Behind the Drape
While the pandemic has brought fear, change and uncertainty to the event industry, it has also provided an opportunity for evaluation, evolution and ingenuity. If nothing else, the industry as a whole has shown its ability to pivot when needed; to be resiliant and to be strong. Most importantly, this temporary crisis has highlighted the fact that we are a community - a family, that will continue to share ideas, support and encourage one another. In this series, I'll be shining a spotlight on some of our friends who make the magic happen at those live events we all know and love.....and miss. My hope is to share some bits of information about their specific role and experiences on site, but also just to check in and see how they're doing and get some thoughts on our current state.
Our first peek 'behind the drape' is an interview with Robin Eveson. Robin is a freelance lighting director with over 25 years in the business. From experience, I can say he's one of the best, and there should be a long line to hire him once live events return. I was excited to check in with Robin, and get some of his thoughts, and just check in.
The Lighting Director
Could you briefly explain the role of a lighting designer/operator on a typical live event? What sort of equipment do you operate? What is the importance of your role on an event?
Tricky question. As an individual can be hired for either a specific role as strictly a ‘programmer’, an ‘operator’ or a ‘designer’, these roles can be assigned as individual positions on larger events or can be ‘all encompassed’ as one overall position where the individual would be responsible for all responsibilities. This ‘over all position’ would normally be labelled as ‘lighting director’ which is generally the position I would fill on most events. A lighting director would be responsible for everything from lighting design, involvement of the creative process of the event, rigging and working with the venue’s engineers, power requirements, logistics regarding shipping and lift usage, LX crews, riggers, cabling and ordering equipment. Though not all lighting directors take on so many responsibilities, it has been the core of my professional career to provide a ‘full service’ experience for my clients. It is also beneficial to all involved when there are fewer people in charge and each department has a ‘go to’ person that can solve issues as they arise more quickly and efficiently.
What was your path to working in corporate events? How did you gain the necessary experience which led you to a career as a lighting designer?
Well, it was kind of a fluke. My brother, Dave Eveson of Liteworks Inc., was working at a small start up lighting shop called Christie Lites at Queen and Ossington in Toronto. I was selling cars for Downtown Fine Cars in Toronto at the time, but it was a bad time for the economy and he suggested I give lighting a shot. I came on board primarily in a sales position and even had to build my own office. I was encouraged to take on small events in a tech position to learn the ropes and they slowly got bigger. You could say it was initiation by fire. So no, I had no formal schooling. I was just thrown into events and had no choice but to learn quickly.
The rest is history.
Is there anything the typical event planner may not know about your role? Is there work happening behind the scenes, before or during show, that keeps you busy, but which is not apparent to your client?
Absolutely! Depending on the size of the event, about 50% of our work is logistics. From pre-packing gear in the shop in order to expedite the set-up process onsite, to joining in on the creative process at infancy, sometimes more hours can be spent in pre-production than actually working during the event itself. Preproduction meetings, drawings and revisions etc., can eat up lots of time leading up to an event. Lighting will for the most part also cover all rigging aspects of a show and venues/engineers and in house rigging companies rely on accurate drawings that must be submitted and approved well in advance of load-in day. Working closely with the venues regarding fire regulations, engineering, power, catering, lifts, shipping and dock usage is also part of the job. And that is just on the venue side of things. Organizing crews in each individual city is also incredibly important. The better the crew, the smoother things typically go. Many a setup has been delayed due to incompetent technicians. We try to avoid these situations at all costs.
Once onsite, the lighting directors’ job is to make sure setup goes smoothly according to his/her design. Once this is accomplished and all set/staging components are in place, the lighting focus can begin. The focus is crucial, and this is usual where last minute details regarding ‘lighting specials’ come into play. Though these details are preferably pre-determined, its inevitable that last minute changes will rear their head. Podium positions, band specials, changes or additions in creative and set details etc., are a constant challenge but very much part of the job description.
Then of course comes programming time. Depending on the complexity and length of the show, programming time is often overlooked. With endless rehearsals, turn arounds and actual hours ‘live’, programming is one of the most important aspects to producing a quality finished product. Often. The operator/programmer (and most likely the same person assuming the role as lighting director), is the last person to leave the room. I would say that 95% of the time we are programming and making adjustments right into the last minute before ‘doors’.
