Theater things that don’t make sense: Vol. 8

I was recently at a big ol’ touring house outside of NYC.  You know, one of those theaters in major metro areas all over the country that presents big national tours like Billy Elliot and Mary Poppins as well as concerts, lectures, local dance recitals and more.

I was talking to the TD of this theater, and he was telling me about his house plot.  You know, the bank of lighting instruments owned by the theater that can be used for small shows, or used to augment big shows, etc. (which allows touring shows to travel with less, saving them money in rentals and trucking and load-in time).  A house plot is one of the reasons that Altar Boyz was able to tour all over the country.

So I started thinking . . .

Why don’t Broadway houses have house plots?

If there were a string of basic instruments in each house, we could save time, money, and I’d bet a lot of those dark weeks that some theaters face could be filled by smaller shows or special events that wouldn’t normally be able to get their shows up without this savings . . . which would provide more jobs for everyone.  (The owners of New World Stages recently added a house plot to one of their small theaters, and it’s been booked more often because of it).

The theater owners could even charge a few more bucks for use of the package, paying for (and profiting from) their initial purchase of the equipment.

It’s my understanding that the current stagehand contract prevents leaving elements from one show to be used for another show without payment (since the guys are losing hours of work). While that argument seems to be another ‘theater thing that doesn’t make sense,’ I would think that a compromise could be had, since this “house plot” idea is in use all over the country, and since the existence of the plot could generate more gigs for the stagehands in the future.

With our costs escalating just about everywhere, we’ve got to look at ways to become more efficient . . . which means looking at things in ways we’ve never looked at them before.

  • Maybe it’s time to scrap the entire thought process of Broadway shows and treat ALL the houses as if they were touring houses. Unfortunately, it will always be the unions that keep us in the dark ages.

  • Harry says:

    Yes @Kevin, Blame the Unions . . . what a tired, lazy, asinine argument . . . That’s exactly the kind of talk that makes Union/Management relations unnecessarily adversarial.
    The compromise Ken is talking about makes sense. Union-bashing does not.

  • Todd says:

    If you are renting lighting gear you’ve probably paid for it in 3 months. So if you are a producer – and booking a particular theatre for an extended run, or multiple engagements, it could even make sense for you to buy a house rig for the venue.

  • Doug Hicton says:

    Ken, I really like the way you are always THINKING — identifying problems and then coming up with solutions and/or improvements. Very new-school. It’s one of the reasons I want YOU to produce my work.
    Anyway, a little joke:
    Q. How many IATSE members does it take to change a light bulb?
    A. Twelve. You got a problem with that?
    (And no, I am a union supporter, within reason.)

  • Marshall says:

    It’s waaayyy too logical, cost effective and smart to gain ground. Wish the unions could look beyond next week.
    Follow up joke:
    Q: How many ad execs doe it take to screw in a light bulb?
    A: I don’t know; what do you think?

  • John says:

    I’m a professional lighting designer, and obviously have a very different perspective:
    This has almost nothing to do with union requirements. I work regularly in multi-theater complexes with an inventory of equipment that is moved around to each space depending on what each show needs. Even with a large inventory available, every show needs something that’s not available and has to be either rented or purchased. When a show closes, the equipment is taken down and moved back to storage. Broadway shows work the same way, except that the lighting rental shop is the “storage”.
    Broadway theaters have ZERO storage space, there’s simply no place for them to keep unused equipment. By renting equipment for each show, just what’s needed is brought to the theater, maximizing the available real estate.
    All it takes is one look at the light plots for say, the last 10 shows in a given theater, to realize that while there may be 12 lights on each box boom for each show, the kinds of lights used will vary dramatically, as will their spacing (both horizontally and vertically) and power and control requirements. Hanging a show from scratch in an empty theater is very efficient because you don’t have to move anything out of the way before putting up what you actually need. Each show’s requirements are different because every show is unique – in it’s creators’ approach to the material and the space available in the theater – and yes, the available budget.
    Doing a show the first time (whether on Broadway or elsewhere) teaches you what the show needs to work. After you have that figured out with a successful Broadway production, you can intelligently cut it down for the road.
    Producers flock to theaters with house plots because they don’t have the money to rent equipment (and probably because the theater has too few seats to provide the revenue that would support a reasonable budget). The creative team will do the best they can within the limitations (sometimes brilliantly), but if you ask the designers or directors, you can bet they would all rather have what their show needs, not what happens to be hanging around.
    Ken’s argument about lighting could equally well be applied to scenery – why not have a standard living room set that could be kept in the theater and used whenever a show needing a living room comes along? Or a street scene set? Or a bedroom set? I live in terror of working with a producer who thinks that would be acceptable in today’s culture, where movies and video compete for scarce ticket dollars.
    Would you want to have to wear red satin jeans every day just because that’s what came with your apartment?
    if all Ken wants is generic productions, as they did in the 19th century, then having stock scenery and lighting is the way to go and I wish him well. If he wants productions that will move audiences, make them think, inspire them to tell their friends to buy tickets, and keep theatre a thriving and vibrant intellectual (and business) community, then generic is the last option he should be choosing.
    Just my .02, of course –

  • Cris Dopher says:

    As an LD who has also paid his dues as a TD and ME over the years, I can say it is FAR more efficient to completely strike a show than to have guys in the air trying to figure out which light stays and which light goes. As noted, it’s more efficient to hang from scratch than to swap barrels, move lights, etc – and always safer to prep a unit on the ground than in the air. Finally, it’s my experience that when Broadway shows change over, the changeover is massive – it isn’t realistic to squeeze in a one-week run of, say, a Bill T Jones piece. That would only lose money.

