On The Road Again…

27 Jun

(This entry was originally started on Saturday, June 22, 2013). Greetings again from the back of the auditorium at the Majestic Theatre in downtown San Antonio, where apparently the end of the world is at hand because I’ve sold out of magnets. I’ve also already been told that the flashlight that I have to grip between my teeth as I attempt to count money and fold shirts in total darkness is distracting. Distracting to whom, I’d like to know? The only people who could possibly see it are the volunteer ushers – meaning they get to see the show for free in exchange for showing up and putting people in the wrong seats. Sorry folks, I have a job to do.

Speaking of jobs, I figured I would give you a little more of a behind-the-scenes look at tour life. So many people ask what it’s like, and so few people understand it, I thought it might be a good idea to write about it.

Mounting a show to go on tour is no easy task. The sets and lighting must be built and rigged to be strong enough to stand up to 8 shows a week and the rigors of traveling, but they must also be built to break down and fit into a semi truck. Our show started with 6 semis, I think, but to reduce costs, our producers found set pieces that could be cut from the show, which eliminated one of those semis. On those trucks are the set, lights, wigs, wardrobe, props, my merch booth and storage hamper, stage and company management office consoles, company trunks (one storage bin for each cast, crew and staff member – except me), the “deck,” or stage floor that is specific to our show that is laid down on top of the existing stage floor and a whole host of other things that I don’t know anything about.

Side note: Back in the day, when the original tours of Phantom of the Opera were still out, the show’s set was so large and complicated that they had two decks – one that would be used in whatever city the show was in and one that would travel ahead to the next city so it could be installed and ready when the rest of the set arrived for load-in.

On Monday, our 5 semis will roll into a new town and pull up to the theatre’s loading dock(s). I don’t know this for sure, but I imagine the trucks are numbered in a certain order so they know which one gets unloaded first, second, third, etc. Once the trucks are unloaded, I have no idea where they go. In Tempe, AZ, they were sent to a parking lot about 20 miles away, where they sat for the week, baking in the desert heat.

Once the trucks are unloaded, the crew starts actually putting everything in its place. In our company, as with most, we have a Head Carpenter, Head Props man, Wardrobe Supervisor, Head Audio man, Wig and Makeup Supervisor and Head Electrician. In addition to the department heads, we also have three carpenters, two electricians, one assistant sound person and one assistant wardrobe supervisor and our wonderful stage management crew of three that travel with us. In each city, we also have the local crew who fill out the tech crew. That means that all of the people who travel with us, in addition to loading in the show and making sure everything goes where it should, have to teach their locals what their jobs will be in the show. “You go here and move this,” “You stand here and hand her this,” “You go here and change so-and-so into this dress and these shoes,” “You follow her and put his wig on her,” “You follow so-and-so with your spotlight.” And they do all of this typically in less than 18 hours, just in time for the cast and band to arrive to start sound check on Tuesday afternoon. Our crew works incredibly hard.

While all of that is happening, the cast, the band, company management and I are traveling. Depending on what the company has voted on, some shows may have Mondays off and travel on Tuesday, arriving to the hotel only to turn around and go to the theatre to do sound check and the first show of the week. We did that for the first three weeks of this tour, and it was rough. So the cast voted to travel on Monday instead, allowing us to have the majority of Tuesday free to rest until it was time to go to work. So now we travel on our day off, which, to me, isn’t a day off at all. Depending on how far we’re traveling, we might fly or take a chartered motor coach to our next destination. Flying might sound like the easiest or most comfortable option, but I assure you – I look forward to bus days. When we fly, we have to leave the hotel at least two hours before our flight. We have to be sure that our suitcases are each less than 50 pounds. Depending on the airline, we may have to pay for our luggage, which is reimbursed to us, but…like I say about writing things off on your taxes – you have to have the money to pay for it up front before you can get money back. There have been weeks that I’ve spent $120 on luggage fees alone.

And then there’s security. Getting checked in and through security is always a challenge with this many people. Company members have the ability to opt out of the company flight if they choose to, which means the company will give them the amount of what their ticket would have cost. The company member must then book his or her own travel to the next city, making sure that he or she gets there in time to get to work. We generally have to commit to company travel three or four weeks before the actual travel date, so our company management is always thinking three, four or even five cities ahead.

Also, according to Actors’ Equity Association contractual rules, if we are housed more than a mile (it might be a mile and a half) from the performance venue, the company is required to provide transportation…usually in the form of a rental car which must be shared by four company members per car. Because I am not technically part of the company, my employer must secure a rental car and insurance for me in each of these cities. Even though our Company Manager is pretty great at getting me parking passes for discounted or, in some cases, free parking, I typically end up paying $8-$10 a day in parking. And then there’s the cost of gas… See how it all adds up very quickly? This is in addition to paying my salary, my per diem, buying my airline tickets, buying the shirts on which our merchandise is printed, the actual printing of those shirts, shipping that stuff to me every week (sometimes from coast to coast), paying the office and support staff back in New York… And then royalties and “cuts” have to be paid out to the producers and the venue, which usually takes between 15%-25% of our gross sales. Is it any wonder a sweatshirt costs $50?? This is not a cheap business to be in.