In this new world of virtual events, how has your role changed or evolved? Are there new skills you have had to learn; old skills you’ve revisited? How have things changed for you personally?
To be honest, sadly I have had very little work in the lighting industry since March 2020. Fingers crossed this too shall pass. Even though there is this ‘new world’, positions are very few and far between with many individuals looking for work. In addition, the majority of ‘virtual events are being done in house by larger AV companies who already have the staff to accommodate.
What would you say to event industry professionals who may be currently out of work, either due to lack of demand for their specific role, or just lack of work in general, due to the pandemic?
Another tough question. This would certainly vary with each individual. There are some lucky professionals that have been able to carry on to some extent, mostly on the production side. While a percentage of people will have had no choice but to find other means of employment income and in doing so, may even find themselves in a position of starting a new or separate career. Others may not be so fortunate and have no choice but to hope for the best and believe that a slow transition back to ‘business as usual’ will eventually come. One of my biggest ‘peeves’ as of late is listening to people who say they know what the future holds and predict a time frame as to when some sense of normality will return though I’m a little sceptical regarding these statements. I’m not sure anyone really knows given the monthly, weekly and daily changes of our current global situation.
If I had anything to say to all of us in the event industry right now, it would be to KEEP BUSY! One’s mind and body does not care what it is, mentally, physically, whether it be with family or self improvement professionally or personally, stay active. I have experienced many extreme emotional ‘swings’ up AND down over the last 14 months as I’m sure many out there have.
Find something you love to do and do it! The mind works in your favour when it is fed positive stimulation.
Are you happy with the industry as it currently lives in the virtual world, or are you anxious to get back to live events? Or would you be happy to settle somewhere in the middle. Bonus points for make a timeline prediction.
Am I happy? Personally, no. The virtual event world as it stands today was created to compensate the industries inability to provide a product to clients (and the public) given the current pandemic. It has done its job to somewhat fill the void but this pandemic is the reason our industry has come to a standstill. Don’t get me wrong, I think what people are doing in virtual events is amazing and much of this newfound technology will undoubtably find its way into our industry when it gets back to normal. Now, that being said, I do believe that with the streamlining of virtual events, there will be a percentage of clients/companies that see virtual events as an answer to cost savings going forward even after our industry rebounds. Certainly not all events will become virtual, but I do think that in the coming years, the technology will get so polished that it will simply make sense financially for some shows to use this platform on a regular and ongoing basis.
We all now that it can’t replace the real live atmosphere of a large event so I don’t see the bigger shows taking a hit but to some extent there will be a diminished demand for the smaller events where cost saving will be the deciding factor. Let’s face it, this is not the only industry that has taken a hit due to the pandemic and as we saw after the last recession, I predict further budget cuts for events coming into play down the line.
Virtual events are here to stay.
What do you miss most about live events?
What I would do to work an 18-hour day right now! All those things we used to gripe about, I miss (ok, maybe not ‘everything’). I certainly miss the challenges as the majority of mine these days consist of simply keeping busy throughout the day.
First and foremost, I miss the people. The number of amazing colleagues and friends I have met and made over the last 25 years in the industry is overwhelming. I have been fortunate enough to work with some of the best in the business and in saying that, this is not based purely on their professional abilities but also their integrity and commitment to make our industry a fun and exciting place to be and make a living. Sure, I could go on about the travel, fancy hotels, the great post show dinners, nights at the blackjack tables, late night cocktails when you must be up in 4 hours to be back in position by 06:00 and yes, that’s some obvious points and certainly missed. But all in all, I miss the people, the challenges brought, the solutions administered and the feeling of satisfaction knowing you have brought your A-game and done your best to produce a quality product for the audience and for the team. It really is a great feeling wrapping up an event knowing the client is thrilled with what your team has spent endless and mostly unseen hours/days/weeks putting together.
Did I mention late night cocktails? ;)
My thanks to Robin for this informative and candid conversation.
Please watch this page for future entries in the Behind The Drape series, where I'll be checking in with more of our friends, and the unsung heroes of live events.
Marc Silver is the founder of Slidepusher Media, designer, producer, stage manager, speaker coach, and lobby bar scout.