  • Paul says:

    Here is a view from the venue management side;
    I have a 2300 seat house, and a 600 seat house.
    In my large house, we do 200-250 “touring” shows a year; the producers of those shows all like for their show to look as much like the original production as possible. This would include scenic, lighting, wardrobe, sound, etc. Most production riders for shows in this venue start with something like – “Please clear all lighting and curtains for the overstage area. We will not use yours.” Because of this fairly standard requirement, our default setting for this house is “cleared”. It actually costs smaller clients more money to install some basic lighting and curtains to have a performance. This is the venue where “show BUSINESS” happens.
    In our smaller house, we do a couple hundred events a year that are dance schools, civic events, seminars childrens’ shows, etc. A typical day might be move in at 10am, show at 7pm leave move out afterwards. Because of this client base, our default setting is “house plot” of lighting and curtains. Our setup fits decently with 99% of what happens in that venue. Economically, these clients don’t have to go to the expense of creating a show from scratch, since their show might net a couple hundred dollars or less.
    Now a view from the producers’ side;
    You’ve invested a small or large pile of money on an artistic and logistic solution to the show you are producing. If your chosen venue has a house plot, you will start your in-theatre expenses with work calls to strip the house gear out. Or the theatre can include that expense in your rent. Or you can chose a venue that starts you with a clean slate; no expense prior to starting your move in. Or you can use the house lighting plot to create a show that looks decidedly average (certainly the producer wouldn’t want that to happen).

  • Many years ago I was asked by one of the theatre owners to develop a concept that could be used in an empty Broadway house for concerts. At the time, there were too many empty theatres.
    The approach was relatively simple, a flexible plot with the possibility of some customization, a flexible platform system and a variety of scenic elements that could also be swapped out. This was not to present original work, it was an idea to use, as Ken says, empty space.
    Conceptually this idea, and Ken’s, is a bit like the Sullivan Show or any of the popular talk shows of the 60’s-70’s. Create something that is flexible, that could be used for a number of different uses, create work and provide entertainment. Rep lighting plots can be difficult, they can also be a creative challenge.
    Like anything, they are no always appropriate.
    On Broadway, perhaps the rep plot could be a separate system from the show system?

  • Robert says:

    I worked in rental sales for a large Lighting company in NYC that services Broadway. Your statement is a little off – if a show runs for approximately 80 to 100 weeks then the lighting gear is paid off verses buying it new.

  • Paul says:

    Maybe the question is “Why won’t the theatre owners purchase, install and maintain $500,000 worth of lighting and curtains?”

  • Brian says:

    Disclaimer: I’m a union stagehand
    The answer is in the first sentence: “a big ol’ touring house” Big. They’ve got some place to store all that lighting gear when they aren’t using it. And most of the big ‘ol touring houses also have other stages in their building that use the lighting gear.
    To purchase a lighting system (system, not just lights) involved the lights, the cables, the dimmers, the control console, the data distribution, the power distribution. That’s a huge capital investment for the theatre owners to make, on the off chance that it will be used on occasion. Then they need to take it down and store it somewhere outside the theatre when they aren’t using it. That’s an additional expense in storage, crates and trucking that the owners can’t share or bill back to any production.
    It’s not a very practical idea for a broadway house. Makes great sense for other road houses, where they are doing different events every week or every day, but not in a Broadway house.
    A Broadway house is rented as a “four wall” rental, meaning the producers get four walls and that’s about it. Everything else comes in with the show – Sound, lights, sets, wardrobe, support equipment like refridgerators, phones, faxes, internet, etc etc. A fly system comes with the building, but more often than not the big shows pull part of that out anyway to put in machinery.
    Another problem with a house plot is it limits your designers. The location of the house plot lights will limit where the set designer can locate scenery, Usually it works the other way around. It also limits your lighting designer to a certain extent.
    Where it might make sense is if a theatre is going to be dark for a while and the theatre owner can line up a series of shows for a few months. Then they can rent a house plot for a limited time and bring in some concerts, comedies, etc.
    For small tours like Altar Boyz that aren’t trouping their own gear, a house plot is great. Also great for things like dance troups, smaller concerts, and the like. But most medium and big tours all carry their own lighting gear and want to go into a bare empty stage. They might use the theatre’s front of house gear (the lights actually in the house, not over stage) to save time on the load-in and load-out, but only if the house gear is comparable to the touring gear.

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