There’s something about music under the stars that moves both artist and audience. Despite the cool air and the open spaces, it makes them closer, warmer, more intimate. It’s paradoxical, but when you try to pin down and apply reason to the feeling that flows from music, it squirms away. You soon learn to simply accept without question that the night air and the music blend to make magical moments.
For almost 20 years, the outdoor venue at Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center has seen countless such moments. If the walls of FLPAC (pronounced flea-pac) could talk, it would be with the serenity of a symphony hall and an orchestra performance, the worldliness of a smoky blues club, and the zeal of an arena and a sold-out rock concert – all with the ever-present enthusiasm and child-like joy of playing outdoors.
The Arts Center is nestled on the campus of Finger Lakes Community College just where the hills of Canandaigua begin to rise to form a natural amphitheater. The stage and a couple thousand seats are protected under the shell-like roof, but a hill behind can host additional multitudes of revelers and picnickers who sit on blankets under the sky and feast on the music that floats up the hill.
FLPAC has played host to the biggest names in the entertainment industry. Once, it even tried its hand at Broadway theatre. Jesus Christ Superstar rolled in for a one night stand and gave rise to one of the strangest scenes ever witnessed on the FLPAC stage. Ted Neeley, who played Jesus Christ for decades, brought the production to town as the owner of the company. At the end of the evening, as the last of the stage came down, Jesus made his way from one member of the road crew to another, distributing paychecks. It gave a whole new meaning to the passage Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s.
Chances are that you have never had the opportunity to witness these events that go on behind the scenes before or after the curtain goes up. Read on to experience a day in the life of the Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center…
Forget what you’ve heard about James Brown being the hardest-working man in show business, because that distinction belongs to each and every stagehand who works to bring music into the Finger Lakes Performing Arts Center. For many, their day that began at 6:30 with a drive from Rochester will end almost a day later when they finally reach their beds at 4:00 the next morning.
It’s a day of work, a ludicrously long day, but it has an air of holiday when compared to the days and nights spent in other year-round venues in Rochester. The charm of an outdoor stage is partly responsible, but not wholly. Other outdoor arts centers don’t share the same atmosphere. More correctly, it is a combination of the outdoors and the ambiance of the Finger Lakes that makes an event at FLPAC seem special.
The stagehands stagger in by ones and twos, report to the union steward and then head to the catering tent for a jolt of caffeine.
The doors to several buses that have been parked behind the FLPAC shell since the wee hours crack open and belch out a selection of beings that appear almost human. To an individual, they are clad exclusively in black. Blinking in the sun as if it were a foreign object, they head for catering.
A brief detour to discuss the roadie…the name derives from the fact that these traveling stagehands accompany performers on the road. For reasons unknown, the typical roadie is more disproportionately English than statistics and logic should allow. There are only about 12,000,000 Englishmen on the Earth and it seems that 75% of them are traveling with the hot new acts, the washed-up bands and the struggling unknowns. Those who don’t speak with an undistinguishable English accent do so with an equally undistinguishable Southern drawl…regardless of where they are from.
The bus doors open again and the members of the road crew who value sleep more than food join the living.
The doors to several tractor-trailers swing open to reveal the flotsam that will form the stage. Four members of the local crew are assigned to unload the trucks. They are much like the burly circus performers who make a living by catching a variety of cousins and aunts and uncles who are cast tumbling skyward through a Rube Goldberg series of levers and teeter boards. Through years of working together, they have mastered the choreography of flipping cases weighing several hundred pounds into neat stacks that fit in the truck with no room to spare. To do so while only occasionally losing a finger is part art and part brute force.
A typical show designed for the outdoor summer concert tour rolls into Finger Lakes with about four tractor-trailer loads of equipment. To add some perspective, a Broadway touring show travels with seven or more. Rumor has it that when the Rolling Stones toured the stadiums, including the Syracuse Carrier Dome, the caravan was over 60 trucks long. That’s a lot of flipping…and hopefully very few fingers.
