyond the trucks, directing the "pushers,"
as they roll equipment past him toward the arena. Sound board—that goes
to 'front-of-house'—take it to Gary. (A small sticker on the side of
the case reads: Backstage, where high-tech and low-life meet.)
Reading the stenciled "DSL" on a chain-motor box, he calls, Down-stage-left
chain-motor—take it to Paul, just offstage left--he'll show you the point.
Loaders pass long sections of aluminum truss out to the pushers.
That truss goes onstage. Don will show you where.
appears, fresh from the tour bus, rubbing his eyes. “Hey, dude, what
day is it?” he asks a local hand. Tuesday, man. “Oh,
and . . . and where are we?” Oklahoma City. “Oh, yeah
. . . yeah, thanks, dude.” He heads for the stage.
Inside the arena,
the pushers weave their way around riggers standing over chalked circles
on the floor. Arrows, crosses, and geometric symbols mark the rigging
"points." Some part of the show will hang at each point of the grid—a
series of catwalks, six stories overhead. Each point is calculated
so that the lighting trusses will hang at precisely the same height and
position here in Oklahoma City as they did last night in Albuquerque, and
will tomorrow in Kansas City. One-ton electric chain-motors, each
about the size of two twelve-packs of beer and four times as heavy, will
power their way up toward the grid, raising a bank of speakers, lights,
or whatever. If someone with a fishing rod could cast a hook to a
grid-point overhead and crank the reel so as to pull himself skyward, the
reel would be doing the work of chain-motors.
To every chalked point
on the floor, a rigger on the grid will feed out his rope, hand over hand—Heads
up! Rope coming in—and a rigger on the floor will clip it with
a “carabiner” to the sixty or eighty feet of chain, heaped next to a chain-motor
in its crate. The overhead rigger hauls the chain skyward and fastens
it to a cable at its point. Because tons of equipment will hang suspended
above workers and performers, the riggers must be accurate and attentive
to every last detail of their work. Possibly the scariest moment
of stage work is when an inadvertent move by an overhead rigger sends eighty
or one-hundred pounds of chain whipping floor-ward through space, heaping
itself on the floor in a rattly two seconds. Work comes to a quick
and shaky halt, and all eyes turn toward the grid.
slowly for the first thirty minutes, as too many hands vie for traffic
coming off the trucks. There’s plenty of time for talk.
"Hey Eddie, is
that too heavy for you? You need a hand?"
the other half o' this'd be too much for you. Rest up, man—you might
have to work later."
By 8:45 a.m.,
electricians are laying heavy, black rubber cables ("snakes") that bring
power from the house (the arena) to the control boards and dimmer racks.
They set protective, steel ramps over the cables, wherever there is wheeled
traffic. The cables will support body weight, but you never roll
anything over a cable: wheeled freight would crush the leads inside.
begins to fill the floor, crews break away from pushing. Don, a road-man,
grabs five carpenters and leads them up a ramp onto the stage. Guys,
I need you to bolt these sections of aluminum truss end to end, with the
short pieces on the corners. Four bolts at every joint. Grab
bolts and wrenches from the green crate marked 'onstage truss.'
As the carpenters
work, forming an aluminum rectangle ringing the stage, electricians climb
over them—watch your back, bro', I'm coming through with snake—laying
out cables and wiring harness that they'll cinch down with woven nylon
Soon, as the
onstage truss takes shape, a rigger appears in the midst of carpenters
and electricians. With a partner on the grid, he hangs four chainmotors
that will hoist the truss skyward. As he works, two electricians
lift an aluminum frame with a bucket seat onto the truss, and clamp it
tight. During the show, local hands in safety harness will sit high
overhead operating “follow-spots,” spotlights aimed at the perfomers as
they move around on stage. The roadie and one electrician lift a
long follow-spot from a padded case, clamp it to the frame, and locate
its connections in the wiring harness.
truss looks like something from a giant Erector set. The roadmen
double-check their connections, and a rigger calls down to the floor, Terry,
onstage truss is ready to fly, then, to everyone onstage, stand
clear—truss going out. The chainmotors whir, chains rattle, and
the truss climbs to shoulder height, trailing clusters of cables.
