Behind the Well-Oiled Fringe Machine

Article by Liz Neerland

Liz Neerland and I first met at Fringe in 2001, and I think we’d both say that the festival and ourselves as people have come a long way together since running feeder cable from the belfry of St. Mark’s to the room with the skylight. Besides being the Technical Director for the largest unjuried performing arts festival in North America, she’s also the co-Artistic Director for the well-known Nimbus Theatre. Liz has done almost every job there is to do in the performing arts, and little escapes her sharp mind. -Wu Chen

I recently finished interviewing for Venue Technician positions for this year's Fringe Festival. This is what I say: “There are 15 venues. Each venue has 11 shows. Each show gets five performances. You are in charge of all of it.” It's a daunting task that, even after 16 years, continues to amaze me.

My first Fringe was in 2000. That year, I was the assistant box office manager. Our office was in a tiny room above the old Acadia Cafe, on Franklin and Nicollet. The cafe was also a venue with thin walls, so we had to be very quiet while counting tickets if a performance was going on downstairs. The next year I became a venue technician. Since then, I've missed two years – once when I was in the hospital with a broken ankle (which is a Fringe Festival story in itself, for another time) and once when I had a day job that wouldn't give me the time off for the festival. Three years ago, when Jeff Larson became Executive Director, I stepped into his role as Technical Director. It's the best job in the world.

The Fringe is an incredibly complicated beast. I'm sure no one thinks it's simple, but the amount of detail that goes into making those 11 days in August run smoothly is astonishing. It takes a year-round effort from an amazing group of dedicated people.

My job is to coordinate the technical theater side of things – the lights and sound and video, but also the facility maintenance and operation. Each of our venues is a fully-functional theater. We don't use cafes, bars, or storefronts like some other festivals do.

While I handle small details all year, my department really starts rolling in April. That's when the venues have all been secured and I can start planning. I need to know everything I can about each location – what the stage and seating layout will be, where the dressing rooms are and how the backstage is laid out, storage space and load-in locations, flow for the audience in the lobby and how that works or conflicts with access for the performers, light plots and sound rigs and equipment inventories.

I start hiring in May. This year I have a staff of 27 – a couple of venues have one technician, most have two. There are four rookies this year. Everyone else is back for their second or fifth or 14th year. Our technicians are all professionals who spend the rest of the year as lighting and sound designers, board operators, and stage managers. These techs aren't your stereotypical stagehand hiding in the wings in their black shirts. They need to possess a detailed and varied set of skills. They are responsible for designing the lights, programming the sound, and running the cues for each show in their venue. But they are also the train conductors for the whole festival – it is the technicians who keep festival time, who call places to the actors and tell the house manager to close the doors because the show is starting. And the shows start on time, without fail, across the city, over 800 times, with clockwork precision. The technicians manage the between-show schedule, too - making sure one group gets out in time so the next can come in; making sure the dressing rooms are clean and the stage is swept and the venue is kept in tip-top shape.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. We're still a couple of months before the festival. June is when the tech questionnaires are due – each show in the festival fills out a form that outlines what the technical elements of the show are. We ask about lighting and sound cues, special effects and messes, musicians and projectors and anything else that may be relevant. I read through every form and contact any producer that I have further questions for. We do have some festival regulations to follow – most are about either safety (no rigging!) or the reasonableness of what can be achieved with a 10-minute load in (no multi-channel wireless microphone systems!).

July is when things really heat up for me. I get back in touch with all of the venues to see if anything has changed, and a few technicians help me draw up light plots for each space. I coordinate with vendors and rental houses to line up equipment lists – some venues are ready to go from day one, but a few need supplemental gear brought in to suit our needs. I start to work on the supply bins for the venues. Each location gets a bin with everything they may need during tech week and the festival – technical paperwork, mic cables and light gels, pens and paper and six kinds of tape (Gaff, spike, glow, electrical, clear marley, and board.) I collect keys and check loading docks and put it all into a giant van that I drive around during load in.

Ah, load in. We try to get access to the more complicated venues a few days early to get ahead of the game, but really my crew hits the ground running the Saturday before the festival begins. Occasionally when a producer has a venue question for me, the answer honestly is “I don't know.” This is because we don't actually get into the venues until the day before tech rehearsals start, and no matter how much you plan, sometimes you just aren't sure until you're in the space.

All 27 technicians hit the ground running that Saturday morning. Everyone goes to their own venue first. The simple ones are done quickly, so they get sent somewhere else to help. By the afternoon the whole crew will be assembled at one or two locations, pitching in to get everything ready for the next day.

Tech week starts Sunday morning, and this is when my job switches gear. Up to now, my push has been to get everything that my staff needs ready to go. Once they start rehearsals they are in charge, and I'm there to support them as necessary. This is when the Whiplash Stage begins.  I call it that because I will have long periods of downtime followed by intense bursts of activity. When things happen, they all happen at once, and there's a very short window to fix it in. Each tech rehearsal is 3 hours. So I generally get 3 hours of peace, followed by one hour (the break between rehearsals) of constant text messages and supply runs. From the start of techs to the end of the festival, I am basically constantly on call.

The technicians work their butts off during tech week. Most days they have three rehearsals. If they're lucky they get a full run-through of each show. They take as many notes as they can, put that script into its folder, and move on to the next. Inevitably the first show they tech will be the last one to have its first performance.

It all flies along at a crazy breakneck speed until's done. It's 5:30 on Thursday evening and at the same time, 15 house doors close for the first time. 15 audiences get their first listen to this year's curtain announcement. The box office starts counting tickets as 15 technicians take out the preshow music and hit go on the light board. The house lights fade to black. The actors step onto the stage, and the festival is underway again.

At 5:31 on Thursday, I start to relax. A little. I'm still on call. There will still be things that break and problems to solve and a long ten days of hard work. But this well-oiled machine of ours takes on a life of its own every year, and watching that take form is an amazing sight I never grow tired of. On August 16 I will sleep for 12 hours. But for now, there are shows to see.