Do you remember your first concert? Being in a dark space amongst a crowd of people with the music too loud and the lights hitting your eyes creates an almost indescribable feeling. There is nothing quite like the shared experience of a live performance.
Maybe your first live performance was in a theater for a play or musical. The detailed costumes and complex sets transported you to another world. Amplified sound brought out the precision of the music and musicians. Performers on the stage impressed and enthralled the crowd.
For every person on a performance stage, there are hundreds of highly trained people behind the scenes making sure that show takes place. There are dozens of companies involved in building and maintaining the machinery and technology that creates a modern entertainment event.
Theaters, convention centers, sound stages and arenas all over the world are dark right now, unable to host an audience. Television and film production is at a near standstill while we painstakingly rewrite the safety rules of production. And you, my friend, are nearly to the end of your Netflix watch list.
When audiences can’t gather to see a concert, play or movie, life is missing one of the great joys of human experience. For myself and my peers who work in entertainment, the issue is much more challenging. You cannot go to a concert, but we cannot go to work.
A Community of Like-Minded Professionals
On Oct 20, 2001, Patrick Dierson and I were standing Front of House at the lighting controls in Madison Square Garden in New York City. We had both been out of work for over a month, and most of our projects were on hold for the rest of the year. We were working the only gig happening anywhere in the country: a five hour live televised concert event dedicated to the New York City Police, Firefighters and First Responders at Ground Zero on Sept 11th, 2001. We were honored to be there, grateful for the job and certain that the ‘show would go on’ for all our peers in time.
Neither one of us has that certainty now.
In February 2020, Patrick was working at a music festival in Cape Town, South Africa, about to travel to Dubai for his next gig, when he realized he should instead head home to Las Vegas. Meanwhile in early March, I had already been wearing a mask for a month while giving presentations around Southeast Asia, and next I was headed to Japan. I’m still in Japan.
Both of us knew instinctively that this crisis was different. This was no longer about surviving a dry work spell. As we saw it, the pandemic could fundamentally change audience-based entertainment for years. This was a ‘reinvent or perish’ type moment.
I only compare the national pain of the 9/11 terrorist attack with the global pain and disruption of the Covid-19 pandemic to say we in the live event community understand entertainment shuts down during a major crisis. We prepare for dry spells of work, no matter what the cause, by keeping emergency savings in the bank to cover our bills. With this crisis impacting all entertainment production, things are very different.
A $38 billion industry is at a standstill, impacting an estimated workforce of 10 million people.
Ninety-five percent of live events have been cancelled due to Covid-19, causing companies to reduce staff, cut salaries and leave freelancers with zero income or support. After over 6 months of the pandemic, our savings have run out. We see production work isn’t returning any time soon. How do we get the government to support us through this lengthy work stoppage?
The Show Must Eventually Go On
All of us who work in live entertainment are highly skilled professionals driven by a passion for our particular specialties. Passion is the only explanation for the more than occasional 100+ hour work weeks, bringing an event to life through blood, sweat and tears, to remember only the joy of success when it’s finally done. Sure the paychecks are nice, but it takes more than a good income to work the way we do. We all possess a strange compulsion to bond together and make these shows happen.
That passion took me to NYC after college with barely enough money to get me through the first couple months. I had a dream to become a modern dance lighting designer. Thirty years later I am a member of the stagehands union, IATSE Local ONE in NYC, I have a business in live event screens production, and credits that include David Bowie, the Olympic Ceremonies, Spamalot and the Video Music Awards.
To get to this point in my career, I have spent countless hours refining my skills, building client relationships and mentoring others. Just what other job am I going to do? I don’t have a job, I have a calling. This is true of every one of my peers who has invested themselves in a career in live entertainment. We do not take the idea of reinventing ourselves lightly. The thought of changing careers is heartbreaking.
I spoke with Emily Bornt, a Local ONE sister, who has toured with Lil Wayne, Metric and 30 Seconds to Mars running lighting and video controls. On March 12th, 2020, she was building lighting cues for a spring tour when she started seeing peers posting on social media and messaging her about tours cancelling.
“Every email that came in from the tour I thought, this is it, we’re cancelled.” But it wasn’t so clear. “First we were going to delay a day or two, then a week, and then indefinitely.” She still hasn’t heard back if ‘indefinitely’ has an end date.