(I’m now writing to you from the lobby of the Music Hall in Fair Park in downtown Dallas, TX. It is Wednesday, June 26, 2013). Tuesdays for me generally involve coming into the theatre three hours before curtain (typically around 4:30pm) to unpack and set up. Merchandise for this show travels with a rolling booth, or “road case,” that is specifically built to stand up to months of traveling. I also have a road hamper, which is exactly what it sounds like – a big hamper with a wooden top that locks. That’s where I store all the mannequins and lights for my display, and I use it for storage of back stock (T-shirts, leg warmers, sweatshirts, etc.). Essentially, it’s my traveling stock room. I also have four steel grid panels back with steel diamond plate sheets. These four panels are tied together with plastic cable ties and they serve as a backdrop for my booth. Think back to your 7th grade science fair project display board, only bigger, shinier and much heavier.

Image

My booth setup in Dallas.

I set those up first. Once they’re in place and tied together, they stay where they are because they’re too heavy to move, so I always check in with the local venue’s facility manager to confirm where I’m supposed to be set up. Then I decorate the grids with hanging mannequins dressed in our merchandise, add the lights, roll the road case in front and voilà! I’m ready to work. Kind of.

At least once a week I receive a delivery of merchandise to the theatre. Depending on how many boxes, where they’re coming from, how they’re shipped or how desperate I am for stuff to sell, I might get three or four deliveries – all on different days. Every item in the boxes that are sent to me must be hand counted to confirm the inventory count. That means every magnet…every keychain…every poster (they come in boxes of 250-300 pieces) must be counted by hand. I like to bundle the magnets and keychains in fives to make the inventory count at the end of the week easier. I also learned a great technique for dividing the posters into groups of 20 back when I worked at Avenue Q (we had four different posters, so every week I was counting between 750-1,000 posters!). Anything to make inventory easier at the end of a long week.

During the week, I basically have my days free to explore each city or stay in my hotel room, if that’s what I want to do. I generally choose to go sightseeing. My road life is much easier by far than anyone else involved in this show. Understudies have rehearsal once a week. We have 9 new cast members learning the show here in Dallas, so they’re in rehearsal all week and watching the show or “shadowing” backstage at night. Stage management and our conductor are at all of those rehearsals, as well. Soon they will have a “put-in” for the new folks, meaning they get one full run of the show with the rest of the cast, costumes, sets, etc. before they start performing the show regularly. The crew is always busy doing something – repairing things, tweaking things, painting things, washing and repairing wardrobe, setting wigs… And things are still changing. This is a pre-Broadway tour, so even after being on the road for nearly 7 months, the entire cast is in rehearsal this week learning new dialogue, blocking, choreography, lyrics… I cannot imagine having to relearn entire chunks of the show after doing it for that long. Muscle memory is so much stronger than you would think – it takes incredible concentration to change things this late in the game.

Sunday, being the last performance day of the week, is inventory day for me. I have to go in and count every piece of merchandise that wasn’t sold to balance my numbers at the end of the week. I typically do this between shows on Sunday, although in San Antonio, I was so busy that I actually had to go back and do the inventory count during the evening show, which is never easy to do in the dark. Once those numbers are entered into the computer, I deal with money. I’m a bit anal retentive when it comes to cash – I like it to be “faced,” meaning all facing the same direction. I find it’s easier to count that way, and the bank typically likes it, too, when I go in for a deposit. Once the money is taken care of, I have to pack up and have my stuff ready to go by the time our Props Master sends crew guys out to roll my booth, hamper and panels away and put them on the truck. Monday morning, if I’m able, I find a bank, deposit the money, get change if I need it, and then drop off all my paperwork at a FedEx dropbox to go back to the office in New York all before traveling to the next city.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

Dallas is the 20th city on our tour. That means I have been through this process 20 times. The first time I had to my end-of-week paperwork and strike my booth in Pittsburgh, it took me roughly an hour and 20 minutes. I have it down to 45 minutes now. Load-in takes half an hour. I can count in a delivery of 7 boxes in half an hour. I found out in San Antonio that I can fold 84 shirts in a little over an hour. Some days I feel like Mary Poppins cleaning up the Banks kids’ nursery – sometimes it’s just easy peasy. Other days it seems nothing is going right. I guess that’s true of any job, though.

Anyway…that’s a look at how a show travels and, specifically, how my job works. Hope you found it to be somewhat interesting. They’ve just done the water drop. That’s my cue.

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2 Responses to “On The Road Again…”

  1. Nina Anderson June 27, 2013 at 4:46 pm #

    Interesting…so much more to your job than I dreamed!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. FAQ | Confessions of a Merch Whore - January 16, 2014

    […] or at least from my perspective behind the merchandise booth. In a post from June 27 called “On The Road Again,” I tried to explain the logistics of traveling and loading the show in and out of the theatres. […]

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