- Written by Kevin M. Mitchell
- Published: 01 February 2013
In what has become an annual tradition, SD checks in with the people who make our theatres more exciting at the same time as making them safer. In our proverbial roundtable, we find out what is new in the world of rigging—the projects and products, and also continue to follow the trend toward motorized automated systems.
Atlanta Rigging Systems
ARS is currently focused on fall protection for legitimate theatre. “We’re focused on the developments in rigging safety, and are at the front end of that movement,” says ARS’s Dave Gittens.
And the new developments for ARS mean leaving counterweight systems in the dust. “Counterweight rigging systems doesn’t fit ARS’s model of safety within the industry,” says ARS’s David Piccola. “The direction the industry is going in is automated rigging, and we feel we should go in that direction too—it’s just so much safer.”
When working with a theatre client for their new theatre or renovation, they like to work with J.R. Clancy’s PowerLift or Daktronics’ Vortek Hoist. “Combined with their load-sensing software, they are so much more safer than traditional counterweight systems which rely on the user to figure out if it’s in or out of balance,” Piccola says.
Piccola acknowledges the considerable expense in choosing automated rigging over a conventional counterweight system. “But I make the long term argument,” he responds. Short term, yes counterweight rigging systems are less expensive. But often a counterweight system needs additional steel in the building to support it. Then there’s long-term labor costs, as counterweight systems require more hands on deck while an automated system can get by with just one stage hand operating it.
“We try to promote the technology of the day, and this technology has come about because of safety concerns, and that’s why ARS stands behind automated rigging systems for any theatre.”
Branam Enterprises might be better known for their concert tour work and work on television shows like X Factor and Dancing with the Stars, but they do some wonderful custom theatrical rigging too.
“Every year we do Debbie Allen’s Hot Chocolate Nutcracker at UCLA,” says Peter Turchyn, Branam Rigging specialist and an ETCP certified rigger. The popular show is based on the original, but has several twists: On Christmas, young Kara receives a Nutcracker filled with hot chocolate, and after drinking it follows the Nutcracker to Candy Cane Lane, Egypt, the Rainforest, Jazzland, Russia, and the Land of the Kimono Doll. “We have a fly track that we put across the stage and fly the nutcracker, Kara, and the fairies around. We also hang a center point high speed motor where aerialist are flown.”
Turchyn has been working flying people for years, and just last year joined Branam. While he embraces the new technology that makes flying people easier, he says, “there’s no substitute for experience. You can have the safest car in the world but there can still be an accident, and most times the accident will be the fault of the driver, not the car.”
He is concerned that some people think flying people is easier than it is. “There’s a lot of mountain climbing gear available and sometimes people think they can just use that for their show,” he says. “They think, ‘Oh, I’ll just go to REI and hang something on a pipe’ but it’s not that way at all.”
In addition to their fabric, drapery and curtains Rose Brand offers all the rigging necessary to hang it, as well as provide for all of a theatre’s rigging needs. “We provide a lot inspections, consultations, small installations and even repairs to facilities,” says Jesse Adams, rigging project manager at Rose Brand, who is happy to be a resource for theatres that might not know where to turn for rigging advice. “We can go in and do a training session with a theatre and inspect their equipment, teach them what they need to be looking for in daily use.”
Rose Brand recently partnered with Petzl to keep things safe on a personal level, too. They now offer “Everything from work helmets, gloves, tools, different clips and carabiners, rope bags, tool bags, head lamps and harnesses,” says Adams. “Obviously harnesses is kind of a big one. It’s the basis of the whole line.”
And the basis of any rigger’s kit. While some jurisdictions mandate that theatres have to provide harnesses and equipment for their riggers, Adams encourages people to get their own gear. “No one is going to take better care of your equipment than you are,” he says. “When it comes to personal safety, when I go out on a jobsite, I like to use my own personal harness as opposed to the harness that’s been sitting in the bottom of a genie lift for the past two years, with people walking on it, stepping on it and throwing it around.”
You also want to “buy what’s rated for what you do,” advises Adams. The Petzl gear Rose Brand carries is rated for occupational use—a higher standard than recreational gear.
