Across the world clubs have been shuttered since the start of the pandemic. How has this affected the lives and careers of those who work inside as house LDs? What adjustments did they have to make after their venues closed? Now that those clubs are showing signs of reopening, how are they readying themselves?
We posed these questions to a group of house LDs. Although 2020 was challenging, to be sure, they have been able to maintain a largely positive attitude by plowing into new activities. Some have been fortunate enough to stay relatively busy during the pandemic, others have felt stranded, cut off almost completely from the work they love.
To a person, all of the house LDs we spoke to are eager to see their clubs open at full capacity again. However, they remain cautious and thoughtful about when and how that will happen – and what impact that will ultimately have on house lighting.
Our thanks to them for sharing their perspectives with us.
Gerry Dintelman, Red Flag St. Louis
“The Important Thing to Remember: This Isn’t Just a Job”
The details of his last show before the lockdown are etched vividly in Gerry Dintleman’s memory. It was Friday March 13, and he was loading a Squeek Lights rig at his club, The Ready Room, for The Wonder Years with the band’s LD Paul Siebert.
In the middle of the load-in everything stopped as the entire crew gathered around a laptop to watch the president declare a national emergency. Although they wondered if the show would even go on, they finished setting up the rig. The Wonder Years did wind up performing that evening, but The Ready Room closed after their music stopped, and hasn’t reopened since.
Dintelman, though, has continued to forge ahead, lighting livestreams and a few outdoor events, eventually finding weekend work as a house LD with a new club that opened under strict social distance guidelines. It hasn’t replaced all the work he’s lost, but it has allowed him to continue doing what he loves, which as he explains in this interview, is the truly important thing.
So, after The Ready Room closed you hooked up with a new club. Can you tell us about that?
“About two weeks after the last concert at The Ready Room, we took down all the equipment and the club announced it was closed. I’m not certain what will happen to it next, but it’s remained closed since. Fortunately for me, there was new venue in St. Louis called Red Flag, which was supposed to open in May. That didn’t happen, but once the lockdown restrictions were eased it, took the plunge and opened in October. I’ve been lucky enough to be the house LD there since.
“We’ve been doing low capacity, socially distanced shows. Masks and temperature checks are mandatory. There’s plexiglass at the ticket box and bars. Everything is being heavily sanitized, and the tables are distanced at least 6’ apart. It’s been working well. I’ve also been lighting some shows at The Pageant here in St. Louis.”
Sounds like you’ve been staying busy! How does your workload today compare to last year’s?
“Surprisingly I have been. Obviously, I don’t have as much work as I did in 2019, but compared to a lot of my friends in the industry, I’ve been busy. I had talked with some guys at an AV company in town called Arch City AV about doing work with them before COVID stuck, but I always had enough work with venues that I never took the opportunity.
“Well, this year opened up that opportunity — and I couldn’t be happier that I did. They’ve really helped me out with work, and trust me to handle whatever they throw at me. I feel like I’m a good fit with the crew, so I don’t think this is going to end any time soon. We’ve done live streams and live shows at The Pageant, built our own sound stage with an ever- evolving light rig, and video wall in our shop.
“There are also tons of miscellaneous things around town to keep us grinding. Plus, I helped set up the Christmas Garden Glow at the Missouri Botanical Gardens. Like always, I take whatever gigs come at me, and keep looking for what’s next. I had no idea what I was going to do this year, but trusted my ability to be flexible and professional, and just trust the process. Thankfully, it’s worked out in my favor.”
Socially distant shows and livestreams are different from what you were lighting in 2019. What kind of adjustments have you had to make?
“One thing that comes to mind is when I do shows at The Pageant, we lose about five-to-six feet of the downstage floor due to social distancing from the crowd. That really has to be taken into consideration when designing a floor package, especially on a show like the ELO tribute I did recently that had ten band members.
“As for livestreams, like every LD, I’ve had to take a different your approach when lighting for the camera as opposed to a crowd. Livestreams have certainly been a learning experience, but if there’s one thing I’ve come to appreciate it’s that it really helps to ask for a preview monitor at FOH so you can see what it looks like from the cameras as you’re lighting the show.”
Have you learned new skills during the lockdown?
“I’m not sure if I’ve learned many new skills as much as I’ve just been pushing what I already know as much as possible. I’ve used Resolume plenty in the past, but not incorporating it with my lighting and running it at the same time the way I now do. I’ve also done lighting for video before, but not nearly as much as I have this year. I guess you can say that I’ve been learning a lot more about how my world translates to video’s world.”
