Roadie life

Into The Fray

Fast forward a couple months. While on paper, Belgium seems to be doing poorly when it comes to Covid-19 numbers, that is mostly because it is very inclusive when it comes to adding up the tally. “Suspicious” deaths in elderly homes are universally included for example, making it seem like our healthcare system is failing.

It isn’t. In fact, our country appears to be a prime example of the right measures taken at the right time, or at least within the available knowledge at the time. And those measures are gradually melting away, and so far the new liberties have had little effect on the volatile ‘people infected’ graph. It seems that so far, luckily, my theories about the second wave have been wrong.

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The Silence

My phone rings. It’s an 80’s chiptune that once served as the soundtrack of Alleycat, which was one of the first video games that I got to play as a kid. The protagonist, a cat that wastes all his 9 lives to get laid, is one I still identify with.

“ALARMCENTRALE”
My mind starts racing already, coming up with dozens of scenarios, between but not excluding zombie apocalypse, military coup, and criminal martial arts showdown.
The man on the line asks for a password. I give it to him, a little proud of my talent for coming up with foreboding passwords.

“You just had an alarm triggered in zone 12. Only there.” He doesn’t know where zone 12 might be. I know it’s at work, inside a building that should be dark and empty right now. I tell him to hold off the police, people don’t break into theaters at 9:30 pm. Probably someone who’s screwed up the locking procedure and neglected to call the number on the note that SPECIFICALLY tells them to.

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Letter to Hugo

Dear Hugo,

Hi.

I’d introduce myself but you remember me. You would.
We worked together through 4 whole productions, my very first jobs resembling the things I do today. You, the director with too much experience for anyone to measure, both of us somehow involved with a rapidly aging theater group. I say “work” but neither of us got paid. Me, a big step up. For you, a step down.

There are many things about that transitional period in my life that I remember vividly. The actors, the dancers, the venue that was in all honesty, an inferno waiting to happen. I remember your direction, not just of the actors, but the crew as well. I had never seen anything like it, and I chalked that up to my limited experience. My mistake.

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Why Stage Techs Are Assholes

Previously, I made the dumb mistake of using names as generic placeholders when bringing up specific scenarios. My apologies if that made it seem like I was targeting anyone specific.

Double-blind, peer-reviewed research was conducted world wide to determine which job had the most spiteful, mean, rude behavior amongst its workforce and without even a bit of competition, the prize went straight to sound technicians. To which I say, you fucking betcha.

When asked why sound techs have to be such dicks all the times, I usually peer sagely at the sky in mock thought, and nod while I say, “because we have to work with god damn artists.” I am kidding of course, except I am not. You have no idea what it’s like to work with artists.

In my 15 years in different positions I have had ample time to analyze the matter. I’ve seen old hands that got stuck in a permanent state of asshole, I’ve seen newbies’ jaws drop in their first “what the fuck is even going on” moment, I’ve seen certified teddy bears turn into yelling bastards at the first moment they touched a sound board. While it’s easy to blame all that on musicians, I admit that would be too easy. It’s also the theater directors.

It all boils down to one key dynamic, which I’ve begun calling the “economy of effort”. It’s simple as tap water and at the same time, complicated enough to get lost in it and lose track of the way out.

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Intern

Almost exactly a year ago, I was having a conversation with a woman at work. She was quite attractive in looks and aura, but perhaps mostly in the love that she expressed towards the man sitting next to her. She adored him, even though they were a generation apart and their relationship was strictly professional.

We had called on the phone before, and she asked if we might have room for an intern. The question had been dropped before (many schools are now including stage-related stuff to their classes) but I had never felt ready before. But when she rang me up, with her enthusiasm and obvious care for her work… Why not.

Let’s call him Frank.

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Workaholism

My name is Maarten and I have a problem. One that never once in my life, I thought I’d have.

Early on in life, I started to feel a most peculiar thing when involved in some project, sometimes given the most mundane and repetitive tasks: I felt useful. I never really fit in at school so being someplace where people were happy to see me, was quite novel. Little by little, I began to see labor as my merit to others, and because I got good at it, conveniently used it to measure my worth.

In the end, I managed the ultimate success: I made my hobby my job, and I never worked another day in my life.
What they forget to include in this woefully simplified slogan though, is that you’ll find yourself fresh out of hobbies.

