The Old In-Out: Tips for Loading Tours

In a perfect world, a load-in/load-out that goes well is a positive experience for all involved. When they go bad, it's a special foray into one of Dante's circles of hell. The gig, be it a stadium concert tour, bus-and-truck theatrical, or even an opera, can quickly transform into a very unpleasant event.

Part of the designer's job is to design the show so that it can be physically set up in all of the specific houses that the tour will be visiting.
Jim van Bergen

So, what exactly can be done to keep crews out of load-in/-out hell? One of the first essential components happens at the beginning of the production process. “It all starts with show design,” says scenic designer John Troxtel of Troxtel Design, who designed last summer's Up in Smoke tour. “From the very first concept sketch, we develop a plan that focuses on moving the show in and out of a typical arena in an efficient, highly organized manner,” he explains. The design stage of the project is also critical for lighting designer Tom Kenny, who has worked with The Who and David Bowie. “I start thinking about the load-in and -out while I'm designing,” Kenny admits. “I definitely make my designs very building-friendly.” The same holds true for bus-and-truck shows. “As a designer, I feel that a successful load-in begins at the drawing board,” agrees Jim Fouchard, scenic designer for a variety of bus-and-truck theatricals, including Jolson: The Musical. “Hopefully, the producer has provided at least a skeleton form of the itinerary so you can get the feel of just where the show is going and plan accordingly,” he adds. “Part of the designer's job is to design the show so that it can be physically set up in all of the specific houses that the tour will be visiting, from a 700 — seat to a 5,000 — seat theatre, if need be,” notes sound designer/production sound engineer Jim van Bergen, who was out recently with the first — class national tour of Ain't Nothin' But the Blues.

Another key element is set fabrication. “Choose the right manufacturer and settle for nothing but the best,” advises Troxtel. “When the show is built by one of the top construction vendors, you can be sure the crew will never complain about either the product or the way the set moves in and out on a daily basis.”

A Simple Plan

Once the production is designed and fabricated, another step is added before the trucks pull up to the loading dock — planning. “Planning is a major part of the load-in and load-out process,” says Kenny. “At the beginning of a tour, or at the beginning of any type of production, all of the heads of the departments need to sit down and decide who's doing what, who needs what, and how it should be done each and every night.” It also means that the departments have to cooperate, or else things can go wrong very quickly. “Months ahead of time, you have to plan and all agree that you'll have a certain schedule and stick to it,” notes set/costume designer Marie-Anne Chiment, who has worked on shows for the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Lincoln Center Festival. If one of the departments falls flat, it usually means that everyone else's schedule is shifted, which makes for a trying day.

Extensive planning should take place before the first show, and it's also something that should happen every single day. “I think the ability to have a plan of how the show comes down, how it goes into the truck, and the placement of the truck is essential,” notes production manager Jake Berry, who has worked with Tina Turner, the Rolling Stones, and U2. Planning on the part of the production manager can also ensure that a load-in/-out is successful. “The best production managers know that relevant show information they provide to the venues on tour, in advance of when the tour arrives, will allow the house steward to assemble a local crew with the specific skills needed for that particular show,” notes Troxtel. The same is also true on a theatrical bus-and-truck tour. “For a successful load-in to a road house, you need a successful advance, so you know what you're walking into even before you leave the last city,” van Bergen adds.

Another facet of planning is making sure that the gear is ready to go on the road before it leaves the shop. “Prepping the equipment to suit the load-in is really important,” says Kenny. “Everything should be pre-planned, even on one-offs,” he adds. “If you can, you should mark up the trussing, find out where the spansets will go, and so on. If you've got it preplanned and prepped, that helps.” Having good people back at the shop working on your show is a bonus that will make the difference down the line.

House Calls

Once the show is out of preproduction, is prepped and ready to go, another major consideration is the venues (or venue, as the case may be) where the show will be playing. “The challenges are different in each venue you visit,” notes site coordinator Toby Fleming, who is currently out on the Dave Matthews Band tour. “Because of the physical attributes of the building, the actual load-in and -out can sometimes be quite difficult.” Berry agrees. “Every stadium, every arena, every university, every theatre, and every club has its own quirks, and you just have to be flexible,” he says. Loading docks, or a lack of them, available storage space, forklift availability, stage depth, and access to the stage are all issues that can cause a load-in and -out to drag on interminably. “You have to adjust your load-in and -out to the venue,” says Richard “Krinkle” Kreuzkamp, Bob Seger's longtime stage manager. “You just can't have a formula and expect it to work in every venue.”

When dealing with venues, knowing the venue layout is key, as is adjusting your local crew call accordingly. In a case where there isn't a loading dock and ramps are being used, the load-out is much more efficient if there's more manpower available. “I adjust the number of stagehands I use and the number of forklifts on the call to suit the venue,” Berry explains. “My calls vary depending on a number of factors — according to the building, if there's docks or ramps, how long the push is, if the push is straight, and the quality of the local crews,” he adds. Adjusting the local crew call to fit the venue not only expedites the load-in and -out, but can also be financially advantageous. “If you keep the same crew call everywhere, at some point, it's not going to be cost-effective,” Berry notes.

The Truck Stops Here

Trucking is another issue that affects the efficiency of the load-in and load-out. Trucking indirectly as well as directly influences how the load-in and load-out takes shape. “The first — class trucking companies often use air ride trailers, which keep the equipment on a softer surface to minimize travel damage,” notes Troxtel. Equipment that is damaged going from point A to point B is always an unpleasant surprise during any load-in, and repairing or replacing the equipment can be time-consuming.

