Working in NYC

Article by Kristina Haupt

I’ve known Kristy since very early in her career. It’s been an honour and pleasure to have our relationship shift from being her boss to being her colleague. Kristy is an excellent stagehand: curious, adventurous, and smart. I was really excited for her when she told me about wanting to move to New York City (I had no idea that I was “the final linchpin”) and immediately knew that I wanted to hear all her great insights on the adventure so far. -Wu Chen

One night while hanging lights at the Jungle with Wu Chen I brought up that I was thinking of moving to NYC. He told me to go. He told me that Minnesota would always be here and I would always wonder if I didn’t go. In hindsight, that was the final lynchpin in the scariest decision of my life, to move to New York City. I first moved to NYC in February of 2014. I had just finished working on the Superbowl and decided to spend two months working in NYC. As my aunt was driving me to my subleased apartment in Brooklyn, an ad came on the radio. They were looking for people to shovel out fire hydrants for $12/hour. I laughed and said, well, if this whole theater thing doesn’t work out, I am from Minnesota, gosh darn it, and I know how to shovel. I had no work lined up, I was terrified and on that first night Richard Girtain, the former TD at the Guthrie and the current TD at Juilliard emailed me. One of his carpenters had called in sick and did I want to come into work? At Juilliard I met a guy who needed help for Fashion Week. During Fashion Week I met countless electricians that continue to hire me two years later and so on. Freelancing is much the same in NYC as in Minnesota. It is all about meeting people on the first gig that can hire you for the next gig. While there are a lot of similarities to working in NYC versus Minnesota, there are a lot of differences as well. The work expectations of what tools to bring, the terms they use and the hours you work are vastly different on the east coast. The venues you get to work in are incredible and often have historical significance. Then there is Broadway. Broadway is it’s own world and runs differently than any other job I have had, including regional Theater.

As a freelance electrician in NYC there are three types of work I do. I primarily work industrials. An industrial is any event that is not theater or tv/film. This includes fashion shows, bar mitzvahs, annual company meetings, etc. I also work for IATSE local 52 as an electrician for tv/film and thirdly for Broadway or off Broadway in theater. Each job requires a separate set of tools. Besides the basics of a C-wrench, gloves and a multi tool (which is what I bring to all calls in MN) on Broadway you have to bring dykes because they zip tie all their cables. On Industrials you have to bring your hard hat and your hi vis vest. On TV/Film shoots you have to bring a secret service type ear piece so that your radio doesn’t make sound while they are rolling. You also need clothespins to attach gel to the barndoors. I bring my C-wrench, but the fact that it is attached to a lanyard immediately marks me as a theater electrician and I rarely use it on set. Most of the lights are on stands and hand tightened down.

The terms for a lot of basic things are different, especially on tv/film sets. A female edison to male stage pin is called a FED, the opposite, a MED. Tie line is called trick line. Cable ramps are called cable crossers or yellow jackets. A standard stage pin cable is called a single. A martini is not only a drink, but the final shot of the day. In the beginning I sometimes felt like everyone was speaking a foreign language, despite having worked in the industry for ten years.

The biggest difference for me, though, in work expectations, is the Hours. In NYC, especially on industrials,we often have to work overnights. It is because of one of two things: Either there is a really tight turn around in a space for example during Fashion Week when we do both Tommy Hilfiger and Marc Jacobs in the same space, each 7 minute fashion show take four days of around the clock crews to get them loaded in and set up. More often though, it’s because we are setting up an event in a space that people use during the day. All of the work on the stages for the ball drop in Times Square, for example, gets done overnight because Times Square has a strict, hard stop at 6am. The hours are also very last minute. I frequently get calls the day before asking if I can come in tomorrow. Most of the time it’s a 12 hour minimum day, frequently longer. If you take the call they expect you to be available all day. This makes it hard to schedule things outside of work and often, if I have something that I can’t miss at 7pm, I have to turn down work for the whole day.

The spaces you get to work in are amazing. I have spent a night (well several nights) in the American Museum of Natural History. We were setting up an event for CNN in the whale room and I wandered as much as possible over my breaks. It was pretty amazing to see the exhibits without crowds...and also without all of the natural lighting (the dioramas are creepy!). When we work at the ballroom in the Waldorf Astoria the only elevator strong enough to hold all of our gear is the elevator that was built to hold FDR’s armored car. It originally went to his secret, private train station below the hotel, but that level has been shut down. When you work at the UN you are reminded as you go in that you are leaving US soil and entering a different jurisdiction. I have worked at 1 World Trade Center on the 64th floor and I got to look down on NYC for three days with a constant reminder in the back of your mind of the horrible tragedy of September 11th. We shot an episode of Shades of Blue in a genuine pay by the hour hotel. We kept assuming things were set dressing and they kept assuring us that is really just want the hotel looked like. It smelled worse than anything I have ever smelled and the producers were getting yelled at by prostitutes on the street who were mad we had shut the place down because they needed to make their living….I can’t make this stuff up.

Now let’s talk Broadway. Unlike in MN where the in house theater produces the theater, on Broadway the house just houses it and it is produced by a different company. Because of this every show rents their lighting gear. Each show is prepped at generally either PRG or Christie Lights for three weeks or so before load in. While prepping you label conventional units, address moving lights/accessories, create cable looms for each position and create a paper tape for each position that states where each light is supposed to be hung. Broadway theaters are old buildings. They have shockingly smaller backstage areas than most theaters in other parts of the country. They frequently don’t have an in house fly system, but can rent them, if needed, for a particular production. To get to the fly rail or the jump from the stage you have to go outside along fire escape like stairs that connect to a few other theaters. There are no loading docks at most of the Broadway houses. We load and unload trucks in the street in front of the theater and push cases through the house.

Each theater has a head of each department. They are the only people contracted to the house itself. They hire the over-hire technicians for both the load in/outs and the run of the show. The best way to get work on Broadway is to stop by the stage door and ask for the head of the department you want to work for and then you hand them your card. Next in the hierarchy, there are positions hired by the productions. The production electrician, for example, will lead (and hire) the shop prep, assist with the load in and then runs the show as the assistant to the head electrician. The best way to get a running position on a show is to start out as a swing. Most swings work for a couple different shows at the same time. Light board programming is a separate job than running the show itself. Good programmers bounce from tech to tech while the board operator comes in during previews.

Working as a stagehand in NYC has been an education in all aspects of the entertainment industry. While I eventually want to be back in Minnesota full time, I am so grateful to have the opportunity of working and living in New York. NYC and IATSE local 1 have a reputation of being mean and arrogant. I have been blown away by the kindness and willingness to help me find work and am always looking for ways to pay it forward. If you have ever wanted to work in NYC, for a week, two months or permanently I am happy to answer questions and help you get work. Remember, Minnesota will always be there.