Be Kind to Your Friends in the Shop

by Chris Lose
in LD at Large
Illustration by Andy Au
Illustration by Andy Au

I'm a firm believer that people who have spent time in the shop have a better understanding of the lighting business than those who have not. I am lucky enough to have spent four knuckle-busting years in the shops of Vari*Lite, Morpheus and Cinelease. I was there to receive hand written shop orders, assemble gear, tech lights and repair rain-drenched VL6s and Mac 2Ks that came back from multiple Olympics from around the globe.

The knowledge that came from those years has made me a better programmer and a more patient director. The shop is where theater people and non-theater people alike, work together to compile the necessary tools to make entertainment happen. Sometimes, those people have an idea of what happens to the gear after it leaves the dock, but some do not.

In this article, I would like to impart some knowledge from both sides of the dock door onto you. By reading this dissertation, you will be able to go forth and help the team of hard working, underappreciated men and women in the shop to help you.

‡‡         Six Ways You Can Help the Shop

1. Provide Accurate Paperwork as Soon as Possible. Assemble your gear, cable and patch lists that include spares in a timely manner. Let them know what you need in the truck, including consumables, custom brackets, spares and adapters as early as possible. If the shop doesn’t know what you need, they cannot send it. The eleventh hour is too late to bring in supplies from another shop and way too late to purchase the necessary counts. Provide a few options on things you can afford to be flexible on. They’ll be more likely to wrangle that one tough item for you if you give them a break on the other 200. A safe rule is to have any fixture addresses, labels and gobo load needs at least four business days prior to prep. Draw a picture if you need to. This gig has been in your head for days and you have a clear idea of what you need. Don’t make the shop guess. Find your best way to distribute that info without the shop having to adjust their decoder ring to your standards.

2. Use Your Prep Time Wisely. People (mostly meaning programmers) who are paid to come in and prep need to make sure that consoles, nodes, NPUs, DPs and media servers are all compatible and networked. Software versions can often get out of date quicker than a lowered latch can rip open your brand new pants. I have seen these people come in and “count” their items and do nothing more. They get on site and quickly blame the shop for not being able to get their system to work. Never assume that the shop guys know how to prepare a media server. Feel free to be specific. Request that your incoming server is wiped of previous client content, restored to default settings, i.e. fresh software build, video card settings defaulted and any EDID devices are reset and the network card is defaulted. We all love hanging out at the taco truck, but prep time is when we need to be the most focused. (Even though we get paid half rate). I need a breakfast burrito as much as the next guy but I’d rather spend a few minutes thinking about what else could possibly make it on the truck that could make my days on the road a little bit easier.

3. Treat the Shop Staff Well, On-Site and Off. Be gracious, thankful and apologetic. Be genuinely sorry that your last minute request is going to cause the shop a bunch of hassle. The shop may not like it, nor do they have to. At least try and show that you understand the mess you just created for them Any issues with gear or prep should go to the shop operations manager. I have often seen a lower paying shop person take the brunt of an unhappy prepper because of a problem that was created far above their pay grade.

While you are prepping your show, you are on their turf. The shop is their domain, and you need to treat them as such. Every time you walk by the areas of the shop, you should converse with the techs. Simple words like, “How ya doing? I owe you a beer after work, thanks for everything you do for me,” goes really far. Following through with that beer offer after work goes so far that those techs will all but insist on staying late to help you next time.

When you are on show site and the shop guy is dropping off your crucial Edison-to-SPG adaptors, please remember that they are helping to solve your problem. They might have been late because they have ten other shows in a 40-mile radius that needed their last minute request fulfilled. When you are able, share some of your experience and knowledge with them. Take time to explain that five 100-foot Socapex cables is not the same as ten 50-foot Socapex cables, and why you needed exactly what you ordered.

4. Keep Calm and Prep On. Don’t throw a fit if some gear is late; there should be plenty of other things to get done. Reprioritize yourself around what the shop has available at that time, and don’t overreact if you get thrown off a bit. Your “give-a-sh*t-meter” will affect theirs. If yours is low, theirs will match it. If you set yours too high, theirs will drop. Find a level that motivates without being demanding. It’s hard to make someone work faster, but very easy to make them want to slow down!

5. Label Your Bad/Broken Gear On Site Before Returning It to the Shop. Taking to the time to mark NFG is great. NFG with a small description is even better. Slathering both ends of your FOH snake in Red e-tape does send a subtle hint that you had an issue but, subtlety is not the first language of most shop techs. Sending a sympathetic and understanding follow up email is appreciated but is generally considered above and beyond.

6. Respect the Power of Swag. My closet is currently at full swag capacity. I only have one torso, and it would take me at least two months to display every swag shirt that I have received if I wore each one for an hour a day. When this happens to you, please express some gratitude by simply leaving your extra goodies in the caddy. I have sent back-packs, shirts, glow sticks, guitar picks and even three dozen squishy balls back to shop as a token of appreciation.

If you gain nothing from this article, please remember this; Let the shop know that they are appreciated. Often times, they go unrecognized for all their undertakings. The audiences will never be able to thank the shop personnel directly. It is our job to pass on that gratitude. You will quickly start to recognize all of the little things they do to help ensure your shows go more smoothly.