Today was one of those days when everything I touched turned to shit. There was really no indication that it would go that way from the very beginning: I was lulled into a sense of normalcy... The uprig was a kludge, but I expected that. The Sun Dome here on the campus of the University of South Florida is a pleasant enough room for a show...once you get the gear into the building. Getting it to that point can be a honest to god drag.
This is an air dome. The roof is held in place by the high pressure of the air inside the building. It is like a giant balloon. It's sort of neat, from an engineering standpoint. There are several of these across the country. Syracuse University has one. Perhaps the most well known is the Metrodome in Minneapolis, home of the Minnesota Twins.
One thing that makes them a bit difficult to do a show in is the fact that all the entrances involve double door air locks. This arrangement prevents the dome from collapsing, but we have to move the gear twice in, and twice out.
The stage and rigging grid that they move into this room for a show are really cramped. This goofs the rhythm of our in. We can't store cases on the deck stage, and the only effective way to get them up and down is with a forklift. This means a lot of dancing in each others' way. At the top of the day, the deck is jammed with rigging cases trying to make their move off the deck while trusses are trying to get placed and assembled on the deck. The audio guys are in everybody's way, or, everybody is in their way.
The entire in is really slow.
The drag started for me, in earnest, at about 2:00 pm. I took my computer and a glass of milk out to the house in order to sit down and touch up my focus. This is a 2-4 hour routine that I have to go through every day. The angles of the show change in every venue. In the very same way that the conventional rig has to be focused, I have to sit down and let the I-Beam computer know what is different in its coordinates for every shot.
I sat down and looked at the stage. It was then that I realized that 1/3 of my lamps (the Four on the Floor), had no AC or control data lines. This was because our rhythm had been blown. Duck and Rob normally set the side booms (a total of 36 lamps, with all necessary cabling). They do this so that I can get off the deck and begin my programming. The cabling for the side booms supply my I-Beams with AC and control. Today, however, they got hung up in hanging extra drapes and rigging. This was because of the nature of the room, which is not a proscenium black-box of the sort that this show is designed to play in.
(sigh...) There is a totality of confusion in this rotten day.
It took me an hour to set up all of the floor stuff.
I got back out to the front of house and discovered, on firing up, that No. 3 (upstage rail of the mid truss) wouldn't fire. A twenty minute diagnostics drill revealed a dead I-Beam. Didn't know what the problem was, and didn't care: we knew it was local to the instrument. Fine.
I climbed up, hauled up a rope, downrigged the damned thing (62 lbs.), uprigged a spare, and optimized the lamp output through the lens train (groovy little UV radiation burn on my left hand) while hanging off the truss by my right leg, upside down, in order to reach under the instrument and deal with the bulb platform controls. I climbed down, in a moderately foul mood, but still trying to laugh.
Okay, fine then. 3:30 pm.
Back out to the mix.
No. 12 went to sleep (downstage left floor). "Arrgh!"
New bulb (a special enclosed arc type - $250 a whack). Fifteen minutes to swap it out.
Lit a cigarette at my console at 3:48.
No. 7 goofed. ("God DAMN it!!")
A quick scan from the top of the stairs on the set showed no AC indicator at the instrument. This mystified and irritated the shit out of me: the lamp had been working for more than an hour, and had suddenly quit.
The lamp got its power from a circuit in the 16 channel multi-core cable (single connection) which fed the truss section it hung from. With commendable foresight in design many years ago, R. A. Roth set up his trusses with built-in spare circuits in order to deliver power to extra little things (like I-Beams). Further, the trusses are set up with small neon lamps which indicate AC presence in the truss. These lamps are visible only from directly under the truss. They cut several steps from the diagnostics process: you can look at the truss and determine whether power is making its way up the multi-core cable.
I looked, and saw a good AC indicator on the truss.
This was bad news.
It meant to me that the goof was in the I-beam. Up the ladder again, this time with a spare lamp hanging out of my teeth by the flap on its cardboard packing box: I wanted to be ready for anything. Yeah, sure...
I got to the lamp and situated myself as comfortably as possible: sitting on top of an aluminum cage tangled with about five different species of wire, 22 feet above the stage. The I-Beam hung on a pipe standing 2 feet off the truss. As I reached out to it in order to cycle the power switch, I inadvertently brushed against its power cable, and promptly heard the lamp begin its boot process.
"What the bloody hell?"
I grabbed the cable and wiggled it. The lamp tried to wake up 4 or 5 times as AC surged into the firing card in intermittent bursts. I had found a short in the AC cable connecting the lamp to the truss. With the screwdriver on my Swiss Army knife, I disassembled the connector and found a terrible piece of fabrication inside. The terminals that connect the three conductors of the cable to the stage-pin connector had been poorly crimped. The neutral and ground lines had fallen out of them and were simply floating around inside the connector body. When I wiggled the connector, the neutral line would occasionally come in contact with its connecting pin and pass voltage through the lamp and down the ground line.
Beautiful. Somebody back at the shop had built that connector for us. At the moment, I might have strangled the responsible person with that 3 foot chunk of wire, which was now useless and really wrecking my day.
