BY IAN WHITWORTH 

David Lee Roth knew the signs of a dodgy production and so should you.

No story better illustrates spoilt, indulgent rock star behaviour like Van Halen’s 80’s demands for a backstage bowl of M&M’s with all the brown ones removed. Creating unnecessary work for the poor overworked promoter for the pure thrill of exercising petulant rock star power. If someone asked you for a tale of how entertainers lose touch with the common people, that’s the one you’d tell.
And as it turns out, you’d be completely wrong.
The truth behind the legend was that in the 80’s, Van Halen pioneered the major concert spectacular, touring lighting rigs on a scale never seen before. They were often playing in venues un-renovated since the 50’s. Staffed by people untrained and unmotivated since the 50’s.
Without the major power and rigging required, at best, their shows wouldn’t work very well. At worst, they represented a serious safety hazard to both band and audience. Experience taught the band that many promoters weren’t even bothering to read the band’s rider – the contract that specifies not just choc-candy indulgences, but every technical detail of the stage production.
Singer David Lee Roth hit on the idea of a safety mechanism buried deep in the middle of their rider: “No brown M&M’s are to be found in the backstage area, or the promoter will forfeit the entire show at full price.”
So the brown M&M’s weren’t a sweet, crunchy symbol of Roth’s out-of-control ego. In fact, they were the proverbial canary in the coalmine.
“If I came backstage and found brown M&M’s on the catering table, it guaranteed the promoter hadn’t read the contract rider, and we would have to do a serious check for danger issues,” Roth said.
By throwing a theatrically exaggerated backstage-trashing tantrum when he found them, Roth ensured that word got around quickly that their riders were to be read. It’s fair to say there would be middle-aged Van Halen fans, still in double denim, who are alive today because of lighting rig collapses that didn’t happen due to Van Halen’s M&M diligence.
The fact that a massive legend grew up around it was a PR benefit that Roth, a world-class showbiz hustler, was pleased to accept.
So I asked a group of touring technical directors with decades of experience supervising AV and production crews for their version of the brown M&M’s. The signs they look for when they walk into a room in a strange city with a new crew. The things that make them go ‘uh-oh’.

Messy Backstage

Good staging companies have an orderly backstage, with roadcases stacked up just so, and no piles of unused cables on the floor. The audience will never see it, but presenters and performers have to walk through there, and backstage chaos manifests itself in show chaos. A crew with a tidy backstage is a crew that can find stuff in an emergency.

Sweaty Crew

“If there’s a reasonable setup time allowed, when I see sweaty crew it always suggests they’re panicking and haven’t got their act together,” said one show director. “On the flip side of that, I also don’t like to see crew who are TOO well-dressed. Experience tells me it’s a sign they aren’t prepared to work very hard.”

Lunchbox Syndrome

Another director doesn’t like to see too many roadcases. He says professional companies have their systems in racks, wired up and ready to just plug in. “When I see hundreds of small roadcases, each one like a microphone in a plastic lunchbox or those little suitcases, that tells me they usually do low-end equipment rental, not shows,” he said.

Angry Birds = Angry Client

Games or social media on a browser tab behind the PowerPoint is a dead giveaway that your crew isn’t focused on the show.

Too Easy Mate

Speaking personally, as a presenter, I fear the technician who doesn’t ask questions. You step them through your talk, and if they just nod and don’t ask questions or write anything down, you know they haven’t taken in a word of it. If they add the words ‘too easy mate’ or ‘I’ve done this a hundred times before’, I hear honking alarm sirens like the ones in naval warfare films. Your show is heading to the bottom of the ocean with the loss of all souls aboard. And as David Lee Roth might say, you might as well jump. m

Ian Whitworth leads a double life as a co-owner of audio-visual group Scene Change, and principal of creative marketing consultancy, A Lizard Drinking. He can be contacted on email – ian@scenechange.com.au.

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