Meanwhile, Emily is maintaining a lighting control show file for a design she may never see produced. “I want to be ready when it’s time to go back to shows. I can’t invest myself in a new job that I’m going to leave in a few months. But I need to work.” To pay the bills, Emily took a job with Whole Foods filling grocery orders for minimum wage in Los Angeles.
After some time on the job, Emily opened up on Facebook. “It seriously hurts my soul to do this kind of work instead of being back to work in my chosen career. A career I’ve spent over a decade sacrificing my personal life and mental/physical health for. I don’t feel that the work is below me, and I know it could be a worse job, but it hurts that after years of specialized training and experience that’s where my life is right now. It’s also frightening going into a work situation on a regular basis knowing I could potentially catch Covid and pass it on to others I come into contact with, so someone doesn’t have to leave their house for vegan kale chips.”
Emily is concerned about her financial future. “I don’t see getting back to touring for at least a year,” she told me. Currently, Emily is supplementing her savings by picking up Amazon shifts and taking a small business loan that she expects will take considerable time to pay off.
For many of us, it’s not only our businesses at risk — we have employees and subcontractors to support during the pandemic. Rental houses own expensive gear that sits idle, while the loans that financed their purchase require payment.
Tamlyn Wright is a production designer, producer and partner with Silent House in Los Angeles. Silent House has designed tours, television events, and more for 4 of the first 5 pop stars that come to your mind. Tamlyn was in development for a China-based project scheduled for March 2020, one of the first events on her calendar to cancel.
“It was mid-January when we got that call,” she told me. “I first heard about the virus from my business contacts in China in December, but the cancellation was still a surprise.” In the weeks that followed, US & Europe-based projects also started to cancel, impacting not only Silent House but the many freelancers they employ on a per project basis.
Fortunately, Tamlyn has some projects that are still moving forward — but the impacts of working in the pandemic are incredibly complex.
“Producers are offering 25% less on fees, while needing vastly more work done to comply with Covid safety protocols. What could be accomplished on one stage now requires multiple production sites, each with its own set design. Every site needs to be managed by separate crews, requiring more preparation time and documentation. And still, shows underbudget the real costs of working during the pandemic.”
What Tamlyn is describing has huge implications. There is less money being spent on projects that take longer to produce, that require more physical space and more people to manage that space. Add to that a whole new set of safety protocols that are still in the process of being established. Producers know these new costs exist, but no one is clear yet what they are. This is an expensive time to build a show that could be cancelled should essential talent or personnel fall ill. And every producer is wondering, is it worth the expense to relearn how to make a show if a vaccine is around the corner?
At the same time concert tours started cancelling, my colleagues who work on Broadway started feeling the impacts of Covid-19 on theatrical shows. Many performance venues around the country had started closing in early March, but the official word came from Governor Cuomo that Broadway was going dark at 5pm on March 12th. At that time 30 shows were running, and 16 were in rehearsals to open before the end of April and be considered for the Tony Awards.
Randy Zaibek, Production Electrician for “Frozen” among countless other Broadway productions, was working at the August Wilson Theater on 52nd Street in New York City as the pandemic surged in the Tri-State Region.
“It will take weeks to get productions back up and running when we are allowed to come back to work,” Randy told me. “Even if all the same actors and crew are available, we’ll need time to rehearse and get the performances running smoothly again. Can shows afford to do that if the houses are restricted to 50% capacity? Or less?”
Currently, stagehands are starting to see occasional work as shows officially close. These productions must be loaded out of their theaters, providing a bittersweet paycheck that further silences Times Square. Randy put it clearly: “Broadway serves tourists, and until travel recovers, Broadway can’t recover.”
With travel limited, can we bring the shows to the people? Should we? There have been various attempts. Outdoor concerts have been performed with audiences watching from their cars or socially distanced viewing pods. A team in Germany is testing Covid-19 spread using a concert environment.
Ultimately, a concert tour makes its money touring a single show across a network of venues all over the country and around the world. Behind the scenes, traveling crews live and work in close contact with each other. Each venue provides dozens of local stagehands to assist multiple shows that pass through each week. Audiences travel to these events in the tens of thousands. Any single concert event initiates the movement and interaction of a huge number of people, putting them all in close proximity to one another. The risks here are obvious. The hard truth is that my professional peers who work on live performance events are the last ones who will be able to safely go back to work.
As Dr. Michael Osterholm, epidemiologist and director of CIDRAP said to me, “l’ll know the pandemic is over when I can go see a concert.”
