Talking with Christine Wagner, Project Manager and Production Coordinator

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Christine Wagner at an event. Christine has worked at Ravinia Fest, Outfest, and University of Iowa's SCOPE Productions

This week we talked with Christine Wagner. Christine is currently the Project Manager at Outfest (a nonprofit that supports LGBT artists and filmmakers via film fests and other events), and has been working in Live Event Production (music and film) for over 12 years.

Backstage Pass: How did you get your start in music? How did that lead to where you are now?

Christine Wagner: When I was a freshman at the University of Iowa, I joined a student group called SCOPE [Student Commission on Programming Entertainment] Productions that produced all of the concerts that came to the school. It was completely student run and we did everything: booking, marketing, dressing room hospitality, loading in and out, building stages, and driving artists. I did that for 4 years, so by the time I graduated I had tons of experience in the music industry! My degree has nothing to do with live entertainment, so this was key to finding a job in this field.

BP: How is working in film events similar or different to working in live music events?

CW: They are actually very similar. Some of the jargon is different, but at the end of the day it is about producing an event for the public. It still involves talent and hospitality (filmmakers and crafty), it still involves a show (the films), and there are often after-parties and special events throughout the day. And similar to a music festival, there are screenings going on all day at multiple venues. I’ve had such a great time working these events, and it proves your skills are transferable across different types of events since it flexes the same muscles, so to speak. 

BP: You’re currently a Project Manager at Outfest. Can you tell us what a project manager does, and what a typical day of work looks like for you?

CW: I was very lucky to land a job during the pandemic after losing my live event jobs. Outfest is an LGBTQ non-profit that has year-round programs, including a film festival. Outfest, like so many other event companies, are trying to transition into a digital space during this time of no in-person gatherings.

As a Project Manager, I am in charge of overseeing different projects, making sure people stay on task, and help bridge the communication gap among everyone at our company who is now working remotely. While I don’t have much experience with digital streaming or platforms, they are using my production knowledge to implement similar organizational tools that I would use at an in-person festival. In a typical day I attend a lot of virtual meetings, update tasks in our project-tracking forum, and reach out to folks to have them catch me up on their work. I also “manage up” to ensure our executives stay on task. 

BP: For over five years, you worked as the Production Coordinator for the Ravinia Festival. What did that role entail? How is it different from a Production Manager role?

CW: Ravinia Festival produces “pop” and classical concerts. I was in charge of the classical concerts, and my counterpart was in charge of the “pop” shows. We would both support each other for our respective shows. Our season runs from June-September and since we have 3 stages we would average about 10 shows per week.

In general, my job as Production Coordinator consisted of creating schedules for artists, advancing a show (emailing the agent or manager of the artist to go over details for their time with us), scheduling and overseeing ground transportation, coordinating dressing room hospitality/artist meals, acting as artist liaison when the artists were on site, coordinating any artist merchandise, acting as stage manager when necessary, overseeing our team of Production Assistants, working with our union crew, and of course, other duties as assigned.

While the Production Manager and I would share/overlap some duties, their role focused more on the technical aspects of the show. They would read over the contract and technical rider and work with the tour manager of the band to ensure we were in agreement on what the venue would provide versus what the tour would bring. The Production Manager would rent backline, work with our union crew to make sure we called the right number of crew members for each day, work with our facilities department to help schedule security guards, and be the day-of liaison of the touring Production Manager and/or Tour Manager. 

BP: You’ve also hired Production Assistants for Ravinia Festival. What did you look for when deciding who to hire? 

CW: Since our PAs were usually in college/around that age we didn’t expect them to have a ton of experience yet. Some production experience was nice, but we mainly looked for passion. Being excited and upbeat about working backstage is important because while it’s a fun job, it’s not glamorous. It can be hard work so having a positive attitude about doing airport pickups and cleaning dressing rooms was a plus. I would also say being a self-starter and good communicator are things I would look for in a candidate.

BP: What’s the most challenging part of working in live events and what’s the most rewarding?

CW: The long hours are definitely tough. Most people don’t realize that if there is a concert at 8pm, you’re usually starting your day around 7am or 8am, or earlier! ​Then we don’t wrap until 1am or 2am. ​Production folks are usually “first ones in, last ones out” because we are overseeing all of the backstage activity. But on the flip side, the most rewarding part is being able to work with some really amazing people. When you spend 90+ hours/week with the same people they become more like your family since you see them more than you see your real family. I’ve also gotten the opportunity to meet and work with some amazing artists and touring folk. ​​

BP: What helps someone be successful working in these types of production roles?

CW: Never assuming anything, except assume anything that can go wrong, will go wrong. Always having a backup plan, and be able to solve and prevent problems before they happen. There are so many things that can fall apart that aren’t in your control, and when you’re tired and stressed it’s easy to panic. So if you have a plan in your head already, you can pull it out when a problem arises and get right to work! 

BP: Do you have any favorite wild/funny/interesting stories to tell from your work over the years?

CW: I will never forget the night Gustavo Dudamel came to be a guest conductor for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Classical music nights at Ravinia are usually pretty quiet, but not this night. After the concert the fans were going wild: screaming his name, trying to rush the stage, and trying to get backstage to meet him. We had to send nearly all of our security guards in the park to the backstage gate, and they had to stand shoulder to shoulder to hold people back. We had to sneak Maestro Dudamel out a back door in order to get him out of the building. It was so unexpected and funny, because when you think of classical music you don’t usually think “wild and rowdy fans,” clamoring to meet the star on stage. It was really cool to see so many people excited about classical music and watching a conductor perform. I hope he felt like a rock star!

BP: What advice would you give someone who’s interested in working as a production assistant, or production coordinator?

CW: Work hard and make friends. “Who you know” is often so important in this business, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get anywhere unless your dad is the CEO of Live Nation. I have gotten so many jobs based on word of mouth, so if you’re good at your job and stay in touch with folks that’s a huge leg up.

BP: Bonus Fun Questions: Who was your first concert? What artist (living or dead) would be your dream concert?

CW: I believe my first concert was the Backstreet Boys, and I would love to see Carole King live. She’s a legend! 

Big thanks to Christine for taking the time to talk with us!

If you work behind the scenes in the live music industry (or know somebody who does) and want to share your story and perspective, visit our Contact Us page to let us know!

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