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ZOOKeeping: Setting the stage at UM

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Posted: Friday, October 25, 2013 12:15 am

The lights come up and they step onto the stage. They are the best band ever. Their appearance alone drives the audience into mass hysteria.

Eric Hemphill, the director of UM Productions, helps make this happen.

“Every show, I try to catch the opening song,” Hemphill said. “That’s when they come out in full force.”

Hemphill said he has been working with UM Productions since 2010, starting back when he worked as a member of the stage crew. Though his new position holds more power, his co-workers say he still works hard on the floor.

“He’s there from the very, very beginning to the very, very end,” said Chase Bjornson, event staff manager and a student at the University.

Pearl Jam’s concert last year kept him busy with preparations longer than most, Hemphill said. He worked from 6 p.m. to 3 a.m., then 8 a.m. to 4 a.m. the next day.

Lara Antonello, a UM student and stage crew member, has built and torn down many productions.

“We’re pretty much here all the time,” she said. “One (a.m.) is when we usually start tear-down.”

Hemphill said there is one thing that really keeps him going, however.

“There’s just coffee,” he said. “So much coffee.”

Hemphill doesn’t just help keep people in line. He said he also deals with many auxiliary problems.

Eric Hemphill director at University of Montana Productions helps with towels for the dressing rooms during stage set up for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on Wednesday, Oct. 23 at the Adam Center. Stacy Thacker/Montana Kaimin

Some of these come in the form of strange food and beverage requests from performers, Hemphill said. One problem, however, is that UM Productions can’t buy alcohol. They do try to provide anything else.

“So much of it is organic,” he said. “The Good Food Store is a must.”

When Nicholas David, a finalist of The Voice, recently performed at the University, Hemphill said he requested specialty caffeine-free, cough-soothing herbal tea. Bill Cosby is requesting special-order, out-of-state bottled water. Hemphill said the Foo Fighters jokingly requested only Evian in a note.

He said the note sounded similar to, “If you bring us Dasani, go ahead and fire yourself and give your job to someone who can get what we need.”

Sometimes, Hemphill said he doesn’t even know what’s being requested and has to tell performers, “I’ve never heard of that, and I’m pretty sure it’s not even in the state of Montana.”

Hemphill said he’s seen quite a few performers, but has one main rule for all employees.

“Don’t bother the artist,” he said. “They’re just here to do their job.”

Even so, he said he has still enjoyed meeting many talented performers. For example, when Andy McKee came to Missoula, Hemphill said he was impressed just watching a warm-up.

“Seeing his hands move is crazy,” he said. “I mean, how do you do that?”

University of Montana Productions Director Eric Hemphill sets up his laptop during stage setup for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on Wednesday, Oct. 23 at the Adams Center. Hemphill helps the concert coordinator with setup and makes sure that tasks are being done. Stacy Thacker/Montana Kaimin

Before the performer even gets into the space, a lot of the expensive equipment has to be moved. While moving Pearl Jam’s guitars, Hemphill realized just how costly dropping any one of them would be.

“These cost more than my tuition,” he said.

Some of Hemphill’s co-workers said they enjoy working with him because he doesn’t really order people around.

“He doesn’t really know how to be a boss,” said Conor Scheid, stage manager of UM Productions.

“He’s really funny,” Bjornson added.

For Hemphill, UM Productions is not only about the work.

“We balance work and fun,” he said. “I think the students make it fun.”

He said sometimes stage crew members traveling with the show play pranks on students.

“The road crew, they’re the worst,” he said. “They’ll ask you for things that don’t exist … like elbow grease.”

University of Montana Productions Director Eric Hemphill monitors during stage setup for Macklemore & Ryan Lewis on Wednesday, Oct. 23 at the Adams Center. Hemphill helps the concert coordinator with setup and makes sure that tasks are being done. Stacy Thacker/Montana Kaimin

All playing aside, Hemphill said he enjoys his job. He said he helps coordinate all the different factors, like artists, the Associated Students of the University of Montana, stage crew and even odd food orders. One thing he said he would like to see, however, is more students looking into bands that are booked for Missoula, even outside UM Productions. He said many great artists simply don’t get much publicity and get a low turnout.

“If you’re unfamiliar with an artist, just look them up,” he said.

Some of the next performances booked by UM Productions include Bill Cosby on Nov. 15, Manheim Steamroller on Nov. 17, Pretty Lights on Nov. 20 and Zac Brown Band on Nov. 21. For more information on upcoming shows and ticketing, check                           

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