If you aren’t using “dark time” to improve your theatre, you’re missing a grand opportunity.
We’ve all heard of that mythical Nirvana, that rarely-seen but oft-promised “down time” between productions called “dark time.” When it happens—when you get those precious few days or time when you’re not rushing to finish a production, to load in scenery, to strike lights or run audio lines, what do you do with it? (I mean, other than catch up on much needed sleep.) These few days between productions can—and should—be used for those tasks and projects that can’t get tackled during the run-up to opening; I like to think of these tasks as being typically grouped into one of two main categories: Inspections (and necessary repairs), and Improvements.
Inspections are probably the most important; they are probably also the least fun or exciting to complete. (That’s why I like to put them first on the list; that way, I’m more inclined to do them!) Fun or not, however, periodic inspections can save lives and performances, and are a great way to use that dead time between productions.
The rigging systems in a theatre are the true work horses of any venue, and, like any other machine that sees a lot of use, it needs to be inspected regularly. Ideally, your venue will have a regular inspection routine in place; spot checks in slow times in addition to regular inspections can help catch the unexpected, and those times between shows can be a great opportunity to look over some of these vital systems.
In a fly house, all of the elements of the fly system should be inspected, from battens to hand lines, arbors to terminations. Jay Glerum’s Stage Rigging Handbook is a fantastic resource for guiding any rigging inspection, but there are some key elements to consider.
Are your battens straight?
Have your battens suffered any deformation?
Are your batten ends carefully marked with bright paint or batten sleeves?
Have you labeled your battens with lineset numbers, center line, and/or foot marks?
Lift Lines and Terminations
Are your lift lines kinked anywhere along their length?
Are your lift line terminations in good shape?
Do the swages appear cracked or deformed? (Or are the cable clips tightened to the appropriate torque?)
Has the thimble stretched or look otherwise misshapen?
Are the shackles oriented properly, and is the shackle pin moused to the shackle?
Are the bolts of the clamshell clamp tight, and is the clamshell in good shape?
Are the hand lines abraded and in need of replacement?
Is there excess tension in the line?
Does the hand line terminate properly at the arbor?
Does the rope lock engage the rope properly?
Does the rope lock stay upright on its own?
Is the locking ring in place?
Is there clear marking area for labeling linesets in use?
Are the guide rails bent or misshapen?
Is pipe weight clearly marked?
Are the thumbscrews for the locking plate intact and operable?
Is there an appropriate number of spreader plates (and are they being used)?
Are the lift line terminations at the arbor in good shape?
Are the arbor tracks in good shape?
Loft Blocks/Head Blocks/Tension Blocks
Are the loft and head blocks in good shape, or do they appear worn or misaligned?
Are the tension blocks in good shape? Do they correctly maintain tension in the line?
It’s easy to forget that the masking and house goods in a theatre need a little tender loving care every once in a while as well. These fabrics and drapes see a lot of use, and periodically need maintenance and inspection. Consider the ties and webbing along the top; do any ties need to be replaced? Is the webbing separating from the fabric? Are there grommets that need replacing?
Examine, too, the chain/pipe pocket at the bottom. Is it torn anywhere? Is the stitching coming free from the hem? Is the chain bunched up or still evenly distributed?
Look over the entire good for tears, dry rot and mold. Also, check to be sure it has recently been flame-proofed and your certifications are up to date. It can’t hurt, either, to do a spot flame test with your local fire inspector. (If you ask to do it, you get the double bonus of both making sure your goods are up to snuff and demonstrating to your local enforcement officer that you take fire safety seriously.)
Many larger theatres have traps and in-built lifts (hydraulic or screw-jack orchestra pits, piano lifts and the like); these machines also see a remarkable amount of duty, and, like the rigging system, can stand to have periodic spot checks. Examine any limit switches to be sure they are free of obstructions. Check all power and data cables for nicks or cuts, and ensure that they are running through cable-ways that keep them protected. Ensure that any drive trains, gear boxes and motors that need lubrication are lubricated. Also check to be sure that any off-limit areas and devices are locked out and cordoned off appropriately.
If lifts and linesets are the powerhouse tanks of a theatre, personnel lifts and ladders are the unsung grunts of the front lines. Every opportunity to look over these tools to be sure they are kept in good operating shape should be embraced whole-heartedly. Take a look at your personnel lift. Are the outriggers in good working order? Are the safety interlocks engaged and functioning as specified by the manufacturer? Has the annual OSHA inspection been completed? Does the safety gate on the bucket operate properly? Are all of the power cables, batteries and chargers working as they should?
What about your ladders? Are the feet rubberized? Are the hinges bent out of shape or do they fold nicely? Are there rungs that are not attached as well as they should be?
There are a plethora of other areas to inspect. You should examine your power cables—plugs and jackets. You should check your floor pockets and wall sockets for excessive dust and dirt. Examine your raceways for loose connections, bad strain relief or shorts. Inspect your dimmer filters for dust build up. And your fire and public safety systems can always use a look over: check the operation of your fire curtain; examine your extinguishers, your sprinklers and your pull stations; work with your local fire department to perform an alarm test. Make sure your public address system is working, and that aisle lights and emergency lights are working as well.
Another fantastic way to use the down time between productions very effectively is to put together an inspection/maintenance record system. Make up tags and labels for larger equipment and systems so that they can be signed and dated when examined. Consider putting together a web-based database for your equipment and systems; a simple database with web-page forms can be accessed using a smart phone right from wherever the device or system is located, and using bar codes or QR codes can make entering data as easy as snapping a photo with your camera phone.
Inspections are important. Unfortunately, they aren’t a lot of fun. However, finding ways to make your space work better, more efficiently and more smoothly, can be a total joy. (At least for me.) In a lot of shops where I have worked, we keep a white board on the wall, and whenever we find ourselves saying, “Man, I wish we had [insert widget here],” someone would write it down. In this way, we are able to generate a constantly-updating list of “must-have” shop improvements to tackle in those rare in-between times. This is great to have, because often those respites between shows are too brief to tackle a major inspection, but just long enough to tackle a shop-improvement project.
A short list of projects I’ve found myself creating in almost every shop I’ve worked in:
• Cable carts: wheeled storage for stage pin cables, and/or extension cords, DMX cables, Ethernet cables, color scroller data cables, or whatever.
• Trash can dollies: a no-brainer. Trash cans on wheels are easier to handle.
• Welding dolly: Sometimes you can’t bring the work to the welder, so you gotta bring the welder to you.
• Portable chop saw table: Like the welder, sometimes you need a chop saw on stage; build one with collapsible extensions on either side, so that it can fold up and take up relatively little space in the shop.
• Creeper: Get some small-profile swivels, and build a small creeper cart for wheeled access to spaces under stage decks. No more crab-crawling!
• Extend air drops: Ever find you always need compressed air in the far corner of the shop? Take down your compressor and extend your air supply to new areas of your work space.
• Extend power drops: Like air drops, sometimes you need more power in the far reaches of the shop.
• Ladder racks: Throw up some hooks on the back wall of the theatre, or build a cart, so you can easily ship ladders amongst multiple venues.
Shop improvement projects are generally quick-and-dirty affairs, and can be completed with relatively little expense. They make everyone’s life in the shop easier; more importantly, they give members of the shop staff an opportunity to take ownership of the space, improving something they’ve seen needs to be fixed, and giving them a chance to leave their mark on the venue.
It’s tempting—for all of us—to take those breathers between productions as a mini-vacation. All too often we need the break, and for most of us the rest is well-deserved. But if we can add in the opportunity to keep our work environment safe, or to improve it so that our experience on the next production can be a little bit less overwhelming, all the better.