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#RedAlertRESTART… How It Happened — From the Inside

Marcel Fairbairn • Industry NewsTheatre Buzz • September 4, 2020

The following article was written and submitted to PLSN, a sister publication to Stage Directions by Marcel Fairbairn one of the organizers of the #RedAlertRESTART event.

Ground Zero for We Make Events in the UK on Aug-11th 2020

On August 12th, 2020, our battered Live Events industry was a full 5 months into the COVID related shutdown, with no end in sight. Then, on my weekly Happy Hour zoom, Steve Warren from Avolites began speaking about a movement that began with a simple idea and hashtag, created by a passionate but small group of individuals in the UK production industry, with a simple goal. To raise awareness, and pressure the government to recognize the size of their industry, and the impact of this pandemic on its survival. They would do so by organizing Red Alert, a push to light UK buildings in red, in a show of solidarity. Steve explained they had been successful, gaining the attention of both the BBC and ITV by way of their recent event. In fact, they confirmed they had lighted 715 places across the UK, a spectacular achievement.

In doing so, our UK friends not only lit an enormous number of buildings, but gained attention, both within, and outside our industry. This is the most challenging task in all of this, inspiring people who are not in the business to understand and care about the people and businesses who create shows, events, even just red buildings. Regular people go to concerts, theater, amusement parks and trade shows, or watch TV or movies, yet they are oblivious to the effort and resources it takes to put those on. Typical of most people, if it’s not directly in their field of vision or area of interest / business, they don’t give it much thought. So the real need was to educate the general public, politicians as well, on both the size of this industry, and its current devastation. The UK group, titled We Make Events, delivered, in a big way.

So, on August 12th, that fateful happy hour Zoom call happened… and provided a tiny spark. In fact, it was likely my competitive side as much as anything. I thought “well, if the UK can do 715 buildings, we sure as hell can do 1,500 in North America”. Based on this spark, I began to rally the weekly gang, and eventually, we selected an unlikely group of national leaders, myself included, through a simple show of hands — “who wants to be on the committee” — then decided to explore.

A couple of days later, on Friday August 14th, the committee had scheduled our first meeting. While this meeting was meant to be a discussion on practical matters like feasibility, likelihood of achieving, costs, challenges, and other items most functional teams would discuss — instead, it really felt like the decision had already been made. In fact, leading up to that meeting, I was already receiving calls from people who “heard what we were doing” (how, I have no idea… since our first official notice of any kind would be the following Monday), which convinced me there was already momentum building even before we decided to do it.

First on our new agenda was to select a name and date for our new mission. One thing we knew was that we wanted to follow the success of our UK counterpart, and adopt the We Make Events branding. And second, Red Alert. But there was another very important target for us — which was to get the RESTART bill some much needed attention. So we quickly came up with #RedAlertRESTART as our campaign.

This would become our marching order, our call to action. And the date… we determined a couple of things. First, it needed to happen before Congress came back from their Labor Day break. It shouldn’t be on a weekend, and Mondays and Fridays are bad due to the scheduling for rental shops. So, Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday. We chose Sept 27th, and we were on our way.

But first, an important decision had to be made. While I am a passionate visionary and born leader (or loudmouth), those who know me will recognize that I am not as great at managing, especially details or smaller items. I like direction, big picture, and branding. Who then would “manage” this mission? Just after the committee meeting, I received a call from one of our members, a business associate and friend of mine, Brad Nelms, whom I’d done business with for a couple of years during both his roles with ACT and VER. Brad said “have you chosen your co-manager on this thing yet” and I replied no, and he said “I’d love to be that person”. Thinking about Brad, my history with him, and how he managed himself, plus — his much more diplomatic and sensitive approach than my own (to say the very least), I realized he was actually a very good choice. So I said “sure, you’re now the Director”. As a funny side note, many times since then, I would receive a note or call from our own team members, or others in the industry who would ask, “Marcel, who the f&%k is Brad Nelms”. Well, I am sure you all know now!!

