Charles “Chip” Perry’s summertime work is not just in the spotlight – it is the spotlight. The assistant professor of lighting and sound design for the University of Central Florida’s Theatre department is spending his summer months as lighting director for several World Wrestling Entertainment television production shows. His shows average 12 hours of on-air television programming a week in three arenas in differing cities – a grueling schedule much like being body slammed in the ring. His partial list of professional credits also includes working on several WWE WrestleManias, inclulding WrestleMania XXX earlier this year, and productions at the Orlando Shakespeare Theatre, Orlando Repertory Theatre, Lotte World in Seoul, and 7 Stages Theatre in Atlanta. Some of his nontheatrical productions include Lionel Richie, Alabama, Kenny Chesney, and the Bonnaroo, Firefly and Forecastle music festivals.
Perry answered some questions this week between wrestling shows:
How did you become involved with WWE productions?
I started working with WWE in 2001 as a freelance programmer but have been unable to work for this long of a consistent period before this summer. I have a long background with concert and television lighting, and production designer Jason Robinson and I both have a background of theatre training. We had a conversation in Nashville back in 2000 and hit it off, and I have been one of his phone calls to check my availability whenever his standard crew needs a fill-in.
What is your schedule like?
A 12-camera shoot for a live audience of 10,000 requires a large infrastructure. It takes 17 semi-trailers and nine crew buses plus 40 to 60 local stagehands to put together our daily show. The destinations change each week. Last week it was Chicago, Indianapolis and Cincinnati. This week Minneapolis and Green Bay. Next week is Cleveland and Columbus. The week after, I will be in Orlando, Miami and Tampa.
Typically, we fly out on Sunday, start our load-in at 6:45 a.m. Monday and finish the load-in about 1 p.m. We get a lunch break and then focus all of our lights, which takes us right to rehearsal time at 3 p.m. We do camera lighting checks and rehearse any of the wrestlers’ new entrances from 3 p.m. until we let the public in at 6:30. At 7:30 we start our pre-show that goes to the WWE network, and also have a few non-televised matches. We then go live on USA network from 8 to 11:05 p.m.
After we go off the air, we tape another match or two for the WWE network to air during the week as needed, and we also may do a match or two just for the live audience in the arena. We then start the load-out, which takes three to four hours, pile in our buses and travel to the next city to repeat the cycle for Tuesday. We then are dropped off at the airport and fly home. It’s a long pair of 20-hour days, and usually on Wednesday I just recover.
How difficult is it to pull this off?
It is an extreme drain and the people I work with are professionals of the highest standards. It is not something most lighting professionals want to take on, let alone repeat the same cycle 52 weeks of the year. WWE does not take breaks and is the longest currently running episodic event on television. This year WWE’s Raw celebrated its 20th anniversary.
What makes the WWE so marketable to fans?
There are so many factors to the WWE: the production qualities, the responsive nature of evolving to the fans desires, the athleticism of the wrestlers, and the wonder of what will they do next to top what you just saw. The elements of the entire show combine and follow the rules of classic drama.
Were you a wrestling fan before you started working with WWE?
I was always a casual fan in high school and remember the good, old days of Memphis wrestling – it was broadcast on Saturday mornings on my local station – and I got caught up in Jerry “The King” Lawler and Jimmy “The Mouth of the South” Hart. I hate to admit that, as it shows my age. I remember the explosion of bringing wrestling into the mainstream with Hulkamania.
The first live wrestling event I ever attended was in the fall of 2001 in Salt Lake City, where I went to help build the new Smackdown set that featured a huge 18-foot-long fist that smashed through a 40-foot-wide glass panel. It was the height of the “attitude” era and The Rock and Stone Cold Steve Austin were packing in the fans and delivering huge ratings.
I was at that time a fan of the production quality and elements. Everyone in the entertainment industry was looking at these wrestling shows and shaking our heads in disbelief as to how huge it was and wondering what in the world could they do to make it bigger next time. But there always was a next time, and the WWE (then WWF) always managed to surprise us.
Do you have a favorite wrestler?
I don’t interact with the wrestlers that much but there are few of them through the years that stand out. I always love when The Rock (Dwayne Johnson) gets on the mike and starts a promo. You never know what he is going to say and he is so quick-witted that you have to be on your toes. Many times I have turned to my co-workers and asked if he just said what I thought he said. From a production standpoint, I always have loved the entrances of Triple H. He has some of the most fun sets, and then the icon spits pop in the lighting.
Can you apply techniques you’re using on the road to the theatre productions at UCF?
Yes, there are many things. The ability to be flexible and professional in the highest of stress situations. Also, to be solid in the fundamentals both artistically in lighting techniques and paying attention to the storytelling of the event. If you can combine those together, you are prepared for the unfolding of the event as the evening progresses.
At the end of the day, some people don’t respond well to the pressure and the pace of WWE events. You have to be able to understand that it is live television and there is no second chance. You have to anticipate the needs of the producers and have a backup plan because most times the plan will evolve – or devolve – on the fly. You must be a pleasant person to work with and you must also provide the highest artistic work.
I have been able to take some of my students to events in the past and also had two UCF theatre students intern at WrestleMania XXX in the New Orleans Superdome this year. I want them to understand that the techniques we use for stage productions are applicable in all forms of entertainment. There are so few jobs on Broadway but there are many ways to earn a good wage in entertainment events.
If you could be a WWE wrestler, what would your wrestling name be?
Mr. Gets Stomped in 20 Seconds and Stays on the Mat.