Interview: Glastonbury Production Manager Dick Tee

Miriam Zendle | Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Interview: Glastonbury Production Manager Dick Tee

Glastonbury's Dick Tee is the big production boss of the Pyramid and Other stages. We pulled him away for a few minutes for a chat about the quirks of his job, and the highs and lows of the backstage downtown.

What exactly is production management?

As production manager for the Pyramid and Other stages at Glastonbury, I'm responsible for the build and the operation of the two areas. This means I'm responsible for the design and installation of the stage itself, the roof, the sound, the lighting, making sure the infrastructure is there in terms of pit barrier, risers on stage and backline and power, so making sure the generators are there.

I'm also responsible for the whole of the dressing room and back of house operation, artist catering, crew catering. Effectively, I am the general manager of those two areas. Myself and my production team set them up and operate them.

In addition to the direct roles of making the pyramid and other stage happen, I also act as a liaison to the BBC operation - they have a huge operation on site involving many hundreds of staff working round the clock to bring pictures to TV and sound across the airwaves. I'm the BBC's main point of contact in terms of making sure their needs are handled as best we can from the festival's point of view.

How have things changed since you began working at Glastonbury?

I've been at Glastonbury now for over a decade and in that time both of the stages have grown and developed quite significantly. The level and standard of production that comes into both those stages has really increased over past years.

The BBC's coverage has grown, but I think the festival itself has also grown. In a way Glastonbury is sort of 10 or 15 different festivals in one. the arena in front of the Pyramid stage takes 80-90,000 people. That could be a festival in its own right. The Other stage twill take 40-50,000 – that's equivalent to Reading Festival. When you start looking at the Park, John Peel... each of those are equivalent to a perfectly good Local Authority festival.

At Glastonbury, you've got all those individual festivals coming together under one roof. They operate semi-autonomously, they have their own organisers and production values, but there is an overall umbrella servicing the site. We do get involved through my long term investment in keeping an eye on some of the other areas - I am handling the Jazz World stage this year. That's the third outdoor stage that I'm going to be responsible largely for, certainly for the technical elements of it. They'll still have their own area organiser and be an autonomous unit, though.

Tell us a bit about your staff and where you work.

I have a very good team. My office is down near Newbury. We spend about three months pretty solidly on Glastonbury in the lead up and doing pre-production. On site, I have a production management team of my own staff, probably in the region of about 12 people.

We also bring in specialist teams - the sound crew, the lighting crew, etc, but we also have a dressing room team at each stage who work under the direction of a dressing room manager. I also have a team who look after the movement of trucks from the loading bay. In total, the staff I have under my wing is probably in the region of 150 people, spread between those two stages.

Your background is in farming – how do you think that prepared you for the challenges of Glastonbury?

I've always said my farming background has allowed me to have an affinity with Glastonbury – since it's a farm the rest of the year. This is my classic line - it's allowed me to deal with some absolute swine! I've been doing production work for nearly 30 years now - I set my business up in 1981 - and in that time I've managed some very big projects. I've had tours on the road involving 500 people, 30 trucks... it's all down to the pre-production and planning and 80% of that is getting it right before you even get to site.

With the current advent of swine flu, do you think this will affect Glastonbury at all? If so, how?

Obviously, if one recalls what happened with things like foot and mouth a few years ago when events were cancelled, there were restrictions placed on movement with farmland. This is slightly different. Like everybody else reading the papers, whether this pandemic takes over or not, we have already had scares with SARS and bird flu. I think the UK is very well prepared from what I've read and heard.

We also need to remember that in the northern hemisphere we're moving into our summer and the flu virus is not as virulent or as capable of survival in the dryer, warmer summers. The Met Office has been forecasting a very barbeque-friendly summer! Flu thrives in damp miserable environments, so we are probably best equipped to deal with it should it come.

Radio 4 were saying there could be an increase in cases during the danger time of October, the normal flu season. Obviously I sincerely hope it won't affect large public shows - the economic impact if it did would be significant as we're already in a recession and struggling in many environments to keep the economy afloat.

If you then start enforcing a ban on large public gatherings, it would be disastrous for many economies. Listening to the radio, there's a thousand people a week dying from malaria, just because they're old or young or infirm. This is something a bit different - this is a particular type and has the pattern of a pandemic, but we need to keep it in perspective.

We are our own worst enemies and will talk up the disasters in the world till we feel like slashing our wrists. Let's not get too panicky at the moment. I am hopeful it will be contained.

When do you start preparing for the following year?

