Its two p.m. and the band is late. This is gonna be a close one. My work in the theater means regular encounters with the crew from different shows on national tour. Essentially this becomes a form of 101 first dates. We are thrown together for an afternoon, consummate our relationship that evening, and then part most often without even exchanging phone numbers. Tonight’s date, a rock band, had better be good, because we don’t have time to waste.
It turns out I’ve been paired up with Tom, the lighting director for the show. When he rolls in thirty minutes later, he is California cool, dressed in the universal tour uniform: comfy cotton shirt, faded jeans, and a baseball cap.
You have trouble on the roads? I ask. Nah, he says, just trouble getting the band out of their hotel!
He sizes me up with a quick glance and a smile, then says, You’re my lighting guy, huh? Well, let’s see what you got. For the next fifteen minutes, we walk the stage. As roadies push equipment around us, he works down a mental list. I like those lights over there… We’ll pass on those… Let me see what those look like – OK, never mind. Oh, and those look great. In stiuations like this, I can feel like the rather stuffy English butler trying to keep pace with his high-tech superhero charge. Albert to the latest Master Wayne to walk through our doors.
Three hours until doors open, and we sit down at the lighting board. He’s done this a thousand times before, I can tell. First, he asks for colors. Give me the whole stage in blue. The roadies turn into smurfs. OK, save that. Now what about a nice amber? Then red, aqua, ice blue, green. We play Crayola games for half an hour while the people doing setup turn the shades of a skittles packet. Next, the moving lights. He has me move the pools of light around the stage until he finds just the right placement for each “look.” Let’s hit all the band members at their mics. OK, now let’s cross all the beams in mid-air. Machinery whirrs, light beams bounce around the stage, first awkwardly then with increasing grace until we have, if not a ballet, at least a fair-to-middling Indiana contra dance going on over the performers’ heads.
An hour left. He turns to the audience. Let’s see what we can put on the crowd, he says. We turn the overstage lights out onto the seats in the theater. I am temporarily blinded – it feels good.
OK, he says. Now show me how this strange light board of yours works. I realize that he has never used a console like the one we have before. He is completely relaxed, watching as I show him the quirks of our system. Then he suddenly interrupts: Time for supper! And he heads off to the hospitality area to eat. Stunned, I note with some concern that he has never yet actually touched the light board himself. Either this man is crazy, or he’s really good.
At 6.57, three minutes before show time, Tom is back, well fed. He smiles at me. Your job, he says, is to turn the house lights off when the show starts, and back on at the end. I’ll do the rest. He puts on his headset and drawls a friendly hello to the spotlight operators forty feet above our heads. Finally, he rests one hand gently on the lighting console, and we’re ready to go.
For the next hour and a half, Tom plays that board like an instrument, flashing lights on the audience, bathing the stage in color, spinning moving lights in arcs over our heads. He keeps up a running commentary with the spotlight operators. “OK, in a moment you’re going to hit the guitar player when he steps forward… Ready? Go!” He and the sound man know this show by heart – they have done it hundreds of times, same jokes, same hair-singeing guitar solos, same triumphant encores. His hands seem to have melted into the console at this point. I watch him lean into the board, pushing multiple faders with the flat of one hand while talking on the headset and giving a thumbs up to the sound guy, all at the same time. The crowd goes crazy.
And then with a final flourish, it’s over. I turn the house lights on, and we shake hands as the audience files out. A number of people stop to thank me for a great show. I receive their compliments modestly. And in an hour, the stage is bare again. The band is back on the bus, and everyone is gone. In the silence, I return to the lighting console and rest my hands on it like Tom had just done. I didn’t even get his number.