Relearning What You Think You Know
Some productions have found methods to manage this risk for their performers, crew and live audience. For example, Phantom of the Opera is open in Seoul, Korea. The first row was removed to increase the distance between the unmasked performers and the masked audience.
Some well-funded institutions are able to perform with greatly reduced audience sizes. The Dutch National Opera has retooled its 2020-2021 season in response to the pandemic. Its 2600 seat house will be limited to 400 attendees. In some cases, the show goes on without an audience at all.
Sharon Huizinga, head of the MFA Lighting Program at University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music (CCM), tells me the school has planned a limited production calendar for the year. To continue the theater students’ education, productions will be mounted and then videotaped without a live audience.
“What happens when the University shuts down?” I asked.
“There’s a $1 pool going about when that will happen. We’ll continue on with classes by video conference and we will build the productions on paper, and pivot to research projects and a guest artist series. Each department within the conservatory is making their own plan,” Sharon said.
“You could take the productions virtual,” I suggested.
At least that seems to be the plan for a number of live events trying to reach an audience that can’t physically reach them. Television production teams are working under strict safety protocols, combining what we used to do from pre-Covid times with the latest technologies to expand into virtual production techniques. We are just seeing the front wave of what many hope will be a return to event television production.
Univision went live with their annual summer award show, Premios Juventud, utilizing real and virtual stages. America’s Got Talent is in production, as well as MTV’s Video Music Awards using similar tools. Even corporate conferences like Snapchat’s Snap Partner Summit are going virtual, recreating their original show design into a computer game engine. Live camera feeds of presenters in front of a green screen were matched to virtual cameras in a computer to create a simulated theatrical presentation.
Of course, a virtual show is no longer limited by budgets or even physics when designing for digital entertainment environments. This summer, the Belgian music festival Tomorrowland combined live acts with a fully virtual landscape merging the full power of gaming technology with performance. The potential is incredible. The companies that create these technologies are moving fast to capture the future of entertainment.
The Future is Complicated
Large investment is needed to adapt entertainment production to these new technologies. So far the money and commitment has been slow to materialize. The added reality of keeping production teams safe from Covid-19 is a very delicate work in progress. Even in a virtual work environment, crew and talent often must share a stage. Should everyone working on a project quarantine together, separated from their families for weeks, maybe months, to create a bubble? Does everyone get paid during quarantine? Do you test and monitor on site? What happens if your lab can’t keep up? Will crews get paid for production delays if the lab can’t deliver test results on time? Are you just going to ask your pop star to come back tomorrow?
In the company I founded and ran for most of my career, Luminous FX, we partnered with industry experts in a four-month research and development project exploring the best tools for virtual production and audience experience. We have yet to find a client ready to support the real costs involved, expecting instead to pay pennies on the dollars we have outlined for our production budgets. Live event production has now been thrust into the same issues faced by most all digital labor. Virtual production work is perceived as cheaper because the effort is facilitated by computers.
Still, every effort is being made to get back to work. Fees are lowered and people are working harder than ever to see the potential of virtual production realized. We are reinventing the wheel on a car already in motion. No, that doesn’t quite get to the heart of the issue. We are replacing the engine on a full flight crossing the Pacific Ocean. And not one of my peers is in a financial position to turn down work (or ask the pilot to land the plane). Plus, I honestly can’t tell yet if the audiences are excited, or even satisfied, about the new pandemic-made shows they are seeing. Are we just biding our time until we can get back to work like we used to?
Many of us can’t wait for our chosen careers to come back. Emily had to take a break from Whole Foods after coming down with fever and headaches. Fortunately she tested negative for Covid-19, and even found herself behind a lighting console again just last week. For Randy Zaibeck, he’s in between load-outs receiving unemployment benefits. Randy tells me that in NYC, the state unemployment rate is $504/week. “Even when we had the additional $600 from the Fed, it was barely covering our expenses.” Randy has a wife, one of his two children and both his mother and mother-in-law at home. “I’ve been in this industry a long time. I imagine my emergency savings fund is in better shape than a lot of the younger people I work with. I worry about some of the younger crew. I know my savings wasn’t that good in my 20s,” Randy says.
When we are able to go to work, we are all concerned we can do so safely. We are still learning what job safety means with Covid-19, and defining how our workforce is protected. For entertainment production to go back to work, we have to unlearn what we think we know about the work we have done for years. Schedules, budgets, team size, workflow, everything has to be rethought to accommodate working in this pandemic. We have to take baby steps to learn how to run with the Olympic-level precision that is demanded of our careers, and be safe from Covid-19.