Any sane person on the ground can only look up and shake their heads. Before almost anything else can happen, the riggers have to ascend to the heights of the shell and secure the chains that support the skeleton of the show…the lights, the sound system, the curtains and backdrops. Sometimes from the relative safety of a catwalk and other times while perched precariously on the rafters and beams, the riggers lower ropes and then raise the chains and motors that will be secured to the building.
The riggers are a different breed. Perhaps more than anyone else, they carry a heavy load for the safety of everyone working on the show. They are solely responsible for making certain that the massive equipment suspended overhead stays there. That level of responsibility and the daring to climb into ridiculous places makes for a very curious, and seemingly contradictory, combination.
With the contents of the trucks spilled out onto the stage and the motors hanging from the ceiling, the work of transforming the tons of equipment from a pile of rubble into a concert stage begins.
The public perception of rock and roll is that the roadies do the work of staging the show. In fact, the road crew supervises; the local crew does the work. In mumbled Cockney accents, the roadies give instruction on assembling the jigsaw puzzle of equipment, cables, electronics, and instruments. Slowly, the pieces fall into place. First, large lighting trusses are built and a river of cable is cradled in the truss to power the huge number of lights. In the hands of the right lighting designer, they can be used to dramatic effect. For many acts out on the road, proper lighting can make men old enough to be grandfathers look like they can at least remember their prime.
Carly Simon, notorious for her stage fright, travels with her share of lights but actually uses very few, preferring instead to sing in the anonymity of darkness. She plays illuminated by little more than a few candles. When a rare Simon tour came to FLPAC, the spotlight operators, with strict instructions to turn off their lights if she ventured near, enjoyed a rare night off.
The sound system follows the lights into the air. The goal is to get them up by lunch, but on FLPAC’s small stage, pieces must move to make room for others. With two steps forward and one step back, it can sometimes be like working on a Rubik’s Cube.
Lunch. Food. Fingers are once again at risk if you aren’t very careful.
One act’s stage and another’s can be worlds apart. Some are elaborate, others very spare. There is a running joke that says that the size of the stage is inversely proportional to the talent of the artist. The rock group Kiss has one of the largest stage setups while Billy Joel has been known to tour with little more than a piano and a stool.
With lights and speakers in the air, risers are assembled and placed at carefully measured intervals. Marley, the rubber-like sheets dancers use so they don’t slip, is laid on the stage. Even if they don’t dance much, many performers prefer to use marley. Rather than use the traditional black marley, John Mellencamp pranced around on sheets of caramel colored rubber that the Stage Manager insisted be polished with toothbrushes. The demands to get down on your hands and knees to scrub can almost sound civilized when spoken with an English accent. Almost.
After nine hours of work, the puzzle has been assembled into a show ready to greet a receptive audience. The local crew gathers at the union steward’s desk. Some will go on their way to return later in the evening to tear everything down. Others will form the working crew for the actual performance. They will man spotlights hanging from the ceiling of the stage for changing from one act to another.
With most of the crew eating dinner, sound check begins. On some occasions, the band will take the stage and give anyone lucky enough to be present a rare treat. It is a chance to see the artist performing songs you could never otherwise see, if you are allowed to stay. Always aware of their image, many artists insist on clearing the venue before they perform during a sound check.
More often, the road crew handles the duties. Tonight, the drum and guitar technicians bang away at their instruments as adjustments are made to sound levels and lighting focus.
The Lighting Director (LD) gathers the spotlight operators for a brief meeting and pep talk. He mumbles, and worse yet, he mumbles with an accent.
Stagehands, as a group, are generally quite liberal. They are all about the arts, music, and freedom of expression. But many hold some prejudices. Perhaps chief among them is mumbling LDs. Operating a spotlight can be a daunting task. Thirty feet in the air, you don a headset through which you listen to the LD calling spotlight numbers, light color, fade-in speed, and target. In theory, a simple concept. In reality, it’s a little like trying to pick out specific information from an auctioneer’s rantings. Mumbled under the roar of a rock and roll show, it can be almost impossible.
