About Michael Hoffert, Jr.

Posts by Michael Hoffert, Jr.:

Preparing for the summer production season

Here we are, at the end of the semester, and once again I am staring at a summer that will be jammed packed with work as an IATSE Local 121 stagehand.  In a lot of ways I am dreading the start of the season because it means my free time will dwindle down to the few hours I get to sleep between work, but at the same time I am excited for another summer of live event concerts, Artpark’s summer musical, and a nice inflation of my bank account.

Thankfully, I think that the strike for “Urinetown” did a lot to get me into the headspace for the season.  It was a long, grueling day where myself and other student spent covered in saw dust, arms sore from unscrewing thousands of screw from the set.

I woke up this morning the sorest I’ve been in many months, but at the same time I know it is only prelude to what will be the next four months for me.  And I can’t wait.  I hope everybody has a great, restful, relaxing summer…because I definitely won’t be.  But that’s ok, because even when this job beats you down, I still can’t help but love it.

And the money doesn’t hurt either.

Digital Model Building

Early on in the semester I was in the shop talking with Scott, who started talking to me about a 3D Digital Modeling program he’d used to design several structures.  This program is called Google Sketch Up, and it’s a very simple to use click-and-drag building program that is also completely free.  I downloaded the program and then spent a few hours playing around with it.

The first real intensive design work I did with the program was in designing my set for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream”, where I started by building a model of the drama theatre, and then went on to design my set inside of the model.  This gave me a chance to get an idea of what my physical bristol board model would look like.





Doing this made building my model so much easier.  I wasn’t simply adding pieces here and there and seeing what worked, cutting out each piece and gluing it.  I had already figured out what I wanted to do.

This also helped me later in the semester after I had my hand surgery.  Because I was unable to use my right hand completely, I did a rough design of a possible set for “The America Play”, this time not just building the playing space but also using another benefit of the program.  There are thousands of prebuilt elements that can be simply downloaded and added into the model.


and while this set would ultimately go through several more revisions, being able to find elements that worked and did not was also very helpful.

The Reorganization of the Props Warehouse

During my first meeting with Dan Bartunek he gave all of the other props people and myself a tour of the warehouse.  Once he established a general idea of where all of the types of props were, he began discussing with me his plans for the reorganization of the warehouse over the course of the semester.  As Dan spoke I found it very difficult to keep up with all of what he was saying, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I, by my lonesome, would be able to meet all of these tasks that he was putting in front of me.  Dan seemed confident enough, I did not.

My first big task, and one of the most important in the complete reorganization of the props warehouse was measuring all of the rugs on a giant steel rack and then getting rid of the rack itself.  I went to the warehouse and over the course of several days, with the assistance of a measuring tape, a Sharpie marker, and a small roll of white gaffer’s tape, I began to unfurl all of the rugs, get their height and length, and then reroll them and place them somewhere that wasn’t on the rack.  Once I had gotten the rack almost completely empty, I was faced with another challenge.  Some previous person had, for some unknown reason, decided that the best place to put a cast-iron tub was on top of this steel rack, where it very easily got lodged between the box-steel frame.  After a discussion with I believe Eric and Tom Burke (and possibly Tom Tucker) I was able to take a chain motor and, wrapping two span sets around the tub, lift the thing out and safely set it down on the ground.  After that, getting rid of the steel rack was as simple as taking a ban saw to it and cutting it into small, manageable pieces.  Needless to say, Dan was ecstatic when he saw the amount of space this freed up in the warehouse.

After that, and between my visits to the props warehouse, Dan had managed to get a group of production practicum lab students to disassemble a rack that was on the upstairs and reassemble it on the downstairs where the steel rack had been.  This rack became populated by all of the couches in the warehouse, with Dan’s thinking being that it didn’t make sense to have to carry heavy couches up and down stairs.  This also allowed Dan to have more space upstairs where there was a few more racks.  Dan himself was surprised at the progress being made, saying on more than one occasion that we had accomplished more in a couple of weeks than he had expected us to do all semester.

We then utilized a Design Sem breakout session and a late lab class to move another rack, and flip it’s orientation.  Suddenly we had even more space upstairs and a rack full of nothing but chairs.  We seemed to be on a real tear, but we had slow down as both “Road to Glory” and “Three-Penny” kicked into heavy production and my services were needed elsewhere, whether it be on a paint call where I learned to scumble, or if I was building props that eventually ended up getting cut from the show anyway.

Our last big push came during the strike of “Three-Penny”.   After all of the props had been returned to us, Dan and I again utilized all of the people that had shown up to the strike to our advantage.  We flipped and rearranged the remaining racks on the upstairs level, fulfilling Dan’s vision of having walkable isles instead of a big mess in front of the racks that were pushed the long way against the wall.  Even after all of this, Dan refused to stop and pushed up further, completely rearranging the downstairs, especially the side under the upper level.  I emptied the two steel chair racks that had been buried in there and handed the chairs off to other students who took them up to Dan to be put on one of the now two tall chair racks upstairs.  We then moved the lower racks into the shop for them to be dismantled and preceded to move the bench rack, tables, desks, and even a doorway under there with plenty of room to spare.

Now at the end of the semester the props warehouse looks completely different.  Dan’s ultimate goal of making it more navigable, and making props easier to find and reach is pretty close to true.  But like with anything, it’s not finished, and I hope whoever takes over my position next semester will continue to make that room the best that it can.  We’ve already done the hardest work in there, thought, so it will certainly be easy for them.