The truck drivers themselves can also have an impact on how the load-in or -out progresses. “The top trucking firms maintain a staff of motivated, experienced drivers who understand that your transportation requirements must be met at any cost — the show must go on — and they know it's their responsibility to make it go smoothly,” Troxtel adds. Nothing can throw a show into chaos like a truck coming up missing, so reliable carting is a necessity.

Then, of course, there is the issue of physically packing the truck. “I think that one of the most important parts of the process is for the road crew to know the equipment, know the order it must come off the truck, and the order that it has to go on the truck at the end of the day,” says Detroit-based industrial sound engineer Charles Zureki. If no one in the road crew takes responsibility for directing the gear to the proper place at the beginning of the day, or for directing the pack at the end of the night, chaos can ensue. “In a lot of organizations, no one wants to take responsibility for knowing how to load the truck, and that can slow the load-out up to two or three hours,” observes Kreuzkamp. The simple solution is to decide early on who is responsible for directing the gear coming out of the trucks.

Can't We All Get Along?

Once the trucks are backed up to the loading dock, the key is teamwork. “One of the most essential parts of a successful load-in and -out is teamwork, which really starts with the leadership ability of the production manager to the department crew chiefs all the way down to the third and fourth electrician or sound person on the crew,” Kreuzkamp observes. Teamwork is critical to getting the process going, and wrapping it up at the end of the night. The same holds true on theatricals, which need to share limited stage space. “You never want a set piece that stops other departments dead while it's assembled on the stage,” notes Fouchard. “The idea is to keep all departments working constantly and not have them wasting their time cooling their heels while the carpenters or electricians need the whole stage.”

There's also an essential person who keeps the production together — usually a crew chief, stage manager, or production manager. “The stage manager acts like the gas pedal of the show,” explains Troxtel. “He is the choreographer who closely watches the execution of the plan the designers created with his help during the rehearsals, paying attention to everything form the big picture to the last detail.” Without someone taking the leadership role on the part of the road crew, load-ins and load-outs can quickly become unnecessarily arduous.

Once a good stage manager, crew chief, or production manager has the reins, it's also his or her job to handle the local crew. “You need to make sure that the stage manager and the union steward establish a relationship right from the start; the steward needs to know what the road crew has to accomplish, and the stage manager needs to know what the crew's needs are in relation to breaks and such,” says Fleming. If the person who has the established leadership role has a prior relationship with the venue personnel, that's even better. If not, respect is the key. “You have to make sure that you try to respect their profession and their situation,” Fleming adds. It also helps to listen to the local crew. “The locals have seen everyone come into the venue, and they know the tricks that you might not be thinking about,” says Kreuzkamp. Cooperative, experienced local crews can do a lot to make the load-in/-out process easier. “If your locals are really good, then they can really help,” Berry notes. “If they're weak or inexperienced, that can be a little detrimental to how efficient you are.”

From the local standpoint, a strong union steward or crew chief can make a big difference in the process. “If the local crew respects their boss, then the boss will be able to get the work done for you,” notes Chiment. However, respect isn't enough — leadership is also a key quality on the local side of the equation. “The local crew chief needs to know how to direct people — you have lighting stagehands, you have sound stagehands, you have carpenters and so on, and it's important for them to know the strengths of their people,” remarks Kreuzkamp. It also helps if the crew is motivated to work and has the right attitude. “Sometimes the local crew thinks that they know the gear and have the answers,” says Fleming. “And sometimes the guys who set it up once a year end up telling the guys who set it up every day how to do it, which isn't always a good thing.” In other words, no one likes a know-it-all.

Details, Details

Once the planning is done and the leadership issues on the touring and local crews are settled, there are also numerous small things that can be done to help the load-in/-out go smoother. “Being able to have modular cases is important,” Berry says. “If you have a number of things that are the same size and shape, you don't have to sit and wait around for one particular box.” Standardized modular packaging can also help the local crews discern what's in a box. “When it comes to odd-shaped boxes, it's impossible to tell what's in a non-standardized box or where it should go,” notes Zureki.

Of course, if modular cases aren't available, a labeling system, with a case number as well as a final stage location, is always helpful. “You absolutely must label your boxes ‘stage left,’ ‘stage right,’ ‘upstage,’ ‘front-of-house,’ and so on — it's imperative,” Zureki says. If the chain of command breaks down and a case is labeled properly, there's a good chance that it will end up in the correct place. If it's numbered sequentially, there's also a good chance that, at the end of the night, the local crew will line the cases up in the right order to be loaded into the truck.

The stage manager acts like the gas pedal of the show.
John Troxtel

In the same vein, it's also helpful to have a laminated card that can be used for a variety of audio, props, electric, or scenic information. “A 3" × 5" or 8" × 5" laminated card that shows how your department's load-in works is imperative for many tour designs,” notes van Bergen. His laminates include information on gear location, setup, interconnects, and system flow, one for each specific area of the venue. “It's important to have information to hand off to the house crew when you walk in the new venue. It shows the house crew how things are supposed to go together,” he adds, “and they will be quick to let you know how your system and design will interface best in their house.” The laminates can also be used to note the order of the truck pack, if it's consistent every night.

If possible, it's also a good idea to plan for something to go wrong. “I make sure that I've left extra time, in case something does go wrong, because it eventually will,” says Chiment. “If nothing goes wrong, everyone gets to have an extra-long coffee break, but if something does happen, then you've planned that extra time in there to fix the problem.”

In the end, one of the most important factors is personal motivation, for both the road crew and the local crew. “If you don't want to be there, you shouldn't be doing it,” states Kenny. Personal motivation can conquer many adverse conditions, from missing trucks to inclement weather to gear left at the last venue; with determination, crews can overcome any obstacles and make the show happen.

A good cup of coffee and breakfast in the morning helps too.