On Feb. 8, the America First Event Center Arena was bustling with activity as stage technicians and SUU employees prepared for a Piano Guys concert. I made my way to the stage and watched a man step out of a harness that, just minutes before, had lifted him into the rafters to inspect a lighting rig.
Richard Payson, a 2006-09 SUU alumnus, originally wanted to study theater before he began to work as a photojournalist for the University Journal and changed his major to communication. Currently, Payson is working as production manager for The Piano Guys. Throughout our conversation, more than once, he paused to adjust lighting or to listen to updates on a radio that he kept on hand, before explaining to me what he was doing, and why.
How did you get into production management? Was it always something you wanted to do?
With this, these guys specifically, I kind of fell into it because they needed it. I did it through high school. I thought it would be my main thing – that’s why I came to SUU, was the theater program. I ended up working at the newspaper, I liked that a lot better, but I always kept getting random live design gigs on the side. I worked for a lot of newspapers while I was up north and it kind of fizzled out with the papers changing and everything. It was right when the internet was getting big, and a lot of newspapers were going out of business. A lot of them were figuring themselves out. I actually went and worked in North Dakota for a while, because of that big oil boom. I came back and just had a bunch of jobs like this. They specifically needed a lighting person so I came on the torch to do lighting and then just became production manager. I’ve toured the longest out of a lot of these guys.
What does a day in the life of a production manager look like?
When you’re on a really long tour you spend a lot of time advancing the shows. (The Piano Guys) don’t tour very long, it’s like two or three weeks. So we actually advance all of it before we go on tour. When we’re not on tour I call the venues, book everything that we need. We bring most of it. Everything you see in the air is what we travel with. So we just communicate ‘hey, we need rigging points here, here and here.’ Once you show up on the site, the first thing you do is get all the rigging points in the air. I have double jobs so I get the rig into the air. A normal production manager would get the initial setup going and then go and do more advancement calls. This tour, after I’m done setting the stuff up, I can just focus on the lighting. All this truss actually lands on its feet and keeps the lights in it. So it’s really easy to have that job because it’s a simpler setup. This job has morphed from just lighting to production managing just because I have the time. If I didn’t have the time or it was a longer tour, I couldn’t do both jobs.
Do you have a favorite experience that you’ve had, being production manager for the piano guys?
It’s really nice to travel, to work and travel. Sometimes traveling, not for fun, it gets boring. It’s not like going to Europe or something where you get a week to experience it all. But I like the quick travel. Traveling has been great. I’ve seen a lot of the country, I’ve seen most of Europe and Asia with these guys. It’s a deadline based environment, same as newspapers. You work really hard to put a product out and then there’s a deadline when the product is presented, like when you send the paper to the printers or online, you know, daily news content, or a show. So deadline-based environments, I really thrive in them. It’s really easy to thrive in that because it puts that motivation of a timeline in. And it forces people to work together to create a good product. It’s not like you’re trying to release your product to the public for fun. You have a deadline set because an audience has bought tickets to see it … it forces creativity. Same thing with this. There’s always a show tomorrow.
You mentioned that The Piano Guys do very short tours. What do you do when you’re not touring?
I work for a production company called ClearLamp. We do shows exactly like this … we do show all the time. This is the show we travel the most for. The other shows we do are easy because we’ve done this so many times. It’s just live productions. I used to be into more things but this is a pretty time-intensive job. It’s pretty much all I do now. I used to work on movie sets as a gaffer, the paper stuff, but now it’s all production shows.
The Piano Guys are part of a growing movement of Utah-based artists – specifically musicians. How do you think being more locally based compares to traveling outside of the state to produce? You mentioned you worked on movie sets. How is this different from those?
Movie sets are totally different. In Utah there are a lot of different movies that get filmed here because it’s cheaper, there’s a lot of tax benefits … Having all the Utah-based bands, like Lindsey Sterling, we have a lot of friends that are on the Lindsey Stirling tour, a couple of our guys have been asked to go. It’s cool. Supplying stuff for any of those tours is awesome. I guess no one’s based out of Kansas, right, so Utah’s better in that regard … My business partner is gay and so he knows one of the Neon Trees guys that’s gay and so we’ve done a lot of work for him. Alex Boye … Marie Osmond … we’ve done a lot of shows for her. She’s intense … The big money makers, the long days and stuff, are the corporate gigs. Really boring. Obviously entertainment, in the summer, entertainment is really fun. Sometimes we’ll do really big traveling guys. I’ve done Toto. We’ve worked on a lot of big projects.
What advice would you give to SUU students who are looking at going into a field like this one?
This is specifically one of those industries where you start at the bottom. So don’t put yourself above anyone. Always be willing to work at any position, and then once you get good, people will recognize that and they’ll start calling you for those higher positions. It just takes a few years. This industry is all about working from the ground up. The movie industry’s a little bit like that. California was a lot of weird union things, but Utah is a little bit easier. The biggest thing is just, you know, you’re not above anything, like ‘oh I’m too good for that job.’ I wrap the heaviest cable every day, still. I’ve been doing this job for ten years. You always get to do the dirty jobs, but eventually, you won’t have to. Unless it needs to get done. Sometimes, you don’t have somebody to fold a curtain and so you’re folding curtains. That’s a thing you do when you’re first doing this, you fold curtains all day. To get into the industry, find the companies that do it. You’ll need to be willing to do anything and then they’ll find your strengths and weaknesses and move you in that direction.
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Featured Photo By Mitchell Quartz