After the festival, there's a degree of mopping up but then the summer is very busy with other shows. We'll start our process in Autumn, we'll do our debrief notes and if possible we'll have a debrief meeting with the dressing room staff, the stage crew and things like that.

Come the new year, we start to ramp up again, but it really kicks off from March. Just before Easter we start getting bookings out and putting markers on things. March and May it gathers momentum - the installation of the fence starts around Easter and takes six to eight weeks to complete.

Personally, I have my production/site crew purely looking after the Pyramid and Other start on site on the 1st of June. They are there for about five years, from the 1st of June to the 3rd of July. I also have a small presence with my core team, who supervise the build of the stages, while I move down to side around the 6th or 7th of June.

How does your family life fit around that?

Family life is always difficult - the summer season is a particularly difficult time and one doesn't get to see much of them. My children are older now - my daughter is 19 and she's studying Events Management at Leeds Met. She's certainly going into the industry and has worked at the last couple of Glastonburys in the office for me. She passed the initiation!

My son is 17 - he's more interested in the film and TV side of the business. But when they were younger, they didn't see as much of me during the long summer holidays as maybe more normal dads would have.

So do you actually get any time off? And when you do, how do you wind down?

We tend to get a bit more time off over the winter. At the moment, autumns are getting busier – January, February and March are the three months that are more quiet or more office-based. I have my skiing holiday every year, two if I can get it in. Skiing is very demanding physically, but I find it relaxing.

If you're lying around a pool in the sunshine it's great, but your mind focuses on work, whereas if you're going down a mountain with two wooden planks on your feet, you need to concentrate. I find it very tiring but mentally relaxing. In the past we've tended to try and take holidays at Easter and in the October half-term. Before the end of the season.

How has the recession affected your workload?

We have lost a few jobs - there's a few things that have been postponed but the majority of the work we do is for events that hopefully won't be affected as much. People still want to go to a big festival, for instance, a big 'picnic' show involving an orchestra at a stately home.

They might only go to one instead of two, two instead of four, but they still want a release from their day to day occupation. Also with the 'staycation', a family says: "We'll stay at home for a week, do a bit of gardening and maybe go to London and maybe go to the local National Trust property and watch a Van Morrison or a Jools Holland".

So I am cautiously optimistic that this industry, while not recession proof, is more recession tolerant than I think certain other industries are. Certainly cars and retail are suffering, but nobody's completely immune. We have had a few cancellations and things that aren't happening this year.

There are other areas of the event industry that are going to be further hit - we've already seen the cancellation of the Motor Show. With the downturn and the problems in the motor industry, that wasn't going to get the support of the industry. There are some other consumer-based shows of that type that may find it difficult in the next year or two.

What is your favourite and least favourite thing about working on Glastonbury?

Least favourite is always the mud, although mud is not such a problem for us in the production term as the wind is. Wind has a much more significant effect on structures as far as high winds are a problem, and with things like sound dispersal. Weather conditions in general can significantly affect the way sound dissipates around the site and into the local area. In terms of unpleasant things, the rain and the mud just make everything hard work and a bit more grotty.

Things that I like about it - the kudos and reputation Glastonbury has makes you proud to be associated with the event, and when you look out over a full and throbbing crowd of people in the early evening with the sun going down and there are massive crowds in front of the stage, it sends a tingle down your spine.

Seeing a smile on the face of people and doing a good job. And the tremendous team spirit that's true of Glastonbury and not all other events of that type. You see the same people each year - you come back for this fairly all-encompassing event. The fact you have this experience means you can build up friendships with people.

So do you get to have any time off at Glastonbury or is it work work work?

I don't get as much of a chance to look at the other areas on the site as I would like to. I tend to be pretty tied to the stages. It's a 24-hour operation. At the Pyramid we have a stage manage and night stage manager and we have a local crew, a day crew and a night crew. In that respect I have a very good deputy at Glastonbury who does the night and overnight work with me. I try to get 4-6 hours a day when I'm not on stage, but, say, Glastonbury on a Friday night, the headline band will finish at half past 12.

They take an hour or so to clear from the stage, and then at half past 12 we start loading in the headline act for the Saturday while lighting are setting up, doing lighting focuses and plotting until the sun comes up at 7-8am. Then we start bringing in the first acts at 9am ready to start playing on the stage. Each morning or overnight we are clearing the headline act and resetting for the headline act for the day that's coming up.

What do you think of the people who hang around the stage in the middle of the night to watch you work?