What do you think the long-term effects of the lockdown and pandemic will have on your career?
“It definitely takes a bit of the appeal away knowing how disposable your job can be, but the most important thing to remember is that this isn’t just a job for me. This is who I am, and what I do, so there’s nothing that can stop me from being an LD.
“I think that’s the only reason I’ve gotten through this year without finding a new career. People recognize that in me, and know I’m always someone that can be called on for whatever kind of work they have. I’m very fortunate to know the people I do, I definitely couldn’t have done this without the help I’ve had, so the biggest shout out to my friends at Red Flag, The Pageant and Arch City AV.”
Jeff Maker House of Blues Boston
“A Unique Opportunity To Design Around New Audience Layouts”
A self-described “work alcoholic,” who’s toured with numerous bands like All Time Low, Dropkick Murphys, and Dresden Dolls, in addition to working along with head LD Ryan Baker at the House of Blues across from Fenway Park, Maker has found the enforced idleness during the pandemic challenging.
He hasn’t worked a live show since December 2019. His legendary club has been closed since early March, and he himself has relocated temporarily out of Boston due to concerns about the pandemic. Still, as he explains in this interview, he’s kept a positive attitude and busied himself sharpening old skills, learning new ones and launching ventures.
“It’s been a while since you worked a live show and your club has been closed for almost a year now, so how have you kept your attitude up and creative juices flowing?
“It’s been a struggle honestly. At this point it’s a cliche to say ‘with everything happening in the world,’ but, I’ve been focused on the well-being of friends and family more than my career right now. But that doesn’t mean I don’t find time to keep busy when I find the motivation or inspiration. I’ve been getting better using my software to create 3D lighting renderings.”
Have you been working on livestreams?
“There’s a podcast/live show with three of the four the band members of All Time Low that I’m doing currently. The show is called Crash Test Live and we’ve completed 20 episodes so far. It’s on CrashTestLive.com.
“I’ve also done The Basement Noise Concert Series with All Time Low, which features five sets that were recorded and released for stream throughout the Fall and Winter of 2020. All different set lists curated by each band member, plus a set of their new album ‘Wakeup Sunshine.’”
How about the HOB Boston when do you see that reopening?
“It definitely will reopen, but I have no idea when. Personally, I left the city to stay away from as many people as possible. With the venue closed and touring on hold until further notice, there was no reason to stay in such a highly populated area during a pandemic.”
When things do get back to normal how do you think you’ll feel about lighting shows again before a full house? Is it something you’ll have to get used to? Or will it be like righting bike?
“Once I’m vaccinated I’ll feel better about it. I think it’ll be like riding a bike, but a brand- new bike. We know how to do it but we’re not sure of the new protocols that will be in place. I think it’ll be a bit of both familiar and some things we’ll all have to get used to. But once we’re all able to just walk into a venue or arena or stadium it will feel like walking into your home.”
How has this layoff affected the way you view lighting design and your career?
“I always knew lighting was a dream job – and I’ve been lucky enough to earn my way in life with what I love to do. I consider myself to be a workaholic, so all of this down time is tough to handle. Like many other industry folks who are out of work, I feel like we have to step back and look at how we can improve life for ourselves and others on the road. The industry is going to change forever after this so the way we approach our jobs will change along with it. A lot will depend on what artists can or are willing to spend on production, after so much down time with little to zero income themselves. This will definitely effect how designs are approached. This is also a unique opportunity to design around new audience layouts for social distancing.”
Alan Hamilton French Lick Resort, Indiana
“How Many Things Will Have Been Forgotten When We Get Back?”
The concert by Grand Funk Railroad was only a week away, and house LD Alan Hamilton, like the rest of the crew at French Lick Resort was busy getting the famous venue’s grand ballroom ready. But each day, it became more and more apparent that something was not going right with the “new virus.”
After that, the curtain came down on all shows as the resort closed its entire operations. Eventually, the resort itself was open on a limited basis, but shows were cancelled for all of 2020.
Although, Hamilton continued to maintain the resort’s lighting rig, his activities were severely curtailed. He did only one live show, an outdoor concert at nearby fairgrounds. Through it all he remained busy preparing himself for a lighting live shows again, although, as he discusses here, the exact form those future shows take remain to be seen.
Has French Lick been open at all for socially distant or outdoor events since the pandemic started?
