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Stage Manager For A Day: Encountering Logistics, Miscommunication And Good Ol’ Human Nature

Adventures in stepping up to be the account manager for the middle of three dates that the sound company was doing on a traveling rock festival.

I don’t recall how, exactly, but several decades ago, somehow my name was put forward to be the account manager for the middle of three dates that the company I worked for was doing on a traveling one-day rock festival.

Our actual account manager had managed to score three consecutive cities for this touring festival, but the logistics of that meant that we were going to leap-frog our PA from city one (Toronto area) to city three (Ottawa) and sub-rent PA and “B” stage production for city two (Montreal). Our control package (consoles, FX racks, microphone kits, monitors) was going to travel to all three cities. Hence the need for a separate account manager for the Montreal date.

My taking on this role wasn’t a total stretch, as I had a few accounts of my own, mostly television, where I would put in an appearance and leave the rest up to my techs, and I’d also filled in for other account managers on occasion.

That said, I was six years into managing the audio department at this company and I didn’t get out of the shop much. People would marvel at this, as I spent all day, every day, allocating equipment for shows, right down to the last adapter. “How can you do that without ever going to shows?” I would often get asked. The answer is that I’m very good at visualizing, so I could picture a system in my head without having to be physically in front of it.

However, sometimes when I did make it out to shows I would be surprised to see some aspect of the system implemented in an entirely different way than I’d envisioned it. But I digress…

Getting Things Rolling

In any case, I agreed to do the gig, even while managing a very busy week leading up to it. I don’t have exact numbers for how busy it was, but this was June of 1997 and I know that for my last week there in September 1999, we had 40 separate events going out that required a sound system of some sort, so in 1997 it was probably somewhere north of 20 systems.

And so, about a day before the load-in for the first date, when the phone on my desk rang, an internal call from one of the other account managers (AM) who had one of the bands that was playing the festival as one of his accounts, I was stunned to have the following exchange:

Account Manager: That truck’s in the north dock if you want to look at it.
Me: What truck?
AM: The Three Word Name** truck.
Me: Why am I looking in that truck?
AM: To see if that stuff is going to fit.
Me: What stuff?
AM: The consoles and stuff for your gig (i.e., the control package).
Me: On a band’s truck? Really?? THAT’s not happening!

I slammed down the phone and marched down to my boss’s office (the owner of the company) and said something to the effect of “Who the heck’s* idea was it to put the control package on a band’s truck?” (*Actual dialog edited to PG-13 standards. – Editor)

To his credit, he listened to me calmly and I did end up getting the trucking for the mission critical control package changed to a dedicated 10-ton tandem axel, with a responsible driver. But later, much later, when I had time to ask myself “Who’s always looking for ways to save a buck?” I realized that I‘d probably just told off my boss to his face.

Anyway, the first show was in Barrie, Ontario, about an hour north of Toronto on June 28, so the entire rig would have been prepped and loaded by end-of-day on the 26th and loaded in on the 27th. The show was in Montreal on the 29th and the Ottawa show was on the 30th (which also means that all of this was taking place immediately in advance of our busy Canada Day [July 1] long weekend, just to make it more interesting).

Accordingly, myself and my crew (I don’t remember everyone, but there was a monitor tech and couple of lighting people, and probably a patch tech) got in a passenger van and drove to Montreal on the 27th. The next day we went out to the site, the badly paved parking lot of a racetrack, and set up whatever we had (there must have been a truck, too).

The only thing I clearly remember that we had with us was a 48-channel snake that we were, uh… field testing… for the client we had built it for, prior to delivery. This snake became my main point of interaction with the promoter’s reps as I had to bug them continually to get a plywood raceway built to protect its run to the front tower.

These were all very nice people, but it was difficult getting them to actually do anything. The impression that I got is that they were all kind of in shock over having to work with a production company from out-of-province. The Quebec scene is very tight knit, with generally high-level production values (Cirque de Soleil, anyone?) and these folks seemed genuinely lost and confused over not having their usual local supplier.

The cable ramp was a case-in-point. I kept going to the production trailer and politely enquiring when it would be built, they kept assuring me that it would be “soon,” and then nothing would happen. Eventually, having run out of tasks to keep the crew busy, I had the snake run out, and then, of course it was run over by a golf cart (while the young couple driving it were very curiously watching me frantically waving for them to stop) and then by a water truck, which was fortunately empty.

Show Day

I can’t remember what time our call was on show day, but it must have been early because we had a lot of work to do before a noon start time, like: Hang the PA, load-in and set up the consoles and monitor rig, set the stage and line check.

The PA was Rush’s. They had played the night before at the Montreal Forum and had a day or two off before playing in Toronto. These arrangements had all happened without my participation, so I don’t know the details, but our company had a long history with Rush – we even had a 1971 AFM (American Federation of Musicians) contract that had the band playing at a rec center in Scarborough (the real location of Wayne’s World) for $100 up on our wall.