Immediately, electricians start hanging Parcan lamps from the truss, plugging
them into the harness. Tom, a roadie, spots a lighting case: Hey
Richie, let’s turn this case on end, so we can rest the end of the truss
on it. Terry, the stage manager, comes by:
case 180, so the wheels don’t face the house. Tom: Oh, man—pinkies
out, everyone—the art department’s here. Richie: Hey, don’t
give him too much shit, Tom—she might hit you with her purse.
It's 10:15, and
Kevin strolls across the stage sending three electricians on break.
One of them says to their roadie, We're cut for a break, boss, see you
in fifteen. The roadie doesn't look up: he's studying a wiring
harness that's missing a lead to one of his Parcans—Mmm, yeah, okay.
Each roadie manages
a discrete zone of operation—truss building or speakers or lights or front-of-house
sound console. And if a local hand asks the rigger working next to
him, where does this cable plug into?, he'll likely get: not
a clue, man, that's lighting. Although Paul, a rigger, and Richie,
lighting-man, share virtually the same square-footage of stage in city
after city, Paul, wiping sweat from his face with a towel, knows only his
points, chain-motors, clevises, spansets, and their gear. And no
one who works beneath tons of hardware would want it any different.
on the arena floor, a crew of local hands pushes speakers the size of small
refrigerators, and nearly as heavy, into a convex formation, six wide,
facing the arena seats. They slide steel clamps into channels on
top of each speaker, and snap them into place. Their roadie powers
two chain-motors up, lifting the speakers to head height. Crew-members
pull pins to drop the wheels from the base of the speakers, and then roll
six more into position. It's a watch-your-fingers, guys operation,
as they pin and clamp chains from one speaker to the next. When the
rolling, clamping, and raising is done, the bank of twenty-four speakers
flies out well above the stage, trailing an array of power cables and data
lines that flow back into a snake's nest at “dimmer beach,” the constellation
of “dimmer racks,” which control power to sound and lighting. The crew
moves to downstage left and builds another bank of speakers for that side
of the stage.
The load-in is
frenetic: three dozen people or more, immersed in rigging, building truss,
hanging lights, running rivers of cables in several directions; people
pushing cases in, and pushing empties out to a rear hallway. Shouts
of Richie, I can't find my down-stage electrics box--Is it with your
stuff? might suggest utter confusion. Yet, despite the necessary
adjustments for individual arenas, and despite having to direct a different
crew of stagehands in every city, the road-men refine their routine to
a controlled chaos. Before a tour begins, engineers and roadies build
a mock-up of the set at the production company’s base in Nashville, and
during the early dates on a tour roadies will fine-tune the setup. What
if we run my speaker cables over to your truss on the ground, and run both
units up together, and get rid of that mess under the follow-spots?
The game is to get the thing up and make it work.
the big stuff is in place. They're focusing the lights on stage.
Kevin circulates with his list, cutting all but a handful of the local
people. Jeff, you're cut. Be back here at 10:00.
Some of the senior hands will work the show itself. Tommy, six-thirty
call for the show at seven. “Show-calls” pay $15 an hour, as
opposed to the normal $10. It takes a union card and good history
to land show calls.
After the cut,
some of the remaining local hands help focus lights. Others arrange
carpet and drapes for the backstage access, a carpeted and black-curtained
alley through which roadies guide performers from dressing room to stage
during the show, pointing the way with a flashlight beam. The roadies
test the sound system and make final adjustments. Soon others with
less callused hands will appear to tune guitars and set up the mikes.
So who are these
roadies? What kind of guys do you send out for several months to
live on a bus, and sometimes in hotels, rarely sleeping more than four
to six hours at a stretch, and rarely two nights in the same city?
Who'll push, lift, climb, build, rewire and repair dirty hardware from
dripping, damp Mobile to snowy Montreal? Typically they run to the
brawny calf, the quick smile, the ready joke, and the empty ring finger.
You hear a lot of punchlines with my ex-wife in them. Most
range in age from mid-twenties to forty-somethings. Harley-Davidson
insignia are hot. Pony-tailed or bald-shaven; tattooed, dangling
metal, or unadorned; beer-gutted or slim as table-legs—there's no stock
image that would cover all the people working a road tour. Except
for breasts and a higher voice, Tina differs little from other roadies.
