The value of maintenance


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.

  • August 26, 2010
  • 5