Pyro Profile: Dianne Fleming

by Mike Wharton
in PLSN Interview
Dianne Fleming's passion for stagecraft led to a career in pyro and special effects
Dianne Fleming's passion for stagecraft led to a career in pyro and special effects

Dianne Fleming knew at an early age what she wanted to do when she grew up. Armed with an acute sense of how to get there she gravitated towards that goal with intuitive choices that began in her early teens. Her involvement with theatrical stage productions in junior high school sparked her first passion; lighting. Throughout her career, she has realized the potential of each experience she encountered. More importantly, Dianne places value and respect on the people around her, as PLSN found out while talking about the path she carved to where she is today.

As a Special FX pyro technician, Fleming’s work now encompasses the whole realm of live special FX, not just ignitable, fuse-powder oriented explosive visuals. She is licensed in several States, has a permit to shoot in Canada and an ATF license.

“I have always been fascinated by lighting,” she says. “And I loved the stage, but did not want to be on it, so working backstage on all the school productions was perfect for me.”

After high school, Fleming obtained a degree in music video production from the Art Institute of Houston in 1993. “The entertainment business segment is probably what I have used the most across the board in all the different aspects of my career.” The curriculum included creating business plans and, in the process, she learned about the legal end of the business by studying copyright law, contracts, permit procurement and management responsibilities.

Dianne worked as a stagehand all through college, “to help pay the bills, and the flexible hours were perfect for my schedule.” In the process, she discovered that she preferred the live show experience to the studio environment. “Getting that energy high from the immediate audience response at a show,” she says, is still what drives her today.Alice Cooper exits a smoke filled set piece

‡‡         Joining the Circus

“About three months after I graduated, I ran away with the circus,” she says. Literally. She went to work for Feld Entertainment on Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus as an electrician and lighting tech. “We took care of the generators, provided power to the trailers, caravans and heaters in the animal tents. Basically, if it plugged in, it was our problem. I learned a lot about electricity and climbing. The pay was not great, but I took it for what it was — a stepping stone — plus, I looked at is as being paid to go to school.”

It solved that age-old perpetual circle problem, which was, “you need to have experience to get experience” in order to tour. After two years with the circus, she spent 18 months on Barnum’s Kaleidoscape, a single tent “upscale” production, much like Cirque du Soleil. The show consisted of 62 performers, 54 crewmembers, eight horses and 27 geese, transported in 50 trucks. After the tour ended, she moved onto another Feld production, Disney on Ice.

“I first got into pyro on this show, because I broke my arm. I was the lighting board op at the time, running an Artisan, which required both hands to operate.” The Feld work ethos practically demands “everyone knows everything,” which ultimately makes the employee more capable. Management fully endorsed the idea that she and the pyro technician switch board operation duties — while her cast was on. The interesting aspect to this plan was the fact they would be calling each other’s cues while running each other’s boards.

“That was the first time I shot,” she says. “I wouldn’t suggest that particular route but… it worked out for me!”

Bubbles and confetti are all in a day's job.

‡‡         Concert Touring, and a Close Call

After the tour ended in Washington, DC, she was heading back home to Texas and stopped by PRG’s offices in Atlanta to drop off a resume. It was here that she first met and became friends with Jimmy Winn. Winn, a veteran lighting designer of such diverse acts as Rob Zombie, Collective Soul and Richard Thompson, was heading up the electronics and moving light department for PRG. He recognized her capabilities after working with Fleming in the shop and recommended her for a position as one of the eight lighting crewmembers on the infamous 2003 Justin Timberlake/ Christina Aguilera “Justified and Stripped” World Tour, which was then just coming up.

“I met Keith Hellebrand, who shot pyro on Justin/Christina. He was a great mentor and taught me a lot about the basics, the core rules and standard practices that you do not deviate from in pyro.”

Though it was the third top grossing co-headlining tour in 2003, just behind Billy Joel & Elton John, it is perhaps remembered most for the epic fail at Boardwalk Hall in Atlantic City, NJ on Aug. 9, 2003 that resulted in an estimated $1 million in damage. Along with the cancellation of that night’s event, it required the postponement of shows in Albany, NY; East Rutherford, NJ; and Hartford, CT. (The tour resumed 10 days later as scheduled in Uniondale, NY, on Long Island).

“That was a very bad day for a very long, crazy week that followed,” Fleming recalls. “The upside was, it really brought the crew together as far as you realize that you really care for the guy working beside you. It was a defining moment in my career, and one of the better tours I’ve done, actually, she says, of that 20-truck trek.

“You know, you have nightmares, or ‘gig-mares,’ of something coming out of the truss; a piece of scenery or light or PA falling from above. But never the WHOLE THING. From that point on, it was ‘If you see something, say something.’ It makes you very aware of your surroundings, because anything can happen, as we well know.”

Fortunately, no one was seriously hurt in the collapse. Both the super grid and lighting grid were at trim. There was a temporary roof structure erected within the building, with some of the show production points also attached directly to the building. With the set pieces also flown out, all the hands were at the other end of the arena getting ready to roll the stage deck into place.