She wears shorts, rimmed at the waistband with wrenches, flashlight, carabiner,
and the rest. She wears work boots, and the back of her teeshirt
reads: It's okay--we'll sleep when we're dead. (The seemingly
eternal Les Miserables stage tour favors two teeshirt slogans: Help!--I'm
stuck on a hit and All this over a loaf of bread.)
So what draws
people to this line of work? It sure as hell isn't the money,
says J.T. Love. Most roadies thrive on action. Put guys like
these behind the counter of the local electrical supply house, and they’d
vault the counters, filling orders before they arrive. We have fun,
J.T. says, and we take care of business. I get off on shooting
from the hip, making shit happen. J.T. is thirty-five, trim,
shaved bald. He has worked fourteen years for Tim Foster, production
manager. He says Foster is an ace in this business. We go
out as a team, J.T. says, and we have loyalty to each other.
Where troubles are a sure thing, you have to be the kind to bounce back.
Last year in
Chicago, working the outdoor HORDE-Fest tour, J.T. is starting to break
down his area after the show. A storm comes up from nowhere.
Seventy-mile winds turn large tents into kites. I've got guys
hanging on tent-poles, holding it down. J.T. is driving tent-stakes
into the asphalt with an electric jackhammer. The union steward pulls
his guys—it's too dangerous, he says. At which time, all the HORDE
guys come—J.T.’s fellow roadies. Everybody's radios are going
out, wet from four inches of rain in forty-five minutes. The tents,
nailed to the earth, are no longer kites—now they're ponds on stilts. Oh,
shit! Like a jungle creature, J.T. scales a truss, pulls his
knife, and slashes a relief drain in the canvas. Chief carpenter
Cubby Sedgeworth has to climb speakers to get at his tent roof. The
thing comes down on him before he can get up there. Cubby is a compact,
hefty guy—he’s not hurt too bad. He’s back to work in less than a
The same production
companies hire out to rock-concert tours, theatrical shows, and motivational-
sales tours. So backstage, you can't tell a Marilyn Manson tour from
a Christian inspirational revue. They all travel, and all need lights
and sound, trucks and personnel.
begin as local stagehands. Among the Oklahoma City hands, David works
maintenance at a nursing home, adjusting his schedule there around concert
and theatre dates. There's Dr. Bell, a retired educator with a PhD.
Martin operates a one-man theater-tech business, renting out sound and
lighting equipment and a home-built portable stage to small productions
across several counties. Stage managers, a drama professor, and a
few students from several colleges in or near Oklahoma City work periodically.
But for most of the card-holding union hands, the union is their main gig;
and whatever six- or eight-dollar-an-hour job they work otherwise, it merely
fills the income gaps between shows.
Before the concert
lights come up for Page and Plant, local hands dressed in black slip into
body harness and climb narrow cable ladders about forty feet up to their
follow-spots, pulling the ladder up behind them. Seated in bucket
seats, legs dangling in the indoor sky, they'll take the stage manager's
cues from head-sets. Most stagehands—and performers—who work the
concert will stuff foam ear plugs into place. Who wants to wind up
deaf like Pete Townsend of The Who?
A few hands come
earlier than the 10 p.m. call and catch the concert from the wings, but
Page and Plant aren't a big draw. (Everybody caught the Stones,
start to finish).
When the musicians
leave the stage and house lights come up, stagehands swarm the arena.
Within two minutes equipment cases start rolling away from the stage to
the trucks. Out on the floor beyond the barricades, fans clog the
aisles. Some of them gaze wistfully toward the stage, hoping for
a glimpse of their idols, whose limo is nearing a hotel by this time, or
roaring toward the airport. Burly, yellow-tee-shirted, security guys
sweep the crowd toward the exit doors. Six carpenters steer through
the horde, making for the front-of-house (“FOH”) island of sound console
and dimmer racks, where two roadies stow their headsets, pull the leads,
and ready the console for its case.
