Backstage Pass

A day in the life when on the road

It’s time to tell a story about life on the road as viewed by a professional in the world of event production. That would be me.

“Woke up, got out of bed
Dragged a comb across my head”

During the last four years, I have spent a few days of my life during the first week of May on the beautiful campus of the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma. Actually, I do not spend much time on the campus which I hear is beautiful, but rather I spent hours and hours of that week inside the outdoor football stadium surrounded by concrete, bleachers and grass.

A friend of mine, who among other things, is the art director for Barney the Dinosaur was initially hired to re-design the existing set pieces and give new direction to the Graduation Ceremony for the University of Oklahoma held each year inside the stadium. He in turn asked me to help him with the project from a technical standpoint and thus a job was born. I was contracted to install the rigging structure for support of the set, the stage proper and the lighting for the stage and set. And so the meetings began.

“Somebody spoke and I went into a dream”

I compiled a list of questions that needed to be answered so we could formulate a plan. For the most part we were guided by the Executive Director of Graduation who is a very detailed, task oriented person in charge of the entire event but who does not speak the technical lingo that my friend and I are used to. For example, the question about how the finale should be presented was answered by something close to “After the President has finished with his speech we want something fun to happen so everyone can celebrate”.

OK. Hmmmm. Let’s see. Hey Charles, look at this drawing on the back of my Slotchky napkin. Can we do something like this? Yea, I think so, do a CAD and print it out and we can look it over. Napkins are great multi-tasking objects in our business.

The Final Set

The Final SetNow fast forward a few weeks after several meetings with the university electrician, the physical plant director, the theater department who now wants to be involved, the grounds keeper of the stadium, security, parking, the city Fire Marshall, the golf cart company, the forklift company and the local labor company who will supply the twenty skilled workers who will assist our supervisors in installing and removing the production equipment.
The set, stage and structure are to be centered on the 50 yard line about 30 yards from the sideline facing the West grandstands where 20,000 people will be seated. The set will be a 58’ wide x 28’ tall façade representing the architectural structures surrounding the campus with a 12’x 9’ HD LED video screen in the center. The façade will be connected to the rigging structure positioned behind the set so the wind will not wreck havoc and cause delay or worse. In front of this will be the stage. The stage is 80’ wide x 40’ deep x 4’ high with ADA ramps leading from the ground to the stage on all four corners. There are two levels of risers in front of the stage where the graduates will walk up, receive their diplomas and walk off. The orchestra will be seated on the grass stage left of the stage and there will be 100 chairs on the stage for dignitaries. The lighting fixtures for the set and stage will be mounted on temporary supports built over the seats in the grandstand. Five giant 10K watt fixtures will be positioned on the field behind the set rigging structure and fireworks will be deployed from the practice field adjacent to the stadium.

This looks like it will work on paper.

“A crowd of people stood and stared. They’d seen his face before”

Oh yea, by the way, the President wants to be able to see the audience seated in the grandstand. We are in an outdoor stadium with no ceiling and no hanging positions for lighting instruments so we have to create any hanging positions that are needed. I explain that I can light the audience’s faces but because there is no place to mount them above their heads, they will most likely be blinded and not enjoy the sensory intrusion. We decide to place eleven 8’ diameter lighted balloons in the upper grandstand focused down on the audience seated in the lower grandstand as a compromise. This turns out to be really cool. The lighted balloons cast a “glow” on the audience and make both the audience and the speakers feel connected to one another. Score one for innovation.
The event is on Friday and load-in begins on Monday. The schedule is: “I saw the photograph”


  • 8:00am. Our two semis from Dallas arrive at the stadium and unload. It takes twelve stage hands, three ATV mules and two forklifts about five hours just to unload and position the equipment in various holding areas. One hundred sheets of plywood are laid from the tunnel to the fifty yard line, then from the sideline to the center of field as no vehicle is permitted to drive on the stadium grass.
  • 1:00pm Lunch
  • 2:00pm Begin rigging structure set-up with crew of fourteen.
  • 8:00pm Finish rigging structure set-up, begin the back row of the stage then remove plywood from field as we leave so the grass will not be unduly impacted.
  • 9:00pm Go to the Sooners Inn, a newly redecorated hotel with orange shag carpet and pictures of the football team from the 60’s hung on every wall in the hotel.