Over the weekend, I got my first warning call from Craig Burross, who said “I heard your date is the 27th”. I said “yup”. He said “you realize that coincides with the Republican Convention right”, I said “nope, I don’t pay attention to that stuff”. He said, “in fact, it’s the final night, so likely Trump will make his speech”. Initially I thought that maybe no one would care, and this won’t be an issue. Brad and I spoke about it and thought there might be huge gains to be had due to the national media attention. But within the next 48 hours, we continued taking calls of concern, and eventually decided the date should change. We agreed from day one that while our target is a political one, to get politicians to see us, and vote for things that would help us, that we would remain a-political or politically agnostic. And this date, the 27th, could appear to be a partisan show of support to the GOP or President Trump. Especially considering, our color was red.

The new date selection process would prove to be somewhat challenging because we were now being much more careful to look for things ALSO on that date. We appointed Cosmo Wilson as our “calendarist” who would google the heck out of dates. Do you have any idea how hard it is to find a single date, that’s not on a weekend, Monday or Friday, and has NOTHING going on? Eventually, after Cosmo giving it the green light, and several conversations I had with our Gov’t Affairs guru, Michael Strickland, we selected Sept 1st, and vowed “we are not changing this again”. A minor hiccup in the grand scheme of things, the date change proved to be exactly the right decision.

The next item on our agenda was “we can’t do this alone” and we quickly decided on constructing a decentralized team. We would select regional directors, who would in turn — build regional, or local teams who would focus on the national messaging, branding and methods, but with a local or regional focus and flair.

With this regional approach decided, our team began to put feelers out in search of appropriate Regional Directors. At first, it was more difficult than I’d expected. “Who should we call”, and “what do they really need to do”. Then, it came together, quick. Instead of begging people to join our mission, the team began to receive calls or emails from folks who had heard, and wanted to become involved.

On Monday — just 3 days following our exploratory committee meeting, and 5 days after the initial zoom call spark, we were already able to hold our first “Regional Directors” meeting, once again — on Zoom of course. I do plan to go back and re-watch these meetings one day, because I want to understand how this happened… and of course, use that knowledge to then build a wildly successful enterprise selling something meaningful… maybe electric tractors to farmers… kidding, but I will take everything I’ve learned into my own businesses and life.

Our first of many Regional Directors meetings with more than 50 directors on Zoom

So there you have in, in 2 days, we created and met as a national committee, then within 3 more days (over a weekend) we built what became a national team of Directors in more than 50 regions, each with between 20 and 100 on their teams. Doing quick math, I am guessing this became a team of at least 5,000 people, likely closer to 10,000 — in 2 weeks!!

A number of folks involved in our event on Times Square in NYC

We didn’t hand-pick our national team. Certainly, a few of our Regional Directors were well known by myself or my teammates and I or others personally reached out and invited them to get involved. Even more came to us with their hand raised saying “I want in” and in record time, a real dream team was born.

What happened next was truly remarkable and shows the heart, courage, determination, and passion of this great industry. With a level of resolve and commitment I cannot recall ever experiencing, this national team of now 60+ people, worked harder than I could have ever imagined, for no pay, and never once complained. Their passion and love for this project was immediately evident, and they never questioned the direction, the path, or even the goal “to light 1,500 buildings in the U.S.” (notice how we quietly dropped Canada, but didn’t adjust the number? Tricky, right?). But you know, the goal wasn’t really to light 1,500 places… that part would be easy with this team. The real goal was larger and more significant. We needed to be heard — loudly. Our forgotten little industry needed a coming out party that proved, we’re not that little, and we’re not ready, or willing to die either.

Then…. It happened. This “thing” went viral. Before you knew it, in only a couple of weeks our Facebook page alone would reach 2,000,000 people and had nearly 350,000 interactions (and growing). We gathered enormous social media followings on Twitter and Instagram as well, while also gaining the attention of local and national media in a pretty big way. The number of articles, stories, blog posts, interviews, podcasts, social media posts, and other mentions toward this movement may never be fully captured. But it’s massive.