Five minutes before everyone is due to report to their positions, a mild panic sets in with the LD. Tonight, along with the permanent spotlight nests hanging from the FLPAC shell, there are several “truss spots,” so named because the lights and a seat for the operator dangle below the trusses above the stage. The stagehands who operate these lights are often exposed to the audience. (FYI for the women attending concerts…the reverse is also true. When dressing for the show, keep in mind that you are often exposed to the spotlight operators.)
The temporary panic arises when the LD realizes that an operator is wearing a white shirt. The road crew scrambles, opening cases and boxes in a frantic search. After a few minutes they find what they are looking for…heavy, slightly aromatic black coveralls. The lucky spot operator slips into the suit, and slowly climbs the ladder toward his perch, much like a jumpsuit-clad Elvis ascending to heaven.
A quick test of the intercom between the spot operators and the LD uncovers some problems. The sound crew scrambles to find the cause. The operators take the time to drink in the sea of people below.
From their roosts above the crowd, the spot operators have the best seat in the house. Rarely do they get to enjoy it. It is quite possible to sit through an entire show and actually see very little of it. Most of the time each operator is focused on only one performer as they frantically follow the instructions of the LD who is positioned at the lighting board in the audience.
Occasionally, it can get even more frantic. When the Irish rock band The Cranberries and their lead singer Dolores O’Riordan played FLPAC, one operator was charged with the task of keeping O’Riordan continually illuminated. Little did he know that the task was a lot like shining a flashlight on a cockroach. To accommodate this, the seat that hung from the lighting truss came equipped with bicycle pedals. Pedal forward and the seat swiveled to the right. Pedal backward and it swiveled to the left. At the conclusion of the evening, it would have been hard to tell who was more spent, O’Riordan or the spot operator who pedaled the equivalent of the Tour de’ France.
With the spotlight intercom problems solved, the show begins. On the LD’s cue, the house lights go down and the artist theoretically makes a quick trip up the stairs from the dressing area to the stage.
Today, like most others, the entire day goes by without more than a passing glimpse of the performers. Band members make their way to the catering tent at dinner, but for much of the time they remain cloistered in their dressing rooms. Young musicians, still enthusiastic with the newness of their fame, are more likely to take advantage of the vacation atmosphere of FLPAC. Natalie Merchant and 10,000 Maniacs anonymously wandered the hill as the stage was being set up. Early concert goers sat spread on their blankets unaware that one of the bands they came to see was kicking a hackysack in their midst.
Tonight, the opening act is fashionably late. The stage manager trudges down to retrieve them from their dressing room. Several minutes later they are up the stairs and on the stage to the cheers of a crowd that is still arriving.
The warm-up act exits to polite applause. In the audience, people scramble to get a drink before the act they really came to see takes the stage. On the stage and behind it, the deckhands scramble to remove the opener’s equipment and replace it with the headliner’s. Above the stage, a few spotlight operators scramble to leave their nests and run to the bathroom before intermission ends.
An old man sits playing with his grandson. At the Stage Manager’s word, he stands and limps on stage. Emerging in front of the audience, he is transformed and is young again. One of the true legends has taken the FLPAC stage.
After a couple of hours, he will teeter offstage again, take the hand of his young grandson and walk slowly, painfully onto a waiting tour bus. B.B. King’s legs might be failing, but he is still young enough to hold an audience in the palm of his hand.
As King plays, one of the spotlights malfunctions. The LD instructs one operator to leave the drummer and cover the saxophone player to compensate. While they troubleshoot the problem, the substitute spotlight operator focuses the glare of his undivided attention on his new target.
Sometimes, the single-minded focus on a performer pays off. An operator once had the enviable task of lighting country singer Lorrie Morgan for an entire performance. A pleasant, but generally uneventful job. But on the Finger Lakes stage, providence struck for the spot-op who had his gaze permanently affixed to the singer. At a quiet moment during a ballad, the meager strap that held her dress aloft quite unexpectedly broke. Some people may have been watching another band member at that point, or looking at their watch, or even blinking. But not the faithful spotlight operator. Vigilance has its rewards.