Production People Have a Special Set of Skills
There are dozens of challenges, yet I have hope. Many in our field are pursuing new business ideas, and some of these businesses help us get back to work and do it safely. Tamlyn started a new company, Entertainment Industry Response (EIR) with the leaders of several entertainment industry partners at Silent House, Go For Site Management, All Access, Gallagher Staging, and Joe Lewis Company. “We wanted to help our friends get back to work,” Tamlyn told me. “We have an enormous variety of skill sets in our community, and all of this rental gear sitting idle that can be repurposed. We can help.”
While the emergency funds for drive-through testing build-outs pivoted away from the federal response’s plan, EIR continued the work around safety and training crews for returning to work in a Covid environment. Working to supply productions with fast turnaround testing became the priority.
Our entertainment production community is made up of problem solvers, quick and inventive thinkers who excel under stress. Many of us took the disappearance of our jobs to learn new skills and technologies to prepare for whatever our work might look like in the future. Tamlyn and the EIR founders partnered with a pandemic and crowd-health medical advisor, Dr. Stuart Weiss of iCrowd, and are now operating in compliance with the union protocols in rapid testing technologies that serve many of the broadcast productions returning to work.
Patrick went a similar route in assisting his long-time friend and business colleague Andrew Gumper to start Mod Pro Services. This company is focused on the manufacturing of rapidly deployable emergency medical facilities using the same kinds of knowhow that build festival stages. Patrick told me, “We bring power, water and essential utilities to the middle of nowhere to prepare a massive festival event for tens of thousands. Doing the research to meet the standards for deploying hospitals instead of concert stages is worth investing in because we already have the knowledge and the teams to make this work.”
The team at Darmah also found themselves looking for a way not only to help their employees, but to provide solutions that help others in a crisis. During the lockdown, company founder Rodrigo Proal worked with the team to focus on designing solutions using state of the art technology combined with efficient and effective methods. It’s the same approach they would take for any live event, except this time, the result is a new company, disinfecTECH. Bianca Moncada, Creative Director of Darmah Studios, described the evolution of the new company: “It’s incredible to see the team learn how to solve a new technical challenge. But that’s what we do in our work all the time. When we are building a show, we have to work together to use the tools we have to solve a creative or technical problem. In this case the team had to research and invent the tools as well.”
Working together as a team to build and maintain lighting, audio and screens for a live event has turned into bringing in the specialized gear Darmah developed and maintaining a space for virus disinfection. “We approach our work the same way we did before,” says Bianca, “but now we provide services that keep more people working and working safely.” Rodrigo points out, “We believe in the power and capabilities of the professionals that work in the show business industry. Our goal with disinfecTECH was to be ready when events started to come back and see the disinfection process as part of our regular workflows.”
Tamlyn told me EIR is the most meaningful work she’s ever participated in. While the margins are thin, it’s serving its original purpose and getting people back to work. Getting this industry back on track, getting our live events community back to work, and keeping them and their families safe: this is an issue many of us feel passionately about.
How to Make the Future The Present
We are a smart, motivated, passionate, hard working and stubborn group of people. We don’t make a sympathetic case for a community in need of government financial support when there are so many people in dire need of help. Yet this is exactly what we need you to hear. The impacts of Covid-19 will disrupt live entertainment for years after a vaccine is available. Businesses are going bankrupt, and the braintrust of the biggest and most advanced production technologies out there will not be able to wait much longer before they invest in new careers.
We need investment and commitment by the big production companies to fund this massive pivot of millions of professionals into a new entertainment future. We need the kind of financial backing only the government can guarantee to get back to work and innovate. We need financial support for the millions of professionals, employees and freelancers who make live events in America by extending Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and passing the RESTART Act.
You may have noticed your local theater or arena was lit red last week. On September 1st, inspired by the tireless efforts of Michael Strickland of Bandit Lites in Nashville, the #wemakeevents campaign took off across North America. The Red Alert event was a night of recognition about the difficulties our community is facing. When we do our jobs right, you don’t see us. Now we need you to see us.
Neither Patrick nor I have personally stood at the lighting controls for a live event in a long time. But I promise you, we’re both willing to work as hard as we ever had before to make sure our community makes it through the pandemic and thrives. We are not alone.
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This article is also available at Medium