Louisiana production crews, left gigless by the pandemic, are rebuilding hurricane-ravaged Lake Charles

Stagehands and technicians work to recover production equipment from the storm-damaged Deep South Productions warehouse on Monday, Sept. 21. in Sulphur. Photo by Brad Bowie

Starsky Thibodeaux slots another pallet onto the forklift, signaling a thumbs-up for the driver to lift. Standing overhead on the green metal scaffolding, two men in black shirts and hats await to load and strap in six more moving can lights, sending them back to the warehouse floor. It’s pretty standard stuff for the Lafayette-based professional stage crew; only today, these lights aren’t destined for any big stage or audience to spotlight. Rather, Thibodeaux and his crew are on hand to help a fellow live event company, Deep South Productions of Sulphur, safely relocate gear after its warehouse roof was shredded by Hurricane Laura a month ago. 

“I’m having a ball today just being able to come back to work,” says Clyde Scott, who’s helping haul road cases back under cover. “I’ve been trying to make a dollar any way I can.”

Stage hands or “roadies” as the touring crews are often known — the behind-the-scenes workers who install and manage sound, lighting and logistics for a variety of events from concerts to professional sports to corporate conferences and trade shows — have been among the obscured economic casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, the live events industry employs more than 12 million people. It’s estimated as much as 96 percent are unemployed, furloughed or lost up to 90 percent of their income since the spring shutdowns. Forced to pivot into other jobs, several local crews are now finding a home, at least temporarily, in helping with the logistics of rebuilding disaster-stricken Lake Charles.

David LaPointe, co-owner of Lake Charles-based Upscale Productions, has been doing debris removal and rebuilding since days after the hurricane hit on Aug. 27. LaPointe enlisted one of his production crew managers, as well as Doug Thorpe, a fellow industry lighting tech out of Baton Rouge, to begin helping his Lake Charles neighbors sort through the wreckage. Thorpe owned a Bobcat skid steer and excavator from a now-defunct landscaping business. LaPointe had a tractor.

Upscale isn’t the only local production crew to have recently shifted from stage construction to stump grinding. Deep South Productions owner Marvin Simon also recently purchased Brimstone Construction and Maintenance, adding to his supply of heavy-duty equipment. Simon teamed up with an old friend, Ryan Boyd of Twisted Vines landscaping, to assist with debris work and other general home and yard repair.

“Between the two of us, we own 12 chainsaws,” Boyd notes. Simon even secured several generators to rent out to residents lacking electricity after the storm.

Marvin Simon, left, and Starsky Thibodeaux talk about how COVID-19 has impacted the production industry at the Deep South Productions warehouse. Photo by Brad Bowie

Also seizing the opportunity is Lake Charles’ other major stage production company, WilPro Services. Last week, it began advertising a new division of its company: Wilpro Stump Grinders and Bush Hoggers. While it may seem like an ambitious leap, LaPointe says this line of work is a natural transition for many production teams.

“People don’t realize. They think we just put up sound and lighting. No, it’s way more involved than that. [It’s] lots of construction. We build. Our company, we do set design,” LaPointe says. “Carpentry is second nature to us. Electrical work is second nature to us. Machinery, bobcats, excavators, we deal with them all the time. Lots of trucking and hauling. Lots of logistics. Forklift, cranes, scaffold building — that all intertwines into our industry.”

LaPointe, who has several contracts lined up to build fences for both residential and commercial clients, is in touch with another production crew in Baton Rouge to possibly bring them in to assist with the work.

Wayne Wilson, of Wilpro, already owned a tractor, bush hog and several other tools. He purchased a grappler and stump cutter before launching his new business services.

“It’s not like we’re starting from scratch,” Wilson says. “This is out of necessity and opportunity. I decided to start this side business up until the entertainment comes back like it used to be. But I’ve done this type of work before, mostly for myself and friends and family members.”

Wilson saw a demand for reputable local companies to step in and help correct price gouging and fast and loose contracts by out-of-state vendors looking to take advantage of the disaster. “It’s something we can do where we offer a service for local people by local people,” Wilson says, “and it’s not a fly-by-night type deal where somebody from out of town is trying to make a fast buck off the misfortunate.”

Boyd says local companies could do more to help haul debris out, but the Federal Emergency Management Agency has enacted tight restrictions on who is allowed to pick up roadside piles. The piles have stacked up to the point of clogging several drainage ditches, according to Boyd.

