The value of maintenance

08.26.10 | 5 Comments

CATEGORIES technical work

Earlier this month, I spent three days indulging in an activity which is a rare luxury for a technician who works in small theatres: a complete cleaning and inspection of our lighting inventory.  We went top to bottom–every single lens barrel was taken apart, every lens cleaned, every reflector checked, every bolt tightened, every C-clamp lubricated.  We tested our cables, used an air compressor and blower gun to clear the grid of dust, and then re-hung and focused our rep plot.  Next up: painting the stage.

It’s a rare luxury because of the one thing that particular theatre has that most small companies don’t: the budget allowance for three skilled technicians to devote three days to cleaning and maintenance.  It’s a beautiful space, too–the kind of space where a theatre artist who works out of storefronts and basements could easily look around and think, “Well sure, that’s alright for them, but we don’t even have gear that’s worth maintaining!”

That’s where I’ve got to speak up.  As a freelance designer and technician, I’ve fought my way through piles of broken, rusty lighting instruments and battled consoles that required a punch in the DMX socket while holding your mouth just so before they would remember a cue.  I’ve run lights for shows while mice ran over my feet.  I’ve jury-rigged shutters and screwed instruments into the ceiling where there was no pipe any number of times–in fact, I expect to do it again later today.  If you’re reading 2AMt, you’ve probably done that kind of thing, too.  I’ve run into those situations even in theatres with nationally-recognized names.  I know it gets exhausting: the tiny storage closet where everything’s jumbled and you can’t find the hardware you need even though you know it’s in there; the ill-lit backstage corners you’re afraid to look into because you just know it’s gross.  You learn to ignore it.  That’s small-theatre life.  We can’t snap our fingers and have our ceilings rise 10 feet and pipes magically appear where we want them.  We may fill out grant applications all year and there’s no guarantee we’ll be able to trade our PAR38s for even one SourceFour.  But we don’t have to resign ourselves to crap equipment and gross spaces, either.

No, most small companies can’t afford to pay their technicians a respectable hourly rate to take apart, clean, and organize their gear.  But find some way to do it.  Can you offer a similar stipend to the one you give for a technician working a show?  Can you come up with some kind of perks to trade for their time?  You may find that you’ve got techs who will happily do it for nothing if you’ll only provide them the supplies they’ll need.

Why put in that kind of effort and money?  Because you can’t afford to buy a new lighting instrument when a stitch in time could have saved your old one.  Because of the time that can be saved troubleshooting a problem during tech because you know it isn’t a bad cable–because you know all of your cables work.  Because you’ve got pride, even though you’re small, and you want to show it to your audience.  Because you want potential donors to know that what they give will be cared for.  Because good technicians are worth their weight in gold, and you want to show them that you value what they do by making it easier for them to do it.  Because you want those technicians to be personally invested in your space and your equipment and your shows.

Cultivate pride in your space and equipment, humble though it may be.  It’s an investment that will pay off in more ways than just the peace of mind of knowing your lights will turn on when you need them.

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Jax Steager

Jax is a freelance live-performance lighting designer based in San Francisco, as well as co-founder and technical director of Gryphon Venues, an Edinburgh Festival Fringe venue.

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  • Good stuff! It reminds me of the countless times back in summerstock when I changed fresnel lamp bases after the pitted old contacts kept arc welding to the lamps.

  • Brett Metzger

    It is hard to plan for future when you are just trying to make it through the day. I have worked in both worlds and the luxury we have in our current situation to do this work is very nice. As the one who essentially “paid” for this to happen it was mostly facilitated by the having regular employees who work in a diversified environment (they serve multiple roles within a larger organization.) Other places, interns if you can get them or other less skilled individuals are great for this kind of work. You can add them to a regular call. It is great training.

  • It’s good to see some 2amt posts about technical production. Jax has a great point about maintenance, and I would just like to emphasize one of the last points of the article: maintaining equipment will prolong its life and save money in the long run. Technical staff should encourage maintenance budgets as part of the operating costs of the theatre, even if it means reducing a budget line somewhere else.

  • Penny saved is definitely a penny earned. Well done, Jax! Gonna suggest this post to a few friends…

  • Anonymous

    I especially like this, Jax: “Because you’ve got pride, even though you’re small.” Don’t know how many absolutely filthy theatres – replete with equipment AND soft goods held together with gaff tape – I have worked in, and thought, “Don’t we care about this part, too?”