What have I gotten into?

“Found my coat and grabbed my hat”


  • 8:00am Build the stage and begin construction of the stage ramps with crew of fourteen.
  • Noon Lunch
  • 1:00pm Rain for about an hour.
  • 2:00pm Resume stage construction with crew of fourteen.
  • 3:00pm Six 300 gallon water ballasts are brought over from the physical plant and filled with water to serve as the anchors for the guy wires attached to the rigging structure.
  • 8:00pm Stage construction is finished and stage is freshly painted a theater gray color for adequate light reflection but minimal light glare. Plywood is removed.
  • 9:00pm Grab some pizza and head back for another look at that orange shag carpet.

“I read the news today oh, boy”


  • 7:00am Plywood is laid back on the field.
  • 8:00am Resume ramp construction with crew of four.
  • 9:00am Set is constructed on the stage and lifted into position against the rigging structure with a crew of ten stage hands and two climbing riggers.
  • 10:30am The wind is too high and one column breaks in half during lift. University carpenters are called in to rebuild the piece, but it will take the rest of the day.
  • Noon Lunch
  • 1:00pm Two 24’ bobtail trucks arrive from Dallas with our lighting equipment.
  • 2:00pm A crew of eight works with our two lighting technicians to unload the equipment and place it on the stage, on the field and in the grandstand.
  • 8:00pm Heavy rain and big time lightning all around us.
  • 9:00pm We call it quits even though we really need to focus the Leko fixtures this night and show the university staff how the set will look. It doesn’t happen. Plywood is removed.
  • 10:00pm Grab some food and the local newspaper then head back to find the orange shag carpet in the hotel hallways is wet.

“He didn’t notice that the lights had changed”


  • 3:00am Rain and thunder set off sirens all over town. They wake me up so I get on the computer and read posts on PlanetChristmas.
  • 8:00am Rain has passed and we resume installation of the set pieces, stage flags, handrails, toe rails, masking and general detail work with two crews of eight each. Everything is soaked but we are running out of time.
  • 1:00pm One 24’ bobtail truck arrives from Dallas with the video screen and installation is begun with two stage riggers and six stage hands.
  • 2:00pm One 24’ bobtail truck arrives from Oklahoma City with the sound system and begins installation with a six man stage hand crew.
  • 6:00pm University staff arrives with chairs, posters, scripts, etc.
  • 7:00pm The lighting techs are trying to focus the lights but they are facing West and the sun is preventing them from seeing the beams. Focus doesn’t begin until around 8:30pm and the Graduation staff is waiting patiently to see the completed and lighted set.
  • 9:30pm Rain rolls in again just as they get a glimpse of what it will look like and we have to quit.
  • 10:00pm Plywood is removed. Video crew stays until midnight tweaking and working on that one module that never seems to work correctly. The lighting techs stay until the rain stops so they can finish focus.

“I saw a film today oh, boy”


  • 9:00am Crew of eight lay out the plywood and finish all detail work such as chairs, plants, music stands, etc. No rain!
  • 2:00pm Show crew arrive, check everything and set up the two 2K follow spot lights.
  • 5:00pm Doors open and people arrive.
  • 7:00pm Ceremony begins.
  • 9:15pm Ceremony ends. Stage wash lights are dimmed off, upper grandstand lighted and balloons are switched off.
  • 9:20pm Fireworks to music begin along with the five giant search lights and a film roll featuring the campus and graduates. The search lights are automated with color changers, include automated movement and reach about 500’ into the night sky. We consider this to fulfill the “something fun” requirement stated at the first meeting.
  • 9:30pm Event is over.
  • 3:30am Crew of 24 finish load out of chairs, stands, flags, sound system and lighting system with the help of the ATV and forklifts.
  • 4:00am I’m in bed.

“But I just had to look”


  • 9:00am Crew of 24 begins removal of set pieces, rigging structure and stage.
  • 8:00pm Everything has been removed from the stadium and doors on the last truck are closed and locked.
  • 9:00pm Final idiot check to make sure we didn’t leave anything in the stadium.
  • 10:00pm Note to self. “Never count the hours spent on a job because you’ll be depressed. Instead, reflect on the a job well done”.

From the August 2009 edition of PlanetChristmas Magazine

by Charles Belcher

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