I had had enough of climbing that bleedin' thing. Of course, I would have climbed it again if necessary. It's my job. There is no way that I could run my end of this show while one of my little robots couldn't play. That would burn the whole groove completely beyond recognition.
It was past 5:30 when I got back out to the front of house. The doors were scheduled to open at 6:30. I had at least two hours of programming to do.
I began to look at the Beams. I couldn't see them.
The roof of this dome is translucent. It was virtually daylight in here. I couldn't see the beam of light as it fell on the stage. Worse yet, the stage was exactly as tall as I was while standing on the mix riser in the house. This meant that I couldn't even see the pools of light on the stage floor. An experienced eye can tell if a light is pointed in the right place by examining the placement of the pool on the floor, in combination with the angle of the shot. I couldn't see the first half of this equation.
In desperation, I decided to move my controller up onto the stage. At least I'd be able to see the dots on the deck, if I couldn't see the graphic of each look. I grabbed a stage-hand and we moved the controller to a position on the stage-right wing, off the stage. I could see from there.
The I-Beams have a thermal sensor which won't allow the bulb to fire, after it has burned up to a certain temperature, until its internal chemical metabolism has been stabilized by cooling. However, you can cheat the sensor if the control connection is interrupted only very briefly. It took us almost 5 minutes to get the controller up onto the stage wing. I had almost no hope that lamps would fire after that length of time. They normally have to cool for up to 20 minutes. I didn't have that much time. I plugged up the data line and went for it. I was greeted by 10 of my twelve kids.
"Damn! That was close." There is a homing routine that you can run at them which is the I-Beam equivalent of a computer's warm-start. I ran it, and got one of them up. However, about half of them began to blink their shutters in and out at odd rhythms, and they did not respond to shutter control.
By now, the stage was jammed with the Divas, the dancers, the choreographer, the band, the two security guys, technicians and stage hands...all oblivious to the fact that I wasn't getting anything done with them in the way. The prospect of my getting a decent focus for each of more than 200 pages of memory was (in the words of General Buck Turgidson) "rapidly being reduced to a very low order of probability."
Especially since my lamps were blinking.
I thought about it and decided that this was due to the thermal sensors saying, "It's too hot in here! Shut me off and cool me down!!" I didn't think I was getting proper ignition of the xenon arc in the bulbs. The thing that made me believe this was the fact that there was no control over the shutters.
It was about 5:45. I decided to shut down for 15 minutes and let them cool. I hated it, but thought it best to take the time and salvage what I could of the show after I got every lamp up.
I took a trip to catering for a wistful glance at dinner, escaping with a bowl of wild rice and a glass of orange juice. I went back out to the stage and watched the sound check eat into opening act setup time...glancing at my watch all the while. After all, I was waiting for my own pot to boil.
At 6:00 pm, straight up, I switched on. All the lamps came up...and blinked.
I was dragged out dead, foggy in the brain, and under the gun. I could feel the ugly wrinkled edges of panic closing in on me. One important aspect of this business is the element of time. Often, time is our worst enemy. There is no problem which can occur on a stage that cannot be solved with a sufficient infusion of money and/or manpower. There is no way around time. When it's up, it's simply up.
I watched the I-Beams.
There was no pattern in their blinks, a random sequence, with random timing. The thing that got my attention was that there was full lamp output from each one, not the dimmish purple hue of a cold start after each blink.
"Wait a minute..."
The controller was in the first cue of the show. The second cue is exactly the same, with four lamps deleted. I switched to #2. Two of the four went black immediately, as advertised. One waited a half-second before bumping out. The fourth waited a full two seconds.
"Holy shit! These things are getting bad data!"
When we moved the controller up to the stage, we had to bypass the control line which runs from the dimmer racks to the house mix riser. I'd substituted a short jumper cable to run the 25 feet from my onstage position to the dimmer racks, where the I-Beam data distributor is located. That cable had to be bad.
I called Duck and apprised him of the problem. He knew what I was thinking immediately, "I'm with ya."
He took the rack end of a new cable, and I took the controller end. We needed to switch the bad cable out as fast as possible in order to fool the thermal sensors.
Duck wanted to be sure of the move: "Now, are we going on 'Three', or are we going on...'One, Two, Three, Go'?"
"On Three," I told him.
The tour security guy (who is of LAPD) looked on with blank curiosity. He didn't have a clue what was up, but the action interested him.
"One, Two, Three!"
All 12 lamps woke right up, steady as can be.
I touched up the most focus-critical stuff in the show in about 20 minutes. Popcorn wanted to close the curtain in front of the stage, and I had to let him: he'd been very patient, but now his time was running out, too.
I hated to shut down and move back out to the house, with nothing more I could do. I knew that I was going to see a whole new show tonight, with not much of it bearing any relation to what we'd worked up in L.A.
However, it was what it was, and there was no sense in bemoaning it. The job now was to bang through it, tear it down, and carry on to the next one (Radio City Music Hall, New York).
It is in times like these that the words of a wise and experienced stage manager from the days of me youth serve me well:
"Sometimes, in this business, you get away with what you can get away with."
Ain't it the truth...
September 13, 1992
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