In any case, the trucks were on site when we arrived and we set about getting the PA in the air… which is when we hit the first snag. The sound wings were scaffold towers that were bridged by some kind of construction stage that I’d never encountered before (or since). It looked like what you would see window washers working in on a high rise. The method for getting these things in the air was a pair of five-horsepower gas engines, one on each end, and of course one of the engines on the stage left side would not start.

So, we worked on the stage right side while one of the hands was up there sweating and cursing over this motor like dad with the lawnmower on Saturday morning. He got it going eventually, but that probably cost us an hour.

Eventually, the PA was hung, the consoles were placed, and we powered up (this would be the first time we would hear any audio since we arrived the day before) and buzzzzzz! Which was our second snag. The rig was buzzing angrily, and not just a ground hum either. It was a more broad-spectrum noise with lots of intermittent crackling.

Not to drag this out too much, somebody went backstage to see what the generator was grounded to and found the ground rod shoved into a pile of coarse gravel that was heaped up around the base of a telephone pole (remember we were in an asphalt paved parking lot). I vividly remember that when the person who found this poured their water bottle on the ground rod, we could hear it in the PA. I suppose the water was modulating the ground noise through the PA but it sure was weird to hear the glugging and trickling with no microphones involved.

Fortunately, there was an actual ground rod at the base of the telephone pole, and we quickly moved the genny ground there, which immediately quieted the system. This was a good thing as noon was fast approaching. Somehow, we got everything else taken care of and got the first band on just a few minutes late (I saw a lot of the promoter’s reps while this was taking place… they were most anxious to see us start on time).

With the PA working and the first band on, I was upstage, catching my breath, thinking about what the rest of my day looked like when I became aware of a lot of activity beside me. I looked over to see the one American band on the bill, the second-to-last act, slamming their gear on to what was already a very tight stage. The stage was nothing like today’s festival stages, with loading docks and a huge back 40 to set up multiple acts on. Oh, no, this was much smaller, with very limited space.

Seeing this, I turned to the person who was wrangling it all and said, “Y’know, if you bring all of that gear up here now, it’s going to jam up the stage for the rest of the day.” Looking back, I think I truly meant that as… information, more of an observation really. However, the response that I got was a very aggressive, “Oh Yeah?! Well, who the hell’s the stage manager around here anyway?!”

And I quite spontaneously shouted back, “I am! Now put that stuff back on your truck and I’ll tell you when to bring it up! And I promise you I’ll get you on in plenty of time to do your set.”

Déjà Vu All Over Again

Now, a couple of things come to mind. First, I call this a combination of inexperience and instinct. Inexperience in that I now know that an act that’s second-to-last on would normally get the stage at around 9 in the morning, an hour or so after the headliner. And instinct in that I knew that the stage was going to be an unmanageable nightmare if that gear got set up at 12:15 in the afternoon when we had at least five other bands to get on-and-off before the evening acts.

The second thing that comes to mind is that I would have thought that the promoter would have hired a stage manager, but no one came up to me and said, “Hey, sorry I’m late… can I have my job back now?”

So, I spent the rest of the day and all evening getting acts on and off. Which came off just fine with no problems whatsoever. Two items of note did come up:

1) Three Word Name’s truck, the one that had been slated to bring our control package, actually did break down so they didn’t roll in until around 5 or so in the afternoon, which was no problem to get them on third from the end of the show but would have been an absolute disaster if they’d had the control package on board.

2) When the last act, Word Name Three, was on, I finally had some time to breathe so I was upstage, having a “tourist” moment when I looked over and saw their monitor engineer frowning at his console, trying to figure out which mix was going “screeee!” intermittently.

And, in a situation that was practically identical to the one in We Value Your Feedback I looked behind the monitor engineer, located off stage left, and realized that the high-pitched squeal was coming from the lift mechanism on the off-road forklift that was being used to drop the preceding act’s gear off the stage. I walked over and pointed this out to him, and he got on with his set.

And so it all worked out. The bands were happy, the crowd was happy, the promoter had a successful event – everyone was happy. The load-out was uneventful, taking two to three hours to get the various trucks loaded and off to Ottawa, and in the case of the Rush truck with the PA on it, Toronto.

We got back to the hotel around 3 in the morning. I was exhausted after that long day and really not in the mood for the inevitable “my key card won’t open my hotel room” fun. This of course required the long trek back to the front desk, carrying all my stuff.

But the real crowning moment was getting back to my room and discovering another one of my boss’s “cost saving features” – the rooms, or at least my room, had been double booked to allow all our crew that was traveling with the festival to have a place to shower and catch a nap. When I finally got into my room, it was to discover that every towel was lying on the floor wet and both beds were unmade, and also wet.

At this point, too tired to care, I flaked out on the driest part of the nearest bed, thus ending my exciting first day of stage management.

**Addendum: At the time, we were supporting three Canadian bands with three-word names. So, to avoid confusion, I have chosen to identify the three bands as: Three Word Name; Three Name Word; and Word Name Three. And, no, The Tragically Hip was not one of the bands as they were universally known as The Hip.

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