“The resort itself was closed for a short period of time and then reopened with social distancing and mitigation protocols in place – but no concerts for 2020. Concerts have still not restarted at the resort as of right now, but we’re all looking forward to that happening this year after losing almost the entire 2020 schedule to the pandemic.”
Have you personally had any lighting work since the pandemic began?
“Besides the resort concerts ultimately having to cancel in 2020, so did several other events that I would normally be involved with around the region. Really, only one event ended up staying on the calendar and that was a festival in Morgan County, IN at the fairgrounds, an outdoor show.
“Since the fair itself was cancelled they were able to utilize a large part of the fairgrounds for a socially distanced event. Normally, this would have been in the grandstands, but they were able to utilize an entirely different area of the property, with much more space. The promoter added delays and video to cover the distance since they knew the crowd would be thinner and much farther away from the stage than normal. But other than that, the audio and lighting package stayed the same as it would have anyway.
“That was the only event that didn’t cancel last year on my calendar. As the months wore on, it went from cancellations to simply events not even coming on the calendar. That includes regular, annual events that I would normally count on. They simply didn’t happen this year.
Have you continued to do any maintenance or upgrade work on your house rig at French Lick?
“To a point – the running joke here is that we’re wondering how many things will have been forgotten once we do get back to working. Will there be a lot of ‘Wait a minute… How DO I do that!?’ I imagine there will be hurdles to navigate when live shows return. From just getting back in the routine, to following whatever guidelines might be in place when things do restart.”
So, how have you stayed busy during this layoff?
“Well, let’s just say my YouTube channel has gotten busier and The home studio has gotten expanded for my fun projects. My guitar and bass have been dusted off too!
“I’ve also been learning new things, by modernizing my knowledge of recording, and getting a better overall handle on DAWs and plugins, MIDI drums. Beyond that, I’ve started filling some time uploading some production tech help videos to YouTube. Mostly these are audio related, especially geared toward church volunteer techs, bands doing their own sound, and that type of thing.
How has this layoff affected the way you view lighting design and your career?
“It’s just been an eye-opening experience on how quickly, and from left-field, we can all be sidelined—ad how much is out of our control. Also, with some of the political things that have happened, you get a sense of how little the public, and elected officials, really understand about this industry and what goes on behind the scenes of a show. The army of people, and the investment of sweat and money that goes into making a show happen is truly impressive. I wish more people knew that.”
David Beebe, The Birchmere Washington DC
“As Designers We Go Through Slow Periods and Then Bounce Back”
A procession of stars has appeared at The Birchmere since Gary Oelze started the iconic club in his DC restaurant over 50 years ago, not only on the stage, which has welcomed the likes of Dave Mason, Alison Krause, and The Indigo Girls, but also in the audience, President Bill Clinton and Bob Dylan have been among its patrons.
At the start of 2020, the 55,000 sq. ft. club was humming along, with every seat filled and talent, almost all national acts, on its stage seven days a week. But these days, when the club is open, it’s on weekends and the entertainment is provided by local bands playing to a house that’s only 40-percent full due to social distancing.
The club’s lightshows, however, are as bright, bold and intricately layered as ever, with plenty of split beams, aerials, dramatic sweeps and intricately devised gradients of color enlivening the stage. David Beebe, who has been Birchmere’s house LD since 2004, explains why he wouldn’t have it any other way.
How long has your club been closed?
“Our last show was March 14, 2020. We reopened on July 10, 2020 and have had shows on the weekends with mainly local and tribute bands ever since. Of course, the crowds have been very controlled because of social distancing. We’re closed for a few weeks now due to lack of acts, but we’ll reopen later this month.”
Does having smaller crowds affect the way you approach your job a designer?
“Not at all. We’re a club so it’s an intimate, and has an inviting atmosphere no matter what. I try to reflect that in my lighting. Overall, our philosophy is to give the crowd the best possible show regardless of who is in the audience.
That’s a great positive philosophy, but how do you keep your attitude up and creative juices flowing during the pandemic?
“Just knowing that the pandemic will eventually end, especially now that there is a vaccine, makes it easier to stay positive. The rest is a matter of remembering who you are, why you love this business – plus taking pride in doing your job.
“This period should be looked at as an opportunity to grow. I’ve watched some videos to develop new skills. I also make sure to stay busy and keep my lighting rig clean and in shape during this period.”
Has this period of limited activity affected your approach toward lighting?
“As designers, we go through slow periods and then we bounce back. I think that the present times are no different. The community of lighting designers will pick up where it left off in January 2020 when the pandemic finally ends. We’re a resilient bunch, and lighting is what we love.”