We do have security along the pit. There are some people that like to sit and watch - there's a certain fascination with the British public with behind the scenes stuff. People like to see what goes on behind the scenes with what they perceive as 'glam' jobs. We will have people watching just to see what happens - the public love watching the show but they do have an interest in how it happens. From my point of view, you don't want to give away all the tricks - there's a lot of smoke and mirrors in the entertainment industry. I don't have a problem with it.

You said you didn't enjoy the mud – how does the weather affect your job? How did you cope, say, with the flood of 2005?

That was probably the low spot. It was the Saturday morning, when first thing in the morning we were faced with the whole dressing room and catering area at the Pyramid being under 8-12 inches of water, with no power, no sound, no lighting and the main access routes on the site flooded. At 10am that morning i must admit to sitting in the production office and thinking "we've got a few problems here". Luckily the weather did improve and thanks to a tremendous effort by the technical crew, we lost one act on the Other stage and went up thirty minutes late on the Pyramid. We pulled it back... to only lose a couple of performers under that...

The problem is always power. When you're faced with those kinds of situations, well... electrics on shows like this are all safe and covered with residual circuit breaking devices, they're damage proof, but you're in a situation where everything is underwater. The real problem we had with those two stages was that there was a lot of lightning around. Had lightning hit the structures and gone back down and taken generators out we would have been completely stuffed.

If your lightning rig goes down you can maybe get half of it back. Similarly with the sound system. If a couple of large generators on a KVA truck get struck by lightning you can't exactly go to your local B&Q and get another one! The problem was that we had to switch off power because of the lightning strike.

We were pulling staff off the stages - in a way we couldn't put the generators back on again till we were pretty confident that the lightning strike risk had gone. However, without power you can't dry anything out. You can get the lightning on and the heat of the lights will help to fry out the stage but for that you need power. The critical factor we had in that year was trying to keep the power live to deal with the issues we were faced with.

A tremendous amount was learnt that year. The site and infrastructure teams on the farm embarked in massive investment, digging out ditches. It heralded a new dawn where a massive amount of work was done on the site to try and ensure nothing like that would ever happen again.

Is there anyone you are particularly looking forward to seeing this summer?

Neil Young has been announced. That would be a great show. I did Neil Young at the Hop Farm last summer. It takes me back to my youth. I've always been a great lover of Pink Floyd - I like the earlier stuff. I think After The Goldrush by Neil Young was one of his finest albums.

I also remember performances at Glastonbury by people like David Bowie. When I was a lot younger I remember seeing his Aladdin Sane in Croydon. We all look back to our teens and twenties - that's when we're going through college and university, dating lots of boys and girls, maybe getting married. A very exciting time in your life - we can all remember the music from that age. It's a great privilege to me twenty years later to get these iconic acts onto the stage.

I also think the Ting Tings are great - they're playing as part of the younger acts. I worked with the Ting Tings at the Pilton Party last year and want to catch some of their performance on the Other stage. I'm more than happy to have an open mind across the musical spectrum. I'll also try and get over to the Jazz stage - whether I manage to get out to Trash City at 4am is probably a bit more questionable...

Finally, how has Glastonbury (and the crowd) changed over the years?

I think it has become 'older'. Obviously society now is much more geared up towards credit cards and internet shopping. That's made it more accessible to a middle-aged audience. But the festival is taking huge strides to ensure that the younger elements are still attracted, can afford tickets. It's all very well for the stockbroker type to sit on the net for hours with their American Express card, but it's harder for the 18-year-old student who hasn't got the funds and can't afford to sit on the phone all day.

I think the ticket selling systems are constantly being revised and accessible to all and certainly the programming is trying to be reflective of what would appeal to younger audiences – take the Jay Z scenario at the Pyramid. That decision was totally exonerated. It was a tremendous show and really very clever in appealing to a younger and more diverse audience than would normally come to the Pyramid.

There are areas on site that appeal to younger people - the Park, etc, which cater to a new kind of festival goer. There are hospitality areas now and more caravans and winnebagos, but when you look at the number of people coming to the festival, the vast majority of over 125,000 come and camp. Glastonbury is a camping festival. People come for a week, bring a tent and have a great time.

The roots of the festival are still there and there is definitely a demand or a will to see it appeal to a broad cross section. Also, some of the kids' areas are absolutely breathtaking and spectacular. I know families who come to Glastonbury and have done for years - mum and dad can see a couple of bands while the kids have a fantastic time in their area as well. That family spirit doesn't feature at many other festivals.

I'm not saying Glastonbury's one of the seven wonders of the world, but I'm in my fifties and I still get friends and neighbours who say they want to come - maybe they would rather stay in a caravan or hotel but at the end of the day, everybody should do it once in a lifetime.