Lake Charles is a first, if not second, home to many production companies and crews.

The storm-damaged Deep South Productions warehouse Photo by Brad Bowie

Centrally located between Houston and New Orleans, with two large casinos that in normal times host large weekly concerts and events, the city has been an industry hub, especially in the past two decades. At Deep South Productions, Simon’s equipment warehouse is now sprawled out over a vast lot, including seven shipping containers stocked full of sound and lighting gear. Another warehouse is filled with speaker cabinets, amps, drums and even instruments — the backline gear, as it’s known. DSP also owns three semi-trailer trucks, four box trucks and nine cargo trailers. “We’re a sound company, a lighting company, video production, backline and trucking company,” Simon says. “I mean, we do it all.”

This year was supposed to be the banner year of a banner decade. Deep South was helping produce North American tours that included Houston pastor Joel Osteen’s Night of Hope, as well K.C. and the Sunshine Band. The company also runs production for the NBA’s Atlanta Hawks and Houston Rockets. Both Simon and LaPointe indicate they lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in canceled contracts through the first couple months of the pandemic shutdown. At the time, Simon still held out hope for a return to business as usual.

Deep South produced several Facebook live streams with bands and DJs over the summer, including joining a nationwide Red Alert Restart event to raise awareness of the industry’s plight, in hopes of keeping the business kicking and staff onboard. “You get to the third month,” Simon says, “and you’re like, ‘this shit’s for real. They’re going to shut us down. There’s not going to be any more work.’”

Simon also sponsored “Streaming 4 Life” virtual concert fundraisers for other ailing industries and was in the midst of planning a Park & Party Drive-In Festival in his hometown of Hackberry when hurricanes Marco and Laura began threatening the Louisiana coast. Luckily, Simon’s Lake Charles home survived the storm intact. That was not the case for his family’s trailer home in Hackberry (Simon is planning to now build an RV Park on his family’s land there).

“Covid was a blessing; it was also a nightmare,” says Simon, who prays daily about trying to embrace the recent upheavals. “But you have to try to take the positives out of what’s been put into your life.”

Life without production work has still proven difficult for many. For over 20 years, Chad Smart has overseen large crews on the regional circuit, helping produce large EDM Festivals in Arizona for more than 30,000 attendees with headliners including The Chainsmokers. This summer, he was suddenly without a job in an industry that had entirely dried up. He managed to get on unemployment — and spend time at home with his two daughters — but when it appeared that benefits would run out in July, he anxiously began exploring the job market. “I applied for many other positions and just couldn’t get it,” he says. “I had no résumé. I mean I’ve been doing production stuff since high school and to go find a real job out there, it’s hard.”

Finally, Smart did land a job, able to convince his interviewers that he had solid professional experience managing both personnel and equipment. About two months ago, he became the new Pro Department supervisor at Lake Charles’ sole Home Depot.

While a management position, the job represented a significant pay cut from what he had been making pre-pandemic. However, it was stable. And came with benefits.

Clyde Scott reflects on the challenges he has faced since the shutdown of the entertainment industry. Photo by Brad Bowie

Hurricane Laura brought business to another level. Smart says sales spiked more than 500 percent for the past month, over last year’s numbers. As the new guy, he managed to keep up with the rush, and proved himself to the new company.

“We’re selling truckloads of shingle and wood and sheetrock, daily,” he says. “It’s crazy. It’s the biggest spike this store has ever seen. It’s kind of like the rush of the tour life, but more.”

Smith now considers the job more than a temporary fit. He sees himself staying with the store. If and when production work comes back, he’d like to still help Deep South in any way he can, but on a more limited basis.

“I think it’s going to be good for me personally, but I do miss what we used to do for sure,” he says.

Back at the Deep South Productions warehouse, Starsky Thibodeaux is hard at work again, helping salvage light covers and filters out of a stack of soaking wet cardboard cases. An industry veteran, Thibodeaux started his own production outfit, Lafayette-based Big Star Stagehands, after working years as a production liaison at the Cajundome. He says the production industry has come a long way in Louisiana, finally getting to a point where companies like his could provide decent wages and training to young crew members, only to see it vanish overnight.

“This is our first gig since March,” he says. “We’re thankful to be working. It’s something.”

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