If you are working towards this state, good. It’s a wonderful life and I hope you get there. But it’s not all great: As your job grows to be a part of your personality, it gets increasingly hard to separate one from the other. Already I define myself as a “stage technician” more than anything. I take my work home and I am at home at work, until the two become hard to distinguish.

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Amberdrift

Amberdrift. Is there a term more poetic in any branch of showbiz? I doubt it.

Enjoy it while it lasts, because it is quickly disappearing. It’s an effect inherent to tungsten and halogen lighting, both of which are making way to new LED technology. You see, both technologies are some of the worst things mankind has ever created and frankly, we should have made their redundancy a priority on the first day after they were ever invented.

Overreacting, say you? What if I tell you that in the best case, halogen has a 3.5% efficiency? You might think now that the quick little sum that your brain just made is based on wrong assumptions, but it isn’t. The most efficient halogen light bulbs waste 96.5 percent of the energy coursing through them, almost all of it on heat. The worst ones waste 98%.

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The Refuge💀

The first boarding school I went to -I’m looking at you, OLV Ledeberg- was nothing short of a well-constructed prison and you will never hear me say a good word about it. It’s a place where childhoods come to die.

But lock up a group of individuals long enough and somehow, someway, they’ll start to build a small community. One with a hierarchy, a culture, and norms. In its dynamics, it rewards certain character traits (in this case, for example, an unhealthy dose of sadism) and punishes others. Given enough time and social skill, you learn to play the system and rise through the ranks.

So I grew up with a certain sense of community and I caught myself being sensitive to it. Growing up, I always wanted to learn some useful skill that would allow me to be of use in such a group, and given time (not so much social skill), grow not only accepted, but respected.

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Sometimes

“Sometimes,” She said, squinting upwards into the lights. Marc’s lights.
“Sometimes you find yourself exactly where you should be.” Under a murmur of approval from the audience, she plucked the few first notes of the next song.
As she had struck me as a remarkably observant and intelligent person before, the words hit home. As, it seemed, they did with everyone else.

It was quiet this summer and apart from a single actress who insisted she’d have the place to herself to “concentrate”, I had free reign. It was our official vacation period so technically I wasn’t even allowed to work, which made me chuckle and ignore in equal measures. Some things just needed to get done and aren’t possible with a crowd of people walking in and out every day.

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Burning

Here’s a word neither one of us ever thought to find in a first-person sentence on anything I ever write ever:
Burnout.
When you are done laughing, bear with me for a minute or two.

“But Maarten, you grisly item of attraction, didn’t you love your job? Best job in the world and all?”

Yes. And yes and thanks.
Working with your hands, head and heart in roughly equal measure is how I feel everyone should work. This was my dream job and I stand by that, even though only about 20% of it turns out to be stage work. The rest is maintenance of the building and logistics. 0% is maintaining social relationships and the plants and furniture outside our front door- there is room for improvement there, to put it with a gross understatement. (more…)


The maker faker

I am a simple man, and I like simple things. Butts, mostly, and Star Trek. Pineapple on pizza and knobs on machines. Toothpicks and iced tea and mountains and friends, these are a few of my favorite things. ♫

I managed to hold my job as a stagehand because it was simple. And despite my personality and lifestyle then, I never got fired because I was good at it. Progress happened but it was slow, at my own pace, so that I could keep up and chances of anyone finding out that I was totally faking my skills and confidence were kept minimal.

So yah, after all that, when someone walks up to me and goes, “here’s a budget to invest in our lighting grid, pls upgrade the whole thang to LED in the spirit of a national, subsidized effort to lower the power consumption in the cultural sector. The proposal will be judged by 2 different committees so also prepare a defense in a month or 2 and did I mention the budget was small so yah make it count,” I have a LITTLE problem keeping the screams inside my mouth.

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Soul for Hire

I’ve been diagnosed with all kinds of abnormalities, by professionals and not-so-professionals. Psychopathy, ADHD, I had one girlfriend pushing me to consider the possibility I was somewhere in the autism spectrum. Another friend called me a juggalo. I took well to neither.

Perhaps they’re all wrong, or maybe right to some degree. I just like to call it my warm and cute personality.
If there is one thing I might be leaning towards, I think it might be sociopathy. Especially when I was a teenager and young adult, I had the hardest time caring about how other people felt. It served its purpose well, keeping the influence of teachers and educators to a minimum while I walked my own path. Many thought I was lost.

