The world of construction is no place for a lady. It’s too difficult. Too rough. Women can’t handle it. They’re not strong enough.
Yeah, right. Try telling that to the crew at Lightning in a Bottle.
At the perennially popular music and arts festival, women have long played a key role in designing and building the many stages and structures that leave attendees standing in awe and appreciation. Working for the Do Lab, creators of Lightning in a Bottle (aka “LIB”), they help bring to life every element of the festival, bucking stereotypes about the traditionally male-dominated world of stage crews and event construction in the process.
Three of the main ladies of LIB’s build team reside in Los Angeles: painter/builder Michaela Kary, welder Shira Loa and builder Laylo Akbarova, all of whom I met through my husband, Alpheus Underhill, who is the build leader on the festival's Lightning Stage. During this year's event, they took me on a tour of their work and talked about the satisfaction they get from doing the tough work of mounting a large-scale festival.
The trio traveled out to the location, the San Antonio Recreation Area in Bradley, 250 miles north of Los Angeles, 27 days early. Over the course of the next month, they experienced sweat, sacrifice and tears of joy, working alongside a large crew of tireless women and men that also includes a trio of ladies known by their LIB names Pixy, Tuffy Luffagas and Savi. They lay down the festival’s miles of fencing for 10 to 12 hours a day in dusty heat, 25 days straight. (Several people I spoke to insisted any story about the women of LIB would be incomplete without mentioning them.)
Loa’s first experience with Lighting in a Bottle was as an attendee in 2007. She was already doing welding, and once the Do Lab caught sight of her work, she was hired to complete a welding performance piece at LIB in 2008.
“It’s an interesting thing being a woman builder in a man’s world, especially a welder,” Loa says. “They think I need help with things. But everyone in the Do Lab is supportive and there are no questions of my capabilities. They are not condescending and there is no talking down.”
That nonsexist attitude goes back to the earliest days of LIB, when other women worked on the build team who have since moved on to other leadership positions for the festival. These ladies include executive producer Dream Rockwell, executive producer Monica Fernandez and senior producer Marsi Frey. This year, they kept about 20,000 attendees happy, while celebrating the festival’s sold-out status prior to opening.
Kary, a visual artist and lead painter, has been working for Do Lab for nine years. She credits much of her knowledge of her craft to working with the Do Lab, which was founded by brothers Dede, Jesse and Josh Flemming as an arts collective and event production company. Do Lab has been hosting Lightning in a Bottle as its signature event for more than a decade.
“I have been inspired by the women on our team since day one,” Kary said. “From the moment I met the ladies of Do Lab, it was instant for me. I loved the way that they were hardworking. They just didn’t stop. Through working with them, my heart just explodes.”
One of Lightning in a Bottle's most popular attractions is the Woogie Stage, where Pocket Underground’s Sammy Bliss and Jesse Wright consistently book some of the festival's best underground talent and Do Lab designer Heather Shaw always comes up with a visually stunning look to complement the adventurous sounds. With a team of volunteers, Kary completes the scenic art and paints “pretty much all the structures.” She also works at building the “Eeperts” — tall, colorful structures scattered around the Woogie dance floor, which Loa welds.
Akbarova was a main builder for the Woogie Stage this year, and is known for her contributions in years past toward one of the stage's most recognized features, the treehouse DJ booth. She first started working with the Do Lab as a volunteer at Coachella and LIB in 2008. The following year, she joined the team and soon entered the team of builders. Like many of LIB's crew, men and women, she learned a lot of her construction skills on the job.
“In 2010, we started to get in the machines ourselves,” she says. “It was just easier that way. Instead of waiting for a man to come help us. I am not the damsel-in-distress type. That was what put us on the scene with the men. They were like, ‘Well, why don’t you just go hang some flowers over there?’ It was so not us. We decided to build our own stage. We don’t need help and we can use tools. It’s been that way ever since.”
Akbarova speaks highly of her whole crew, especially Loa, calling her a tough metal worker. “It makes you feel good to be so self-sufficient. To walk away from something saying, ‘I did this.’
“Honestly, if it wasn’t for the Do Lab, I never would have been inspired to do big art,” she adds. “I would look at it and think, ‘That’s cool.’ But I would never imagine myself doing it.”
In the end, it takes a special kind of person to fit the Do Lab mold. Diehard and dedicated.
“Right before the gates open and we are all scrambling to do the finishing touches that nobody is going to see but us. You know, running around amongst the chaos and the magic,” Kary says. “I break down and I cry every single time the doors open and people come in. It’s so emotional, as we are out there from beginning to end.”
“It’s do or die out there,” Loa explains. “There is so much that needs to be accomplished out there. If you are strong, you can keep going, adapt and grow and learn. … [If not] then you are not going to make a festival like that happen. We are not called the Do Lab for nothing. All of us are doers and we just get it done.
“Being on the DoLaB team, it gives you a sense of getting away from the real world and making really cool art,” she adds. “And people love it. Seeing the faces of the people coming in the gates when they open. No matter how tired you are, when you see people light up when they see the art that you created … even though your muscles are aching and you are exhausted … everything goes away. It’s so worth it.”
“The reason I got into it is because when I met the boys” — aka Do Lab founders the Flemming brothers — “they were one of the crew,” Akbarova says. “They never shied away from work at 2 a.m. They were right there with you. It never felt like they were the bosses and you were the employee. That type of camaraderie makes you feel like you matter and you are doing something important.”