Along the way, we also got the attention of other organizations. One such organization, who controlled many of the nation’s venues, including Broadway, didn’t seem to share in our desire to succeed. For whatever reason, they seemed intent on silencing us or slowing our progress. There was a day, I believe the 27th (remarkably, our original go date) when things were looking grim. I got “the call” from Brad late the night of the 26th, letting me know that we had a gun to our heads, and an ultimatum. “Do as we say, and delay your date, or we will take our toys, and exit your sandbox”. This was explained under the guise of social unrest in Wisconsin and a storm that would hit Houston the next day. Later, they threw in California wildfires for added volume.

Once again, Brad is far more diplomatic than I — and was questioning our ability to survive if we did let them walk. We spoke several times, and we eventually agreed (I can be persuasive) that what we were doing was too important, and the date DID matter. And also, that we could not be silenced. But more importantly, nothing we were planning would cause further challenges to the issues they had used for our changing the date.

What followed was not an easy 24 hour period, but a day I will NEVER forget. Yes, we lost some buildings, and yes, we expected we might lose some people. But we would not lose our dignity as a group, nor the energy of our mission. In my often celebrated words, “if we had to go forward by lighting only 2 hot dog stands and a dry cleaner, we would go forward”. Now, I realize that was a pretty weak marching order… and for that, I have apologized. But I really did mean it. I realized then, if we don’t stand for something, we will stand for nothing. So I led with principal and courage.

I will remember always that zoom meeting on the 27th where I asked everyone, to anonymously exit, without fanfare, arguments, or ANY hard feelings — if for any reason, they didn’t agree with continuing forward. And despite the massive blow we were dealt, NONE of them left!! Quietly — Brad and I had determined we would likely lose 5 Regionals, and would be “ok with” as many as 10. But zero wasn’t even being discussed. I underestimated their will and resolve.

Another thing I would be remiss if I failed to mention it, was the massive support we received from celebrities along the way. From Barry (Manilow) to Bubbles, we got so many celebrity videos, we struggled to post them all. In fact, we’re still sharing more today! Artists, actors, comedians, and other performers, are in a similar position that we are. They want to perform, not only so they get paid, but because it’s what they do, what they love. Without it, they, like us, are lost.

Artists and celebrities by the dozens, including Alice himself, jumped in support of #WeMakeEvents

In hindsight, our event day, September 1st is a blur. Social media was a frenzy — with 3 of us, working under the careful leadership of Sharon Gross, attempting to keep the wheels from coming off. Our website, developed for us by IATSE’s Jonas Loeb, originally planned to handle maybe 5,000 people in a day, was buckling under the pressure of 50,000 visitors on the 1st (and miraculously, Jonas held it together). Additionally, the site has a form, allowing folks to send a letter directly to their gov’t representatives. Prior to the 1st, our site had sent out 500 letters, a pretty impressive number for 1 week. But on the 1st, in 1 day, another 9,500 letters were sent!

Unlike most of our team, I was not able to be in the field lighting buildings (in fact, NO ONE really wants me handling lights!), so instead, I was part of team Red Alert Live, our 4.5 hour livestream, broadcast on FaceBook and YouTube. Christian Jackson and his team worked closely with me to put the plan in place for this event, and in the end, zoom challenges tried hard to kill it, but like always, we wouldn’t die. Christian Jackson, Ian Smith, and Steven Baker (plus their other team members) did such an incredible job, not only planning the tech required, the schedule and the beautiful set. And the execution was simply amazing. At 9pm Eastern, Christian appeared live, and within minutes, our NY team joined him. I couldn’t have been prouder.

Christian Jackson broadcasting Red Alert Live from his broadcast studio in Seattle

The next several hours were amazing. Sure, we had challenges, but it didn’t matter. Regional teams across the country represented, live, in such an incredible display of strength and unity. The images were awe inspiring, and continued to the very end when we signed off in LA at roughly 1:30 EDT. At the time of my writing, Red Alert Live was viewed by more than 200,000 people, guaranteeing we got WELL outside our industry bubble!