Flying by Foy
One of the perks of working with Flying by Foy is actual flying—with their multitude of gigs all over the world, Joe McGeough, director of operations for Foy Inventerprises, is in the air and on the road a large chunk of the year. The number of complex, high-pressure gigs they do has been helped immensely by the development of Aereographer, their flight programming, design and pre-viz tool. It’s aided their “Centrum Wow” events, flight shows that take place in the multi-story lobbies of Royal Caribbean cruise ships. Their latest one takes place in a Centrum space that’s 90 feet tall, almost twice the height of the ones they’ve done in the past.
“There’ll be lots of high speed moves and very clever staging that happens within that space,” says McGeough. “And Aereographer is part of that. With the schedule onboard the cruise ship it would have been very difficult to do what we’re doing now. Aereographer makes things go so much faster.”
Flying by Foy has always been committed to performer safety, and for the past couple of years McGeough has been part of a movement to develop a published standard on flying performers that will “have the best of the best ideas, and create the standard that will make the flying of performers safer throughout the industry.” The standard will include everything from choreography to harnesses to engineering. “We’ve always been involved in safety at Foy,” says McGeough. “I think that’s why we sort of lead the way when it come to things like that, and we’re happy to be involved in this whole process.”
Teqniqal’s Erich Friend has been thinking about where we store those big props and flats. “A lot of theatres have elevated storage areas,” he says. “Maybe it’s a section above the upstage area, maybe there’s a space above the dressing rooms, but I’m seeing these being used to store amazingly large and heavy objects.”
Frequently students will throw ropes over a railing and lean out to get these pieces stored, or put something on a manlift—and all these solutions are an invitation to fall. A person could be inevitably yanked—and far too many other things could go wrong.
Friend says the simplest, least expensive solution is to put in place a pulling block to hoist the big pieces to the storage area, but that has limitations. “A better solution would be to have an I-beam with an electric hoist that can roll back and forth. This will keep people from leaning over that railing, and you won’t have people putting weight over a long drop.”
But maybe a bigger issue the tech director should ask is if he or she needs that thing to be stored at all. Friend acknowledges that in these penny-pitching times theatres are reluctant to let anything leave their fingers, but the odds of using something again needs to be weighed. “Those three dimensional columns, fake or real bushes or trees, etc., need to be looked at as a fire hazard. They are rarely treated with fire retardant and to have things crammed in your storage area that you’re really never going to use again can be a hazard.”
Thern Stage Equipment
Winona, Minn.-based Thern Stage Equipment has been busy on several theatre projects, including one of the most revered colleges in the nation, the University of Mississippi, otherwise known as “Ole Miss.”
Thern’s Mike Kunz says they are currently finishing up on two theatres simultaneously on the campus, the Fulton Chapel and Meek Hall. “Both of these projects are on an extremely fast track,” Kunz says. “We had to remove the existing rigging and reinstall new systems and only had six weeks from beginning to end to do it.” (The projects finished on schedule.)
Thern handled all the engineering and manufacturing of the equipment. The theatres are multipurpose, used for the university’s respected theatre and music departments but also for lectures and events. They put motorized and counterweight systems into the larger Fulton Chapel (650 seats), and just counterweight systems in the Meek (150 seats), plus complete systems including curtain tracks and draperies. The six motorized rigging systems are Vortek systems.
“They chose to have more counterweights than motorized, partly because of expense. In the perfect world probably everyone would like to have all motorized systems but that’s price prohibitive to most.” He added that though schools in particular have an advantage with having some counterweights in their theatre as “counterweights have been around forever and will be around forever, so for training students in a theatre program to go out into the real world, it’s good to have.”
Over at J.R. Clancy, theatres are increasingly turning to their SureStop Head Block, says Andy McArthur. “It increases backstage safety without sacrificing the flexibility of a manually operated set,” he says. And it’s the only device out there that will stop weight in either direction. “In the event of a run-away, it mechanically senses the head block speed and puts on the break to stop its motion. The movements are stopped for both the arbor and batten in either direction.”
