In the Hot Seat

By Maciej Chabelski

David Leaver sits in a Ricoh Coliseum booth in Toronto and studies his laptop. In this American Hockey League game he makes a note and looks for more news while the Toronto Marlies play on the ice below. “I’ve got to check on the out-of-town scores so I can put them on the electronic billboard,” he explains. Electronic is the key word for Leaver who is not a sports broadcaster or analyst. He’s the guy behind the scenes and he’s there to make sure you’re amused.

Photo By Maciej Chabelski

As well as scores, he also puts up team logos, graphics and sponsor ads whenever required. His best friend is Chyron, a computer system. Although he’s surrounded by others in the booth, he’s totally focused on his task. It all comes down to him, and he loves it.

The 24-year-old stagehand is an apprentice under the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), Local 58. He is responsible for setting up lights, sound, scenery, rigging and other important elements of the pre- and post production process. He holds a variety of titles: stagehand, steel climber, house technician, carpenter, electrician, props, and at the moment, board operator.

His expertise lies in lighting, but this hockey gig shows that it’s not necessarily his only talent. He’s worked at the Air Canada Centre, in shopping mall fashion shows, in hotels working corporate gigs, at concerts, at the Rogers Centre, and in all the major Toronto theatres. He gets to meet new people, experience new challenges, and explore new locations. It sounds like a sexy life. But is it?

“I’ve had weeks where I’ve worked 90 hours,” Leaver says. “There have also been weeks where I’ve worked zero hours.” It’s the kind of life that a stage tech lives.

Craig Bulmer, an 18-year veteran of motion picture and stage production and Leaver’s colleague on a variety of gigs, says the work hours and work days are the worst parts of the stagehand’s job.

Leaver is already feeling the same pinch that Bulmer does, and he’s only one year removed from the Ryerson tech program. His day starts by answering the phone. “Typically it’s for the next morning but sometimes you get a day or two’s notice,” he says. “However, there are those days where you get zero notice.” Leaver is constantly in a time crunch.

“I have these hourly windows for myself,” he says. “I usually use them for sleep.” Leaver motions toward a production list of the big shows coming in the next few months. “This is the closest thing I get to predicting work,” he says. “A lot of the stuff I do isn’t even on there, so in the end, it’s not very helpful.” Leaver reaches the scene by bicycle, his favourite mode of transport. Once there, he always tries to get the more technical work, due to his lighting experience at Ryerson and beyond. “Some people are paid to push boxes, while I get paid to push buttons,” he says.

Photo By Maciej Chabelski

But somehow, everyone gets on. “Look, we’re all in the same boat, more or less,” Leaver says about his fellow techs. “If there are conflicts, which are rare, of keys and put one key each in an electrical outlet. The shock sent him flying and burned his thumb and welded the keys together. Interesting that he went on to a career focused on plugging things in.”

For Leaver, it’s a no-brainer. “You experience awesome situations,” he says. At a gig at the Rogers Centre in 2007, Leaver was ground rigging for a production of The Wiggles, an Australian children’s musical group. Part of the setup included him being suspended from the roof, throwing wires down to the ground crew. Although he was hundreds of feet above the ground, the opportunity to take pictures was not lost to Leaver. He snapped several shots of a bird’s eye view of the Centre’s turf, an experience he says he’ll never forget. He also got paid $30 an hour.

“I’ve met some famous people as well,” he adds. At a load-in to a Black Sabbath concert earlier this year, Leaver spotted the infamous Osbourne family. “I saw Ozzy,” he says. “They had put some kind of a towel over his head and he was wandering around (backstage) with his wife Sharon and his son Jack, but he wasn’t fooling anybody there. It was Ozzy.”
Leaver has also learned new skills. He lists a variety of lifts, cranes, and machines he’s learned to operate in his short career as a stagehand. “Any training I get is reimbursed by the union,” he says. His current role as the Ricoh Coliseum’s Chyron operator is a hands-on training experience.

He also gets instant access to some of the best shows in Toronto, as some jobs require production during the show. At Ross Petty’s production of Peter Pan last November, he looked through a laser- guided scope at the stage, ready to signal to his
teammates with a flash if there were any problems during the show. He lists it as one of his favourite experiences as a stagehand.

“I feel a tremendous amount of job satisfaction,” Leaver says from the desk he sits at as Chyron operator. “I feel well-respected and I wouldn’t choose anything else but this job. I’m set for life.” Leaver could be granted professional status by 2010 pending the successful completion of his apprenticeship. Suddenly, a penalty call in the game causes Leaver to spring into action. A long receipt of commands is pasted on the side of his computer screen.

Among the hundreds of commands, Leaver knows which one to hit. He types it in, bringing up the Direct Energy logo associated with the Marlies’ power play. He smiles at a job well done, and relaxes back into his seat again. It is hard to look at Leaver and not come to the conclusion that he’s enjoying himself just as much as the audience.

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