When Red Alert Live ended, I struggled hard to get to sleep, sending out High Five texts to our teams everywhere, and viewing the thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of photos in WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. In fact, I will be reviewing photos and results for days, and will never get to the bottom. But beyond that, I was coming to terms with what had just happened… and today, as I write this, I am still struggling to find words.

What this team did was beyond remarkable, borderline unthinkable. An industry that has been crushed, kicked to the side, and forgotten by most, came out like they were in the middle of their most successful days, and not only annihilated our own goals, but found new ones to achieve. They got thru the loss of dozens if not hundreds of venues, and instead of a pity party, they rolled up their sleeves and found MANY other buildings to light (thankfully, not a single hot dog stand nor dry cleaner). It was so damn fitting that we didn’t hear back from Empire State Building until 10:30 on event night saying “we’ve decided to go forward”. But we already knew, because the energy below that iconic building was driven up 10 fold as they looked up and saw the iconic building glowing red.

Cosmo Wilson turns a corner to realize, the Empire State Building had joined our cause

There were cities who struggled due to local politics, economic challenges, or even concerns over social issues. There were massive national promoters, building owners, casino bosses, and others who chose not to support us, because it was “too political”. Yet, in the end, our movement was loudly visible in most parts of this country, and continues to dominate social media feeds everywhere. Even politicians continue posting or mentioning RedAlertRESTART (some trying to take credit of course), and I cannot imagine any result sweeter than the RESTART bill being passed. In fact, I think someone should officially change the name to the “Red Alert RESTART” bill.

CBS Studio building in Studio City, CA

The truth is, I’ve never quite felt as I do this week. I know that what we’ve accomplished, together as an industry, has been nothing short of amazing, and likely will never be surpassed in our lifetimes. But I also know, there’s an opportunity for us all to do more. Our first goal, of course, is to see the RESTART act passed, allowing companies, venues, and small businesses in and around our communities to survive. We want to see unemployment benefits extended for those individuals in our industry who are struggling. But more importantly, we want an opportunity to prove that we can do shows again, safely!

Las Vegas sharing the message we’re looking to deliver, Pass RESTART to help people and businesses

I’ve learned that when called upon, this industry answers the bell in a big way. Contrary to what many believe, I’ve witnessed first hand, none of these workers, union or non, designers, sound engineers, technicians, or labor WANT to sit at home collecting benefits and watching TV. These incredible people want to work, doing what they love to do, creating beautiful things for millions of people to enjoy. I witnessed how happy people were to be setting up lights. I saw IATSE members pushing cases, shoulder to shoulder with non-union workers, I saw companies who are competitors and sometimes, bitter rivals, working together to light buildings. I saw 4Wall trucks parked next to PRG trucks — delivering free equipment in a show of complete solidarity.

Heinz Field in Pittsburgh shows support to our cause

I have seen so much in these past 3 weeks that I cannot even begin to explain, without still falling short on words. But most of all, I’ve seen the heart, soul, and compassion of PEOPLE. Humankind has taken a beating in 2020, we’ve been divided by a virus, by political beliefs, and a notion that we truly hate each other, based solely on our voting preference or skin color. I don’t believe that. Sure, there are bad people in this world, but I truly believe that given the opportunity to do good, most of us will. In fact, September 1st could be considered one of the greatest group hugs ever organized by any one industry… And somehow, we found our way outside the industry as well, out of our bubble. People everywhere saw what we did, and many will remember it for a long time.

#RedAlertRESTART

#WeMakeEvents

#LiveEvents

#COVID19

#ConcertLighting

Written by: Marcel Fairbairn from Gear Source. “I have this crazy disease where I keep getting ideas that I have a burning desire to pursue. That keeps me busy, and a little unrested as well.”

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