On stage, roadies
are casing up drums, guitars, and mikes at triathlon pace. The first
local guys on the stage meet cases rolling toward them—this goes out—these
go out—grab this, please sir, and help me lid this case.
I need four guys
here, please--are you a carpenter?--here, guys, let's set this keyboard--GENTLY,
please--into this case. Now the lid—thank you, sir. Are your
latches fastened all the way around?--Okay, lift your end to me, stand
it on its wheels--Good, it's outta here.
Twenty or more
people put lids on cases and push them away. One local hand looks
bewildered, until a roadie rolls a case his way—this goes out.
The stage-to-floor ramp is a raceway, with cases steered by one or two
hands rolling down, and empty Parcan cases and motor-boxes coming up.
Some hands side-step the ramp and hop onstage from a speaker platform alongside.
Cases, with hinged lids gaping open, line a back wall, and hands coil cable
into some, and pile loose hardware into others. Drop coming in!—and
several hands fold the descending "leg," a heavy, black curtain, into a
hamper. An electrician stands over a crate, coiling a cable that
comes in on the same rig.
lift sections of floor-surface off the drummer and keyboard risers; they
fold up the stands, set them edgewise onto a dolly, run a strap around
all, and ratchet it down tight. It’s out of here—guys.
Two hands steer, and two push, the clattering dolly down the ramp.
gravity be your friend, guys—it's not heavy, just awkward. Pushing
the dolly toward the truck, Dr. Bell turns to the guy next to him,
to see you, Bernie.
Yeah, Dr. Bell,
same here--I made bail just in time to work the show.
the dolly, looks at the cases and dollies lined up in the hallway like
so much rush-hour traffic. He asks a roadie, where-to with this,
Ahh, riser dolly,
let's see. . . He pivots toward the two trucks. Truck
be the far one, there, with the bushy-looking gentleman looking this way.
At 11:40, the
onstage truss is descending, ratcheting toward the floor. Electricians
feed the cables that come with it into wooden cases as it comes.
Terry, a roadie, hollers, Heads up onstage—truss coming in, truss coming
in—watch your heads, guys. The truss snaps to a stop just above
four electricians unbolting Vari-lites from a ladder truss. Terry
gives his buddy a hard time: Aw, shit, Richie, must we always wait on
your sorry ass?
Hell no, Terry,
you could take your thumb out of your butt and help, and then to one
side, watch it, guys, the truss may want to tilt when you take the weight
off it. Paul, the rigger, jumps in: Trust me, Richie, you
don't want Terry's help. Get you some drunk passed out on
the floor--he'll make a better hand. Terry: Does this mean
you guys don't love me anymore? When the main truss lands on
the stage, carpenters and electricians swarm it like hyenas on a carcass.
Out on the floor,
banks of speakers come in. It’s an orgy of un-clamping—watch your
fingers---and rolling away speakers, one tier at a time. And
so it goes, the floor emptying as pushers clear each area. House
maintenance guys with push-brooms sweep away the last of the empty beer
and Coke cups, half-eaten pretzels, popcorn, paper plates, and cigarette
By 12:40, the
stage is nearly cleared. Terry calls from the back of a truck, pointing
toward some cases, I need those four motor boxes, the green, fuzzy trunk
marked DSL, and then two short truss sections. Each truck is
one roadie's responsibility, and in each city they pack it exactly the
same, according to a map of sorts. Where's my downstage-left lighting
box? Phil— hold the speakers, not another damn thing until that box
is up here. The pace has slowed to what four truck-loaders can pack,
and eight to ten hands push cases up the ramp to them.
Scrawled on the
plywood wall inside the back of the truck is: St. Louis—2 hrs, 10 min and
a month-old date. There's a competition between cities for the quickest
load-out time. Behind the truck several local guys narrow it down—what
time, exactly, did we start? I know damn well we beat 'em—but by
the latch shut on the truck door, and hops to the floor. Thanks guys,
you did good. See you next time. He shakes hands with Kevin,
grabs his duffle-bag, and heads for the bus. The truck eases out
the truck-bay to where the other five sit idling with running lights ablaze.
It's five minutes to the interstate.
hours to load-in at Kansas City.
CB Bassity ©1999 All Rights Reserved
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