The photo above is a view of the stage of Jackie Gleason Theater in Miami Beach from the spotlight booth. I’m estimating I spent several hundreds of hours looking through that glass.
From roughly 1980, starting as a bodyguard on the Miami based movie, “Absence of Malice”, until 2010 I was employed in the entertainment field. That included some film, major TV, [Miami Vice], philharmonic, concerts, Broadway shows, corporate conventions, industrial shows, ballet, modern dance, award shows and a full spectrum of Latin entertainment. This job is supervised by a union and you could be largely unemployed in the summer months or work over 100 hours in a week during the season.
The rules when I began were much, much, looser and to a degree, it was like entering a prison environment with hostile people, fights and open substance abuse. It was just part of the culture. Not for the faint of heart or weak of back. Such morbid conditions and high pressure, complex work forced certain principles. Millions of dollars are often on the line and live performance is immensely stressful. You will soon get over your own ego when you fail on camera with a live audience of one billion.
Following are some observation rules or principles. I’m NOT saying they are right. Simply my observation of what went on for 30 years and how simple decision making tools worked out.
1. You Are Either On Time or You Suck – In thirty years of being on time, I can count on one hand the times I was even a minute or two late. The same with the most talented, highest paid guys. If you were on time, you were good. If you were late, you sucked. We can realize from some of my earlier writings and social media comments that being late = arrogance.
2. If You Have Substance Abuse Issues, You Had To Be Extremely Talented – Even in the talent side of show business this is true. Think of Robert Downey Jr for example. Humans are more forgiving of substance abuse if you are capable of sobering up and providing a high level of skill that contributes to a positive outcome.
3. You Can Tolerate Immense Amount of Physical Abuse – Hard work is a filter. Some will last, some won’t. The ability to endure in a hopeless situation and continue moving forward is a quality known as gameness. I’ve seen guys return after abdominal surgery, vasectomy, heart stints, pneumonia, broken bones, herniated disks, seizures, strokes, heart attacks and cancer to work long before the doctor’s OK. Bad decision? YES. But you have to eat and pay your bills. I worked with untreated pneumonia for two months. You just learn to shake that stuff off.
4. A View of the Big Picture Is Important – They dynamic of building a show are constantly changing. The end result is what is important. This ability to adjust your behavior and actions at the drop of the dime is not unique to the theater world but it is certainly applied daily.
5. Production Meetings Are a Waste of Time – Any meeting by production is simply a matter of social interaction, drinking latte’s and checking social media status. The crews know what they have to do, how to do it, how soon it must be done. Stopping them for meetings simply stops work. Fundamentally, let professionals do their job.
6. Rewarding Bad Behavior is the Deadliest Behavior – Rewarding bad behavior perpetuates bad. A crew member who was late or incompetent back in the 70’s and 80’s [earlier too] was often, ‘covered’. His behavior was masked by fellow workers or “union brothers” so as not to diminish the total picture. Hide your rotten apples so to speak. This creates monster on crews and in society. It will create a monster out of a child or pet.
7. Chaos Creates Money – The more disorganized the production, the more money you make. The more production assistants they use on a film or TV show, the more money you will make. When they are incompetent, you make more money.
8. Knowing What You Want Is Extremely Powerful – Frequently an emotional and personally disorganized lighting director when asked, “Is that good?” [checking to see if the adjustments to lighting are satisfactory], they will reply, “I’m not getting what I want!!” Our reply was, “How are we supposed to know what you want if YOU don’t know what you want?”
9. Assuming is Deadly – I’ve had massive Broadway shows role into the Jackie Gleason Theater and they were constructed so smoothly we were planning dinner and beverages at 2 pm. The stage crew were already telling each other the same stories for the third time. Then I’ve been left to manage a, “Little Cuban Show”, which is shorthand for, “the kiss of death”. Complexity is more about incompetence and communication than apparent size.
10. Having a Sense of Humor is Lifesaving – Being able to laugh when you work is survival. I’ve worked three consecutive 100 hour weeks before. That isn’t even close to the record. If you can’t laugh, tell jokes and stories,.. I think survival would be tough. Realize the show always goes on and managing stress with humor is healthy.
Below is an example of what a large show looks like. This was the MTV Latin Video Awards. The closing act was Iggy Pop. I was running the spotlight on Iggy. [there EIGHT spotlights for that show]. At that point I had about 75 hours of labor in that week and averaged 5 hours sleep, with a one hour commute each way. It would take another 20 or more hours to disassemble the show and then restore the Jackie Gleason Theater to normal, working order.