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The Smithy

Change is the name of the game. If you went from art schools to boarding schools, squats to an army base, freelancing stagehand to technician in a city theater, you’ll know what it means to adapt to the situation. One survival strategy will not work in another environment and unless you get to changing your behavior, you will start moving in the opposite direction from where your goals are supposed to be.

Friends who know me long enough often mention that I’ve changed in just about every way, several times over. And when I thought I was finally comfortable in my skin, a baby boy was born and I had to start all over again.

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The afterburner

One of the doubts that I had before applying for my current job was the fact that I would be closely confronted with the inner workings of a social-cultural organization like De Vieze Gasten. I knew I wasn’t going to like what I saw, because aside from the amazing results that can be objectively quantified in the immediate area (and god knows this area can use those results), there are less beautiful aspects to such an institution.

Inner struggling, monetary problems, stress caused by the social nature of an inclusive place. All these exist with literally every cultural project but nowhere more than places like ours.

I was shocked to learn that many of my colleagues are suffering from it, much worse than I previously assumed. They are a solid team and mentally very strong, but the pressure can’t be distributed perfectly evenly and sooner or later, people crack. And to save themselves, they have to step back for a while, leaving a large problem to fix for the others. This is not a choice they make: it is the result of an issue of world-wide scale. (more…)


Life as the Dirty

I think I saw the ‘Propere Fanfare van de Vieze Gasten’ [The Clean Band of the Dirty Guys] for the first time at some event or other in Ghent and though I don’t remember exactly where, it’s safe to say I liked them from the start. An incredible, colorful, rag-tag bunch of weirdoes building a party like you’ve never seen before. The were marching around, carrying their director on a bass drum on their shoulders. My mind has never been unblown since.

I saw them a couple times more, without ever knowing where they were from or what they were about. I could recognize them from a distance, and never missed a chance to push in closer and watch their silly dances with a grin on my face.

A lifetime later and a world apart, I was sitting in classroom “Brazzaville” in Brussels. Tasked with the impossible matter of choosing a location to intern at. I didn’t know anyone working in any venue, and neither had I been acquainted with the inner workings of any of the endless list of addresses in the folder before me. So I started with shallowly reading over them all, in case any one stood out.

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Letter to Marc

IMG_9977Dearest Marc,

We said goodbye to you yesterday. In the most heart-wrenching, wholesome way, we built you the feast that you deserved. Not dozens, but hundreds gathered together to mourn your loss and celebrate your presence. My friend, you should have seen it. You would be proud of us.

The love, Marc. I had never seen anything like it. People hugging in groups of threes and fours. Or separately, almost secretly, one person and another. I have never seen so many people locked in embrace, and I’ve been to Burning Man.
And the sadness. So incredibly much. I pray that you felt as loved as you proved to be this day. Not one of the many present was unmoved by your passing, least of all me. I haven’t cried this much in twenty years. Every time the understanding of your passing sank a little deeper, hearts broke all over again. How we will miss you. How you will be missed.

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Life among the Dirty

“I’m thinking of working part-time here, and focus more on photography.”

I grinned. “You should, photography is awesome. In fact, you should go do photography full-time. And let me know when you do, so I can come and take your job.”

-“Looking for a full-time job, then?”

-“Hell, no.” We stood on the balcony, overlooking the festivities. Another job well done, and another job laying in wait when the day would end. It hadn’t struck me until that very moment.

“But if I did, I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else more than here.”

From that day, I have been lurking passively, keeping an eye on the public forums for the odd chance that a job would become available, at De Vieze Gasten or some similar organization.

Life turned out differently, however, predictable in its unpredictability. I ended up working for the state, in a city that isn’t my own. And it’s a great job, don’t get me wrong, for many reasons. But it’s no life among the dirty. Still passively, I was always keeping an eye on my friend, so I could take a discreet step forward if he ever decided to step back.

He wasn’t supposed to fucking die on me, though.
But he did.

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Let There Be Light

And there was Light. And God saw the Light. And it was Fucking Rad.

I signed my contract yesterday. After 2 separate temporary contracts they officially hired me and though nothing changed outside the drawer of some worker at the HR section, it felt like a really big deal. On my way to the city hall, I remember thinking, “Last chance to back out, now. The choice is made right here.”

But really, there was no honest choice involved. This is the way things will go, the continuation of the events that I set in motion when I decided that I would be there for my son, and that have only picked up in speed as I set my shoulders behind them. Today, I can beat my chest and say that I am almost there- almost to the point where I can face myself and say without shame,

I am a father. I am a stage technician. I have done the things necessary to lay the foundation for the life that follows; my own and that of my son. What happens next, nobody knows, but I can face it with my head held high.

