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This Long and Lonesome Period

Chris Lose • December 2020LD at Large • December 9, 2020

Illustration by John Sauer/JohnSauer.com

Rodney Crowell warned us that we would experience “Many a Long and Lonesome Highway.” We knew that when we signed up to be a roadie, we would be spending lonely days away from home and in isolation. We knew that we had to sleep in our serving size bunks all by ourselves. We guaranteed ourselves that we would begrudgingly sit by a space heater in the back hall of concrete convention centers for 16 hours at a time. We agreed to be staring at a monitor screen in the dark, night after night, creating ever more complex looks. We knew what we were in for, and we rushed in headlong. No matter how long I stared at those screens, huddled up to a space heater or tried to remove the DVD player in my bunk, I always knew that I was in this industry because I loved the people. I could rest assured that there would be a cast party, a post-show drink with backline, or a wrap party with the whole crew. We are birds of a feather, and we stick together. We work hard so that we can play hard. We know the power of emotional connection, and we respect the potential of human gatherings. That has all been taken from us. Let’s talk about how lonely the current working conditions are, and what we can do about them.

‡‡         Lake of Sorrows

I recently finished an outdoor show in Las Vegas. The outcome was wildly successful. We were able to impress many, if not all, of our discerning clients. Production required Epicurean results in the midst of a global pandemic. We were able to pull out all the stops and meet their five-star standards. In order to pull it off, we had designers in the U.K., creatives in California and programmers in Nevada. We had to meet up through the 1920 x 1200 window that we were afforded. There was no capacity for post programming drinks, smoke breaks or joint outings on days off. There were no hugs, no handshakes and no celebratory gatherings. After the grand opening gala, we should have been able to go for a few beers to pat ourselves on the back and commiserate over every tough decision with a shot. That never happened. I just put my mask on, checked out of my hotel and went home. It was anti-climactic, to say the least. It should have been a celebration. I was left with a sense of poignancy. I had to reach out to some fellow designers and programmers to see if I was alone in my loneliness.

‡‡         Penalty Bubble

The first person I reached out to was Brent Clark, a lighting designer out of Canada. He just finished up his gig as lighting programmer and second set of eyes for Kurt Wagner for the NHL season in Edmonton, Alberta. He shared my sentiments of loneliness. He shared some of his experiences with me. “We had to have three negative Covid tests before we even got on the plane,” he said. He had to take a moment to explain just how diligent the organizers were. “The rules were extremely strict. If you broke the bubble, you were sent home — no questions asked, and no excuses.” They had to have a daily Covid check and had a version of the clear app on their phones that took their temperature every 12 hours. One missed step could result in more extensive precautions. Brent expanded, “We interacted by keeping two meters apart, but really, after you have been tested every day and strict temperature tests, it was a lot like normal, just with a mask on. The local venue staff had a different color pass, so you kept two meters away from them, but they were all tested every day as well.” Working at such lengths cultivates physical and emotional distance between a crew. When Brent was not at the console, he was in his room. If he was not in his room, he was afforded a single concrete yard that had a few food options, and eventually a few fire pits. These were the few glimpses of real-life luxuries that Brent was able to enjoy for the duration of the season.

‡‡         Basket Bubble

It only seemed right to see if there was much difference in the USA format. I reached out to Kerstin Hovland, creative director and co-founder at Electronic Countermeasures. She had also finished a stint as media manager for the NBA season in Florida. She was responsible for organizing and distributing the flood of video content coming in for 22 teams, three venues, 12 servers and helping maintain a viable workflow for four programmers. “I’ve never had a job that came close to the sheer volume of content that the NBA generated,” she reported. To fully enter the Green Zone, the most stringent level of the NBA bubble, they were tested daily for a week during load-in while self-isolating and social distancing. After load-in, all of the people entering the bubble were required to complete seven days of quarantine in their hotel rooms while also being tested daily. After they were released from quarantine, they were required to follow the rules of the Green Zone protocol, including daily testing, symptom monitoring, contact tracing, and not leaving the designated property boundaries for the NBA campus and having no contact with people who were not part of the Green Zone. They were all together, but isolated. Kerstin reported similar feelings of sadness. “Quarantine was sitting in our hotel rooms. Food was brought to us, and we were only allowed to leave to walk to the testing facility on campus. We had wristbands that labeled us as having not completed quarantine yet, so no one would come close to us during those 15-minute excursions. The food was pretty miserable. The logistics of bringing hundreds of Covid-compliant pre-packaged meals to each room by necessarily limited staff made the situation understandable, but it was pretty depressing to sit in one room and eat very sad food.”

‡‡         What Can We Do?

In case you find yourself in this lonely situation, here are some key tips form three professionals who went through this. Brent said, “Ask loads of questions! ‘How are we doing laundry? How do we get things like vitamins? What is the food choice going to be?’” Kerstin said, “Be patient with yourself and your colleagues. Imagine what it’s like for a submarine crew, and think, ‘Well, at least we aren’t sharing the same recycled air,’ and it is really all uphill from there.” Kerstin and I agreed that “Nothing is going to go quite like you expect it to. Things will take longer. You’re not getting the usual experience of work and then social time with them. The things that we love doing in this job after a grueling gig — a nice dinner with your crew, a drink at the hotel bar — these little rituals aren’t available in the same easy way. The pressure release valve is screwed on a little tighter.” We can acknowledge this truth, wear a mask, wash our hands, and carry on. We have to get through this together…but separate.

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