Sunday, October 4, 2009

Hell Week (and everything you've ever wanted to know about Michael's job)

In sports, Hell Week is generally the week at the beginning of the training season where sunrise to sunset (or longer) is spent doing nothing other than engaging in that sport. My little brother started playing football his freshman year of high school, and at the end of Hell Week all traces of middle school boyish pudginess were wiped out, revealing a toned, muscular, and grunting young man. I've mentioned before that we are just not into sports, but the idea of Hell Week can certainly be applied to the world of the theater during the load in or strike of a show. Load in is when the crew loads the set into the theater, and striking the set is when it's all torn out (generally a much faster process).
When we lived in the San Francisco Bay area, Michael was the technical director for a good sized theater company, producing about five or six shows per year. During the week of load in and tech (when the lights are hung and focused, and all things technical are ironed out) he generally lived at the theater. During the nearly two years we lived there, Nathan was a toddler and then Benjamin was born. I was no fool - during Hell Week I took off with the kids at stayed at my parents' house where the pressure of dealing with small children 24/7, sans husband, was relieved by doting grandparents more than willing to play with the wee ones so I could get a much needed nap and a full eight hours of sleep at night (a luxury beyond comprehension to parents of little ones).
The time we lived in Japan and Hong Kong was a bit different. He didn't have a new show to load in every two months, he had an entire theater to build and then one major show to load in that would run for five years.
The title of technical director can mean a few different things. When a theater is being built, the technical director's role is generally to interface with designers and architects to make sure that the structure itself will have all the things necessary to fit it out for a show, like the right number of electrical outlets at the right power level, large enough ramps leading to the stage door for big trucks, and appropriate HVAC considerations. This is Michael's favorite thing to do. He is quite good at it and has been called in for many projects all over the world to give his input in this way (yes, I'm biased, but really, he is good at it). Unfortunately, there isn't a huge demand for more theaters to be built, especially in America. Which is why he has worked on projects in Japan, Hong Kong, Macau, and China, where suitable theaters appropriate for modern stage spectacles just don't exist in abundance.
When there is already a structure in place, such as the Pantages Theatre in Hollywood, there may be a technical director who works directly for the theater. That person would interface with the touring companies who travel all around the country. The tech director would make sure that what the touring company plans to use will work with what the theater has, and make sure that things go smoothly on the technical side of things. Michael hasn't really done too much of this.
The third thing a technical director may do is to work directly for a theater company (which is different than a theater itself) and interface between the director, designers, and the theater where a show will be mounted. The show director may say they want a character to be lifted into the air on a giant tire (Think Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats). The designer may draw up a lovely barn-sized tire that looks like it is free-floating, no visible wires or other apparatus to show it's flying by any means other than magic. The technical director would then create CAD drawings to show how to build the tire, hire a scene shop (or use the theater company's if they have one) to build the tire, and figure out how to get that tire to life up into the air in a very safe, yet magical manner. This has been a majority of Michael's experience (although he's never worked on Cats), and similar to the type of work he's currently doing. This is the reason we have moved so often during our 13+ years of marriage - we go wherever the work is!
What he's doing right now is managing just one element of an enormous production. The production itself has its own technical director who is managing all the hundreds of other elements going into the production. In the past, he has worked directly for this particular company and been the technical director for similar productions. However, about eighteen months ago we started our own company which allows people to hire the company rather than Michael directly. This benefits us in many ways.
First of all, there have been many jobs Michael has had to turn down because the job was only for three months. A three month gig is great if you're single or married with a working spouse who has their own health insurance. But in our case, we're a whole family, and I'm a full time mom who does some freelance copywriting. Our youngest son has congenital heart disease and a kidney defect. He's doing fine, but it's not the type of thing we'd ever risk taking a job that wouldn't provide health insurance, even if the job was the chance of a lifetime. But having our own company means we get our own group health insurance, and Michael can take as many three or six month, or even one week jobs he wants. This is also very attractive to many theatrical companies, as paying a contractor is a better deal for them (no overhead, they don't have to keep a staff, they can hire only as needed). It's a win-win situation. It's also helpful in making sure Michael is reasonably compensated for the frequently crazy-long hours he works. He's always worked on salary. This is nice when things are kinda slow and he's only doing 40 hours a week. But when things kick into high gear and there is a firm opening date with four months worth of work to get done in only two months and he ends up working for twelve or more hours a day, seven days a week for two months straight (which means Hell Week stretches into Hell Month)... well, being on salary isn't that attractive. Especially when you calculate the equivalent hourly pay if you take the full salary and divide it into actual hours worked. Now we can bill based on a set number of hours, and if additional hours are called for, we can bill for them.

Now that I've gone and answered just about every question you could ask about Michael's job (without disclosing some of the names of the companies and productions), let me just tell you that this week has actually been Hell Week. The kids aren't toddlers anymore and they are in school, so no more slipping off to the Grandparents when Mike is MIA, lost in the loading in. But I can always fit in a quick nap during the day now!
Twice this week Michael has worked over 32 straight hours as they've been putting the final touches on their show element and then actually going over and installing it and testing it in the field. He is a very hands-on manager. If he's got a crew out there working, then he's out there alongside them. After his first 32 hour marathon of work, he drove himself home, talking to me on the phone the whole way (I was half listening/half praying that he wouldn't nod off). This afternoon he was wrapping up a second crazy-long shift and when I calculated that he'd been awake for over 36 hours, I roped his sister Holly into driving out with me to bring Michael and his car home, without him actually having to get behind the wheel. I barely made it onto the freeway before he was passed out, sawing logs, in the fully reclined passenger seat.

It's a tough life, but it's a good life. Wait, no. It's a really tough life, but it's a great life! And we are so incredibly lucky and blessed to be living it. It's uncommon for people to have a dream at 15 or 16, and then go on to live that dream, to make a fine living doing it. We've had the most incredible adventures in places all over the world. We've met fascinating people and made fast friends everywhere we've been. We don't own a home, and our house is furnished with semi-disposable Swedish furniture from IKEA. But there is no house in the world that I would trade for the amazing life we've had as a result of working in show business. And we're young yet, plenty of time to get saddled with a mortgage, a dog, and a picket fence...

I know this is more of a novel than a blog post, but no one is ever satisfied with my normal quick description of what Michael does for a living. Now I've got somewhere to point them that explains it in finer detail. Whew! Now I must sneak in and slip into bed without waking Michael. Not that there's a chance of that actually happening. The house could be burning down and mariachi band could be playing in the bedroom and I bet the poor guy would still be sound asleep!

1 comment:

Traci said...

And just think if you didn't have a crazy life we would have never met! :)
Austin has a newish awesome theatre just sayin' !