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Unofficial

Perhaps one of the most risky things about getting a job is the fact that you become part of an organisation and represent its political tendencies and convictions. This may not be that important for your average concrete manufacturing plant, but in some cases this is a thing you might want to be aware of. The moment you sign your contract, you agree to work together for the profit of whatever thing you are employed by and you better consider your boundaries well before they are reached, lest you do things you’ll regret.

Again, for the average worker (like you) this is a pretty trivial thing. But what if you were asked to perform your tasks not just for, but with some party that you strongly disagree with, supporting their propaganda? Perhaps you can imagine that, as an employee of a city theater, you better have your principles in order or you might find that you crossed them in retrospect. (more…)


The Marathon

When I am involved in a production and fill in the archetypal role of the technician (I prefer to call it “the specialist”), I have no inhibitions to step forward and contribute actively to the end product. Many will know, I would literally put my hand in the fire for most jobs I’ve had so far. I take these things very personal.

But as a house technician, things are different. When you have a new production passing through every day and sometimes even multiple, you can’t keep up the sprint that you put down as part of the team. If you want to keep this up for 7 days, a whole season long, you have to eat. You have to sleep. At some point, you’ll have to put your foot down and say, “No. Now I take a break and those things you are panicking about, are your problem, not mine.”
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XLR

XLR cables, commonly known as microphone cables, are designed to carry a so-called balanced AC electrical signal from point A (generally a microphone) to point B (generally and audio mixing desk). They have a relatively simple task but a big problem in accomplishing it: Electric current is prone to disturbances from pretty much any magnetic interference from fields in the space around it. This means just about every light fixture, cell phones, pacemakers, hell even the sun.

There is a point to this. Bear with me.

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Keys

Most people live on a weekly basis. A lot of the things they see and do, repeat themselves when Monday starts. Unless some holiday occurs where they get the day off to spend in front of a television, they work like a little horsey for 5 days so that they can consume like a piggy for another 2. Rinse, repeat, retire, die.

Despite my holier-than-thou attitude, I am not so different from this cut-and-paste American dream. The only difference is that my repetition isn’t on a weekly basis, but a monthly one.

Just like theirs though, it starts on a Monday, with an alarm clock murdering my sleep in cold blood and forcing reality upon me. And I too flick some water on my eyebrows (stubborn bastards) and climb in my ‘98 Opel to drive to work. 5 minutes late as usual. Whatever I do, I can’t seem to fix that habit.

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Saint Nicolas

[Note: This post took me over a week to write and relative time references in it are inaccurate.]

If you follow me on Facebook (and you should because I’m interesting af) you might have noticed my latest status update: I found work. And not just any work, no.
When I got back from the United States, I had quite the task ahead of me. Despite all my promises and symbolic efforts, I had made zero progress towards a stable income and a sound financial support for my baby momma. So I got right to work and lo and behold, along came the mother of all job openings: Stage Technician in the city theater of Sint-Niklaas, half an hour drive from home. I applied, together with 30+ other people, 2 of which I knew from classes and work. It was a rat race like no other, with 3 rounds of exams. Within the first 5 minutes, 4 applicants got up and left. The exam was hard.

I made it to 2nd place. In other words, I didn’t get the job and I would get included in the reserve. I tried to take the rejection positively but honestly, it really bummed me out. If it wasn’t for my job coach slapping sense into me, I would have lost motivation for a lot longer. I’m quite embarrassed of that now, in retrospect.

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Learned Helplessness

We live in a crowded world, where everything involves a lot of people with a lot of opinions and lots of toes to step on. Where ever you go, what ever you do, there will be people with the ability to tell you what you should and shouldn’t do, and it’s easy to get used to that. Especially when going into a new situation, it’s tempting to let things be decided for you and focus on following the rules and regulations laid out for you, so that whatever it is you’re doing, it won’t be the wrong thing.

Learned Helplessness is that tendency, that pushes you to ask things you already know. It’s a monkey wrench in the machinery of your decision taking, stopping you dead until you have the green light to move. If you would ever pay attention to it, you might start noticing how often you go out of your way to ask a question that you already know the answer to. Small problems pop up, and your immediate reaction is to find the person responsible for the obvious answer, lest you could be the one to blame when shit hits the fan.

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