For a theater or AV technician, precision in purchasing can mean the difference between a successful show or a whole lot of stress. Anna Tompkins looks at what can go wrong in the acquisition process and, more importantly, how to make sure it's right next time.

  • Think back
  • What happened?
  • It seemed like a simple request
  • Turns out there was a new person in the purchasing department
  • They needed to understand where we were coming from

Think back: You’re doing research for some gear for your show. You happen to be working with a large conglomerate that handles the official purchasing for the venue. You submit your purchase orders with all the necessary supporting documents as to why you need this exact product. It gets approved, purchased and finally delivered (very possibly several weeks after it was meant to) only to discover it is completely incorrect.

What happened? Quick, go back into your spreadsheets and scour the various documents and email threads to see if there is something you missed. Did you perhaps forget a form or mistype a product number? No. Send it to the wrong person? Nope. After consulting the TD and ultimately the purchasing department, you did everything correctly and filled out the request in the appropriate period of time. Ok, fine. Call the distributor and have them send over another copy of the invoice that your company send them to fill. Turns out they did exactly what they were asked to do, except this wasn’t the distributor you requested, they don’t even carry your product. It’s a company that you have never heard of halfway across the world. So what happened? Where did you go wrong in your communication that lead to a mistake that not only cost valuable time and money, but also gets you the stick eye from the director who wants to know why they still don’t have access to a critical piece of show equipment that they needed to start working with last week?

This happened to me once. This is a technician’s purchasing experience.

It seemed like a simple request for triple-action carabiners. Something small, lightweight and appropriately rated for human use. I had made requests like this dozens of times without fail so honestly I expected everything to work out fine. I still remember that day, getting the radio call that my box was in the loading dock, albeit a bit later than anticipated. I remember taking that ridiculously slow elevator down, hand truck in tow and excited for new toys. Somehow but this point word had spread to artistic that we had the gear waiting and they had presumed that we would be integrating it that day.

This would not be happening. Not only would there not be enough time to inspect and catalog everything by that day’s creation session, but these were wire gate carabiners! Glorified key holders (which they eventually became).

In ten minutes, my mood went from upbeat to sour, culminating in a giant sigh of exasperation as I stand there just shaking my head on that quiet loading dock surrounded by smoldering cigarette butts and discarded pallets. At this point there is not much I can do. The creation session starts in 20 minutes and I can already hear the Stage Managers sorting out where we would be starting over the headset that amazingly had service floors down and, what seemed like, worlds away. So I loaded my box on my little trolley and headed back to the theater where I would meet a discussion that I honestly didn’t want to have.

On my way back, with headset reception cutting in and out, I radioed in for a quick meeting with the TD, PSM, and the Assistant Director. A few minutes later, I’m in the house with my box of evidence and explaining in calm detail what seems to have happened and why the gear that we received would not be acceptable for the intended use. It actually went a lot better than I expected. Everyone just nodded, completely agreed with my assessment and carried on like it never happened. The TD said he was on it while the others worked to organize another training. Thank god for professionals. They understood the realities of what we do.

So, acknowledging that I wasn’t going to be involved in that session I took the time to backtrack and figure out what I missed. I found out the next day.

Turns out there was a new person in the purchasing department. He had come from a hotel purchasing background and was used to buying things like towels and cleaners and could generally find decent, inexpensive products and save the company some money. Very laudable. He didn’t know that we couldn’t simply use a different product.

He had seen the original request, with the photos and various links to the carabiner and done his own research through a popular wholesale website and saw something that looked the same to him that was three times cheaper. And you know what, I get where he was coming from. I couldn’t really be mad at him, he just had no experience with what we do.

A few days later I was able to give him and a few of his colleagues a personal tour of our space. Some of them had never even been in a theater before, so it was new and exciting just for that. They asked tons of questions, like taking the kids to the zoo. We went over some automation and rigging basics and spoke about standards of safe practice that we have to work within then brought it home with watching a rehearsal.

They needed to understand where we were coming from. It wouldn’t be enough to hover in their offices and talk at them for days on end, they needed to see it with their own eyes and acknowledge that we already go through all the rigorous research for them. We have already considered the cost and timing consequences. We appreciate them finalizing the process for us and yes, they are positively contributing to the entertainment experience.

We got the right gear ordered that day to be delivered the next week, but more importantly, gained some new theater converts. We let them know when there were open rehearsals that they could watch and got them tickets for the show months later. What started off feeling like the beginning of a terrible week ended up making me remember why we do this. To bring joy and wonder regardless of age or circumstance.

While they weren’t necessarily our target audience, the purchasing department became our biggest fans and never batted an eye at some of our seemingly outlandish requests. They made sh*t happen and if it took four boxes of cookies to help move it along, then I have no shame.

Shout out to all those folks that work even further behind the scenes than we do!

Reprinted with kind permission of Anna Tompkins and TheatreArtLife, a platform for industry professionals from all live entertainment genres to connect and learn from each other! 

More blogs you might like: 

Dear Diary - VJ Spetto on life in lockdown

Multiexperience – the next tech trend in the AV industry?

How to avoid the event hangover

On TheatreArtLife: Carabiners