The SureStop Block fits 8-inch centers, carries a maximum set capacity of 3,000 pounds and automatically releases once the overload situation is cleared and direction is reversed. Depending on the stiffness of the spring, it can handle three different types of speeds. “So for a high school, you want a spring that engages the quickest, at a junior college or smaller performing arts center a medium speed would be appropriate, and for the full blown professional PAC there’s the version with the stiffest spring for the highest speed.”
The SureStop Block is brand new and just shipping, McArthur says, but the response already is positive—it’s already won PLASA’s product of the year.
Safety has always been big at J.R. Clancy. McArthur points out that founder John Clancy was a founder of USITT. And that commitment continues as today the company offer grants for schools that provide winners with the opportunity to get their theatre thoroughly inspected free of charge. “We’re committed to making sure people are well-trained and tragedy is avoided.”
iWeiss senior project manager Richard Parks says the company is working on a new five-story theatre school building for DePaul University in Chicago. “Within the building there are a number of educational spaces,” Parks explains. “There’s a prop room, scenery construction room, make up, and class rooms.” There are also around 15 acting studio studies, each with a full pipe grid system and one to three wrap-around curtain tracks.
The main theatre is a thrust-style stage where he is installing 25 motorized rigging systems manufactured by Stage Technologies, with 12 over the primary stage area. Each has variable speed winches, going up to 4 feet a second while lifting up to 1,200 pounds. “What makes up the rest are four motorized point hoists, and these have the ability to trolley upstage/downstage on an I-beam from the rear of the theatre over the audience all the way to the back,” Parks says. “They have the ability to run the depth of the entire theatre, and can do 3D prop flying.”
Stage Technologies’ system is “a very nice motorized system with excellent safety features,” says Parks. “And it’s easier to install than others, so that increases the odds that it can be done efficiently. Also they have a great control system and it’s easy to see why a large percentage of Cirque du Soleil companies use it throughout the world.” You can see the progress of the building on a fun site that includes a live construction cam: constructioncams.depaul.edu/theatretl.php.
Ted Jones of Chicago Spotlight had a fun experience recently: Walking into Chicago area Ridgewood High School to embark on a serious update of their rigging system, he surprised school officials by pulling out the key to work the original system. No big deal—after all, he had installed it in 1986.
Ridgewood is now asking Chicago Spotlight to gut the theatre, and turn its orientation 180 degrees so the back row is now the stage and vice-versa. Jones says the new system will involve no counterweights at all. They are installing five ETC Prodigy Hoists and their cable management system. “It works beautifully,” Jones says. “It’s not the easiest to install, but once it’s in place it does the job and looks nice.” Two of the systems are for scenery with the third for electrical. “There’s also a scenic roller that allows the theatre to have a painted drop roll up on a pipe grid.”
Jones acknowledges that while the trend continues toward automated rigging
systems the price difference is significant, so it’s a little unusual that a high school would pass completely on a counterweight rigging system. A traditional counterweight system can cost between $5,000 to $7,000 a set, while a motorized rigging system can cost more than $20,000. Then again, the latter can take as little as a day to put up while the former as much as 10 days to install, and labor costs needs to be taken into account when choosing.
Then there is safety: “Kids will be running this at Ridgewood, and electric winches are better,” he says. A motorized system keeps accidents from happening much more effectively, saving people and property. “The damages that happen from a run away are significant. I’ve overseen the installation of several thousand counterweights over the years and I’d replace all of them with motorized systems if I could!”
Atlanta Rigging Systems
1270 Tacoma Dr.
Atlanta, GA 30318
9152 Independence Avenue
Chatsworth, CA 91311
1658 West Carroll St.
Chicago, IL 60612
Flying by Foy
3275 East Patrick Lane
Las Vegas, NV 89120
815 Fairview Ave., Unit #10
Fairview, NJ 07022
7041 Interstate Island Rd.
Syracuse, NY 13209
4 Emerson Lane
Secaucus, NJ 07094
Sapsis Rigging, Inc.
233 N. Lansdowne Ave.
Lansdowne, PA 19050
P.O. Box 126287
Fort Worth, TX 76126
Thern Stage Equipment
5712 Industrial Park Road
Winona, MN 55987