My Fear of Responsibility

When Lynn first approached me to be the Property Manager over the summer while I was working at Artpark, I was terrified.  I had absolutely no idea what I would be doing, and if I’d be able to do it.  But thankfully I was able to put it out of my mind until the first week of classes, when I was giving my packet.

Now, at the end of the semester, I feel like I’ve been able to fulfill what was asked of me back in August.  It took me a while to shake that fear which grounded me to the spot, and truth be told that fear is still there.  But I’ve come to the realization that it’s better to press on and face it.  We are after all, in an academic setting, and I’m fairly certain that no one in our theatre department wants to see us fail.

I am glad that I was asked to be the props manager this semester, and look foreword to my further involvement as TD on Forgiving John Lennon.

Iatse Young Worker’s Conference

During the height of the summer concert season in mid-July, the Business Agent of IATSE Local 121 (Niagara Falls) and personal mentor John Scardino Jr. asked me if I would be interested in attending an IATSE Young Worker’s Conference in Philadelphia.  This conference would be the first of it’s kind, and bring together young IATSE  (International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees) worker’s from across North America and even members of BECTU (Broadcasting, Entertainment, Cinematograph and Theatre Union, the UK’s equivalent).  Needless to say I was stunned and honored to be considered for this experience.

I have been working professionally as a stagehand since I was 18 years old, and after two years I was asked to petition for membership.  Having grown up in a strong Labor household, I was overjoyed to join a union and get a union card.  So at the age of 20 I was voted in as a member of IATSE, and for the past four years have worn the IA Bug proudly.

On Thursday, September 6th, myself and two of my IA Brothers; Chris Brown and Patrick Moyer, left for the city of brotherly love.  After taking in a few sites, we convened in the meeting hall of the Holiday Inn to begin the conference, where everybody in the room introduced themselves and said what local and profession they were in.  I had always assumed that, for whatever reason, that IATSE was only made up of stagehands like myself, and a few theatrical technicians like stage carpenters, sound engineers, and electricians.  As my fellow brothers and sisters were announcing themselves, I was amazed to hear about Local 600, the international camera operators local, or to hear about the hairdressers local, or to even learn that members of BECTU were there as well.

We learned in our first seminar how about 20% of IATSE member were under the age of 35, and then we saw which states had the youngest and oldest groups if members.   There is a total of 112,890 IA members between the United States and Canada, and out of that 22,133 were within our age range.  We were then shown the breakdown of how many worked in which field, whether it was in motion pictures (20.39%), studio mechanics (25.32%), stagecraft (18.15%), mixed locals (18.30%), wardrobe (17.93%),treasures and ticket sellers (17.38%), and television broadcast (13.08%).  We also saw that of all of those, the motion pictures had the fastest growing membership of young workers.

The history of the IA was next, which was always a subject I had been curious about, being both a fan of history and the labor movement.  The IA was originally founded as the NATSE when 10 cities of stagecraft workers became affiliated with the Knights of Labor (a precursor to the AFL) and formed a national union in 1893.  Five years later, Canadian locals joined and the organization became the IATSE (thankfully avoiding a coincidentally similar name forty some-odd years later).

The Organization included projectionist in 1908, started the Yellow Card system in 1912 which says that any union venue is guaranteed to have a list of skilled workers for all positions on a call.  The IA’s headquarters were established in New York City in 1913, where they still reside today almost 100 years later.  As the years went on more and more stagecraft and skilled entertainment workers were added, including film workers.  We are highly skilled, and we are some of the most highly paid union members in North America, according to our first presentation, and are today affiliated with the AFL-CIO.

After that we were released for the evening to go out and explore the city some more, before convening again in the morning.  We were then educated on how to deal with conflict in our locals, whether it was between management and the local, or between the rank and file and the leadership of the local.  I’m happy to say that we don’t have too many issues like that within our local.

Following that we were then given results of a personality test we had taken when we had registered for the conference, and to be honest these tests (the Myers/ Briggs Test) were astoundingly accurate.  This allowed us to assess our leadership possibilities, and how to handle people better.  This was truly fascinating because I’ve worked as a steward on several occasions and definitely saw ways to improve my leadership abilities.

We convened for the third and final day of the conference after a night of social interaction hosted by IA Local 8 (Philadelphia) to learn why unions still mattered, especially in this day and age.  It was incredible but not all that surprising to learn that when unions and the labor force is strong within the United States, so is the economy.  We are better off when we have, as a people of laborers, have a voice and a say at the bargaining table.  When unions have been undermined and weakened, the American public suffers, and I truly wish that more people understood this.  The labor movement is what has pushed working conditions to be as good as they are now, and have driven up wages so that people aren’t completely stricken with poverty, but we have so much more to do to truly fulfill the goal of organized labor.

After the conference ended I said my goodbyes to my new friends and brothers and sisters.  I met people that worked across the Falls from us who worked the Nick Walenda walk on the Canadian side, an event which we were a part of on the American side.  We thanked all of our brothers and sisters for Local 8 for having us and being truly gracious hosts.  I hope this conference continues to grow, and I hope to be a part of it again because as we headed home, back to Western New York, I knew I was a little wiser and that I was prouder than ever to call myself a member of IATSE.