DU QUOIN — The next time you go to a rock concert, take a minute and look up. Chances are you will see someone like Dan "Red Dog " Abbott or Jeremy Surrett moving across some part of the large, metal grid that houses the thousands of feet of cables, lights and speakers that allow the entertainment to shine.
Abbott and Surrett are riggers, part of the invisible army of men and women who belong to the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, Moving Picture Technicians, Artists and Allied Crafts of the United States.
Abbott was up early Friday morning, lighting a small campfire in “Stagehandland,” the makeshift campsite he has hosted for IATSE 421 members at the Du Quoin State Fairgrounds for 20 years.
“I got started in this 20 years ago because I came up here to see if I could get in to a Lynyrd Skynyrd show. I was in college then and tending bar at PK’s in Carbondale, and because of that knew a bunch of people working on the show,” Abbott said.
Abbott said he offered to cook this friends dinner in exchange for a backstage seat, but once he got a glimpse of what they were doing, he realized not only did he like that kind of work, but he could make a career of it.
“Twenty years later I am still doing it and love it. Last year, I made the most money I have ever made in this business and I will keep doing it until I can’t anymore,” Abbott said.
Abbott said that IATSE, which runs the show behind the scenes at the fairgrounds in the beer tent, the free tent, and the grandstand, often finds its members from people who started in other fields of work.
“We have people who were farmers, construction workers and real estate agents, among others. We’re diverse group of highly skilled people, who work incredibly long hours, to make sure folks going to a concert, or a play, or even a trade show, enjoy themselves,” Abbott said.
Surrett, a married father of three from Metropolis, said a basic component of working for IATSE full-time, in this region, is the ability to travel.
“We work shows in St. Louis, Nashville, Louisville, Champaign, Indianapolis, Paducah and Cape Girardeau. The travel can be challenging, but it allows me to raise my family in a way that is good for them,” Surrett said.
Abbott and Surrett both say the work can be as dangerous as it is difficult.
“You have to pay attention, at all times, to your surroundings, and to the people around you. We are riggers, which means we work as much as a hundred feet in the air, so if we drop something, it is not only inconvenient, but it could potentially injure someone,” Surrett said.
On Friday morning, Abbott was still healing from a finger he smashed several months ago during show for the Eli Young Band. But that is nothing, he said, compared to the injuries he suffered in 2004 when a stage collapsed on him.
“We were working a show for Prince when it happened and it kept me out of work for three months,” Abbott said.
But the job does come with a few perks.
“We do get to rub elbows with some famous people. For instance we did a Garth Brooks concert recently and he came and played cards with us. And a bunch of us are listed in the credits of ‘Gone Girl,’” Abbott said.
Stage Manager Harlan Porter, who has worked for IATSE for about 17 years, said he tries to run a tight ship at the fair.
“We set up the back line first, using local outfits like Mason Sound and Brent lighting. Then each act will send in a truck of equipment particular to their needs, and then their roadies tell us how they need it to be laid out. So essentially, we spend a lot of time assembling and taking apart, mechanical puzzles,” Porter said.
Abbott said the thing he would like most is for people to understand what it is that stagehands do.
“People go to these shows and say, 'Oh, you worked the Nelly concert? That’s so cool.' But they don’t see the endless hours of work we put in to provide that entertainment to them. Today we will start loading in the equipment for Switchfoot and Lighthouse at 10 a.m. The show is at 7:30, and the load out will be done about 1 a.m.,” Abbott said.
But Abbott said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“We do everything from Broadway touring acts, to rock concerts, to fairs like this one. So not only do we support the arts, but we get paid good money to do it. And the job can really be a lot of fun,” Abbott said.