Fleming however, was under the rig at the time. “I’m watching cables as they fly out and, all of sudden, the whole rig just flexed. Next thing I know, I’m running, and video cubes are passing me. I can see everyone lined up by the deck with their mouths open, yelling, ‘Run, run!’ It was that perfect time, just a handful of us were under it, and fortunately, no one was on a cell phone.” After an intense 10-day rebuild, the tour resumed.

‡‡         Heading to Vegas

In 2004, PRG closed their depot in Atlanta and consolidated their touring operations in Las Vegas. Winn accepted an offer to transfer to Vegas and suggested Fleming relocate as well.

Of her lighting mentor, she says, “Jimmy taught me a lot about dealing with people. Most importantly, he taught me about self censorship — that maybe just always saying what you are thinking is not necessarily a good thing!”

Winn, who was the lighting designer for Rob Zombie, also introduced Fleming to her future husband, pyrotechnics special FX designer Tom Brewer. Brewer, a well-known shooter since 1981, had been with Zombie since the early 1990s.

Their relationship grew over the next five years, as the two worked together on tours for Pyritz, and in 2010, Dianne and Tom were married. “I figured if I could be around somebody 24/7 and not want to choke them at the end of the day, it’s all good!” she laughs.

“Really, though, as we all know, the touring life can really be rough on relationships. With Tom, I found somebody that got it. When I say ‘I am going to be out on tour,’ I’m not catching any hell for it. If I don’t call for a few days because I am in transit overseas, he gets it. I don’t get the call that goes, ‘I don’t want to be with somebody who’s never here.’”

Also while at Pyritz, Fleming established working relationships she would maintain throughout her career with touring pros, including production manager Omar Abderrahman, among others.

“In Vegas, I really started getting serious about pyro. Through Pyritz, I got my license and began learning about gas systems,” she says, crediting Pyritz owner Terry Ritz as a mentor. “I learned a lot from that man while I worked for him. He was very good with gadgets, hand-held devices and creating interesting ways to make things happen.”

Pyritz also exposed Fleming to a broad spectrum of shooting situations through tours with Rob Zombie, Disturbed, Glee and Scream. Also while at Pyritz, Fleming got the chance to shoot pyro for corporate, sports, special events and “a particular favorite,” the annual New Year’s Eve Bondage Ball in Las Vegas.

The pyro waterfall goes off behind Alice Cooper.

‡‡         DMX and Flame Effects

“My husband, Tom, is really good with flame and gas systems. When he and I met, the pyro world was just starting to integrate DMX into usage. Coming from lighting, I had a pretty good foundation understanding DMX.”

“With Tom and the guys at Pyritz I built my first gas unit delivery system. We got the burner heads from Sigma Services (Plant City, FL) but we had to build the delivery system, which consists of a manifold, hoses and accumulator tank. This tank accumulates just vapor, not liquid, which is what actually feeds the effect. Whenever you are doing this, you have a million what ifs going in the back of your head, so there are a lot of safety protocols in place.”

Having followed the Feld ethos of “knowing everything” paid off during those times when pyro work hit a lull, however. “All the while during this transition, I had to keep filling in the gaps with lighting work though, because, you gotta pay the bills, right?”

During one such slump, both she and her husband made the move to Pyro Engineering (PEI), the indoor division of Bay Fireworks (Bethpage, NY), which has been around for over a quarter of a century.

“Dennis Brady the CEO, Lou Torres the GM and all the guys at Pyro Engineering seriously know what they are doing, because they have been doing this for over 25 years. They do a lot of tours, and all the Electric Daisy Carnivals, but they also do cruise ships and sports events, too. I’m always learning something new.”

In 2010, Zombie paired up with Alice Cooper to co-headline the “Gruesome Twosome” Tour. The two camps got to know each other well. When Alice Cooper later returned to touring solo, his production manager, Cesare Sabatini, reached out to PEI to handle pyro, as the company had just provided their special FX for a movie Shep Gordon, Cooper’s manager, was producing. Fleming was the natural choice for PEI to send on the tour, and she jumped at the opportunity.

‡‡         Pyro and FX for Alice Cooper

“Yeah, absolutely… I love it there!” Fleming says. “At first, it started with a simple waterfall. Before we made it out of pre-production, we had bubbles; we had fog, an electric chair. [Alice Cooper] is very gag driven, as everyone knows, and that is actually a lot of fun. We do atmospherics; we have flame, a wide variety of fog, snow effects, bubbles and Cryo bursts… all the way down to hand-held type stuff, like burning books and blood gags. You get to be creative.”

And as Cooper’s fans can attest, there’s rarely a dull moment — for both audiences and those behind the scenes,” Fleming says. “He has that whole vaudeville style using old-school technology. For him, simpler is better. Sometimes he does the impalement where he impales his personal assistant onstage. Of course, the electric chair weaves into the whole Frankenstein number. We do the guillotine, where we chop his head off; the blood gag.”

Since 2012 Dianne has done all of Coopers tours. When not out with him, PEI provides her with a steady stream of other tour work, including The Electric Daisy Carnival. She is currently out with Ariana Grande, through Pyro Engineering, and once again working with production manager Omar Abderrahman.