Curfew comes and goes. On clear, still evenings, the music dances along the water of Canandaigua Lake and climbs the hills behind the campus. While the FLPAC shell is tucked away on the College grounds, it’s within earshot of a number of residences. Because of that, shows are supposed to end by 11:00 pm. The Stage Manager passes through the groups of stagehands who are playing cards or talking backstage. One more song, he promises.
The final encore ends and the crew segregates into their work groups for the upcoming frenzy of activity. In the house, the crowd files out for the drive home. A few linger hoping to get backstage and are encouraged to move along by FLPAC security.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about life behind the scenes is that the artists hang around for a backstage cocktail party. Aside from the stagehands, no one is more anxious to get out of the building. The record holder in this arena might just be Kenny Rogers. He sings his last note, walks off the stage and onto a waiting bus. The band plays on, keeping the hope alive in the hearts of the audience that they may see him again. By the time the music ends, Rogers is well on his way, Thruway toll ticket in hand.
Before the crew can take the stage, the Stage Manager leads the artist through the backstage area. The crew, now approaching 16 hours on the job, generally could not care less. But tonight is different. As he passes, one by one the crew applauds the King.
There is an interesting dynamic between the talent and the crew. Like dogs and cats that have lived together for a while, they regard each other with genuine indifference. From the artist’s point of view, the crew is a parade of strange faces changing from night to night, city to city. Many artists insist that only familiar faces be in the wings when they come offstage. It is understandable, but it can lead to dissension with the local crew who view the real estate around the stage as their own. The Black Crowes cautioned stagehands not to look in their direction. As homely as they are, the crew was happy to oblige.
The work of tearing down the show begins. Feverishly. The main difference between the in and the out is the pace. As soon as the lights come up, the myopic pursuit of everyone in the building is to tear things down as quickly as possible to get home. Do it safely, do it well – but do it quick.
As a result of this monomania, equipment comes down at alarming speed. It is choreographed chaos and it is during this chaos that an accomplished, professional road crew can make all the difference. If they know what they are doing, they can tear down a huge show in an amazingly short time. At some of the bigger venues in Rochester, shows such as Reba McEntire or Van Halen, which have traveled with as many as 16 trucks, can leave the building in under four hours.
Throughout the night, loaders stack and flip to return each case to its original position in the truck. One by one, they fill up and leave the docks to be replaced by another.
With the deck clear of equipment, the lights and speakers are lowered toward the stage. Once everything is out of the air, it’s a moral victory for the crew.
The crew breaks apart the last of the lighting trusses and stacks the pieces for the trucks. The day that began with the riggers hanging chains ends with them lowering them to the stage.
The final case comes to rest atop a stack at the back of the fourth truck, and the last of the convoy that arrived almost 24 hours ago leaves the Finger Lakes campus in its rear view mirror.
The tired crew lines up at the steward’s desk to receive thanks and their T-shirt. Somewhere in the lost history of rock and roll, the tradition evolved of giving a T-shirt to each member of the local crew. The good ones state the artist’s name and the words Local Crew. The bad are not so understated. Most of those are used to wash the car. Over the years, the shirts make for an interesting timeline of a stagehand’s career.
The hands filter out and make their way to their cars. The steward turns out the lights, bringing to a close a very long but typical day in the life…
The doors to the stage swing shut, leaving the walls of FLPAC to start talking about another night of magic on its stage.
Why do roadies almost exclusively wear black? Let me count the reasons:
1. Attitude…That rock n’ roll, James Dean attitude. There’s a reason you always see Elvis on black velvet.
2. Dirt…It’s a dirty job and laundry on the road can be an infrequent luxury.
3. Stealth…Wearing black, you can sneak onto a dark stage without drawing undue attention.
4. Cost…The shirts are often free. Enough said.
5. Girth…Life on the road means a lot of junk food. Black can be an expanding belly’s best friend. That’s another reason you always see Elvis on black velvet.
by Duane Bombard, photographs by Linda Bombard
Duane and Linda Bombard live near Gorham, New York. They have two children, two sheep, two goats, two dogs and four cats