March 07, 2013, by Teri Hogan
Any time a group of production professionals congregates to chat, the conversation invariable turns to the topic of labor. That’s when the griping and complaining begins. It seems that less-than-stellar stagehands are an epidemic - at least to hear all of the talk about it.
Our sound company has nothing but excellent experiences with stagehands because we chose to do address this issue head on. We do business with several labor companies in our general region, and developed a training curriculum that was subsequently presented to management at each of these companies.
The crux of our offer was simple: here’s what we want and expect from stagehands, and we’ll provide the training to meet these standards, free of charge. Perhaps not surprisingly, the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Every labor company has an “A-Team” and then “a bunch of other guys.” The goal of our training program is to bring all of them up to A-Team status, so that no matter who shows up on a call, we can be confident that we won’t have to hold their hands, or lose valuable time and/or risk injury, regardless of what task is assigned.
One key aspect is scheduling compatible times to conduct the training. Several sessions covering each topic have needed to be held in order to allow as many stagehands to attend as possible.
To overcome the “recalcitrant” (some might say lazy) individuals who don’t really want to exert the effort, we’ve informed labor company management that we’ll no longer accept stagehands that haven’t chosen to “bother” with our training program.
- The program’s selling points to stagehands: The benefits of our experience, which will help make them more employable.
- The training pertains to every customer, not just our company.
- This is being provided at absolutely no cost to them.
In addition, we DO NOT share with them what we tell their employers, that without training they won’t be allowed to work our calls. Negativity begets negativity.
Half of the program’s curriculum pertains to attitude, since it’s the most important aspect of any job. We’d much rather work with a stagehand with very little experience but a great attitude than a self-proclaimed “seasoned pro” who knows it all and complains about everything. Positive work habits are also covered in this section.
The other half of the program largely focuses on techniques. Properly rolling cables and stowing microphone stands as well as a host other job-related activities are covered. It’s important to provide actual hands-on demonstrations a centerpiece of this effort.
For example, our company rolls all cables in the circular method - thumb and forefinger style. However, we also teach over-and-under, because stagehands also need to know how to do this for other customers.
Whenever possible, we also share our training classes with our lighting partners so that these various specialized techniques can be addressed, further increasing the overall value of the time spent.
On the Same Page
A very important thing to remember: a program like this can be fun! It can also helps get everyone on the same page from the outset, and fosters better communication and working relationships. Out of an environment like this, productivity thrives.
Also keep in mind that if every sound company would offer training along these lines, we could all collectively improve the labor situation in very short order. The key is understanding that it’s a win-win situation for everyone involved, and it must always be presented that way.
Let’s have a look at an overview of the training curriculum we’ve developed. By the way, this information is always provided in handout form AFTER a training session. Giving it out before or during a session leads participants to be reading ahead rather than paying full attention to the presentation.
To be early is to be on time. To be on time is to be late. To be late is to not show up!
Do not impose your own personal dictates. Be observant. Ask questions.
Always approach a job or project with a positive attitude. Always try to think, “I can do that” or “I can get that done.” This goes a long way to how the rest of your day will go.
Conversely, shouting, cursing, complaining and lewd language are not conducive to a good working environment. These things create tension. Note that we have discharged stagehands for actions of this type.
Do not show up for work under the influence of drugs or alcohol. It’s the single best way to be cut and banned from returning.
Unless specifically instructed, never, ever touch the musicians’ instruments. This is a professional show, not “Star Search.”
You do not need to be accessible to every person you know on a “24-7” basis. Unless you have an impending family emergency, when on the job, turn your cell phone off. This is what voice mail is for - check it and return calls during breaks.
Wear sturdy shoes - and no sandals.
When working outside in the sun, black is the worst color to wear.
On an all-day show, having an entire change of clothing on hand is a good idea.
A sweat towel also comes in quite handy. At the very least, your feet will thank you for a clean pair of socks midway through the day.
And, please - don’t make us have the “Stinky Talk” with you. Yes, it’s often a dirty, smelly job, but don’t start the day that way.
When in doubt, ask!
There is no one correct way to roll cables - BUT- there is only one correct way for each sound company. Ask. And learn how to roll cables: circular, over and under, etc. Cables never “forget,” and if they’re rolled differently than usual, they can be damaged. This can get expensive!
Roll cables as if you’re going to be the person to use them next.
When rolling cables, be aware that there are many different types, and they usually go in different places. As a general rule, it’s best to keep them separated so that stowing them is both accurate and swift. Note in each trunk what size and type of cables are already rolled and packed. Follow that lead.
Cases and their respective lids are usually identified by matching numbers, words like “FRONT” and “BACK” written across both the lid and case, color codes or the like. Pay attention - putting on the wrong lids, or putting them on upside down, can warp or otherwise damage cases.
Be gentle with things like snake latches and other multi-pin connectors. They are delicate and very costly.
When you see something that is broken or obviously should be repaired before it does break, bring it to the sound company’s attention.
When dealing with mic stands, find out how the company wants its stands to be stored. Usually, fully collapsed is the accepted method. Leaving out a telescoped boom means there’s a good chance it will get bent, and therefore ruined. Again, if look carefully at the cases to figure out what is to be stored where.
When loading trucks, be respectful of the case wheels. DO NOT ram the wheels onto the lift gate. This will bend the casters, which cost at least $25 each.
Never ride a lift gate up to the truck box while holding gear. If a case, loudspeaker stack, etc., begins to roll, it’s almost impossible to stop. And it will likely take you off with it. This is one of the more unsafe aspects of stagehand work (on the ground, that is).
If faced with a falling loudspeaker stack - please, please, please - don’t try to put your body between it and the ground. You’ll lose every time. Yes, loudspeakers are expensive, but they aren’t as important as your safety.
Teri Hogan is a veteran audio professional who co-owned Sound Services, a performance audio company in Texas.