That’s entertainment!

9 September 2022


The entertainment industry is up and running again after the darkness and closures of the pandemic. But stage riggers are now in short supply. Julian Champkin reports.

There’s no business like showbusiness, and showbusiness is back on the road. The live entertainment industry was one of the first to be hit when the pandemic started, and one of the last to get going again when the restrictions began to ease. The travel industry was similarly affected; and in both cases the time out has led to personnel shortages.

“The industry has been hit hard by covid. It is now returning back to normal, and globally there’s a huge training need,” says Paul Fulcher, MD, Rigging Services, a company that supplies lifting equipment for all areas of the entertainment industry including film, TV, theatre and event production. Riggers for stage shows, festivals and events are in desperate short supply.

Can stage-struck lifting riggers move from normal industry to fill the gap? Yes – and no, he says. “If you transition from the industrial sector into events there is some overlap but there’s also a huge difference if you are joining entertainment for the first time.”

Stage rigging is like normal rigging and also unlike it.

To mark Global Lifting Awareness Day (#GLAD22), on July 7, LEEA, the Lifting Equipment Engineers Association, ran a webinar on lifting for the stage and entertainment venues.

Fulcher, a past chairman of LEEA, was introducing the session. One of the speakers was Matthew Wheeler, who is rigging compliance supervisor of London’s world-renowned National Theatre. He made it clear how and why entertainment lifting is, and is not, the same as lifting in other industries.

It is, in effect, a different culture; and the reason for that is, essentially, simple. Lifting in entertainment serves a different purpose.

In other, ‘normal’ industries, the purpose of the lift is to move something from A to B. In entertainment, the purpose of the lift is to fulfil an artistic vision. And that changes the whole culture and the whole way of working.

In ‘normal’ lifting the rigger reports to a supervisor or a site manager; the load is generally known in advance and the lift plan is set accordingly.

Entertainment rigging is very different. Wheeler explains, from a rigger’s point of view, how London’s National Theatre on the South Bank of the Thames puts on a show.

“Often at the start we will get a white card model delivered to us” he says; “and that is exactly what it says it is: a very basic model of the stage and the set made out of cardboard.

“It is to demonstrate the concept and the static scenic elements and the flowing moving elements, and to show the director’s and the designer’s vision of what they want to do on stage.

“We on the technical team will take it away, analyse it, look at the feasibility of it; and that information needs be passed back to the creative team.

“As a stage rigger you are going to have to be involved in that process, and will have to work out: ‘Can we deliver this, is this feasible, can I lift this piece of scenery (or this actor), and move it as the director wants?’ You may be well experienced and knowledgeable in standard lifting, but here you will be using your knowledge base to look at really ‘out-of-the-box’ ideas, to work with everything you’ve got, to establish: ‘can that be delivered on stage?’

“Things will move on to a final model which will be much cleaner, very impressive modelling in most cases, in full colour and normally 1:25 scale; and then you will have the director and the creative team going through the model, demonstrating what they would like on the scene changes. And for them it will be really easy. They’ll pick up a nice piece of cardboard and go ‘This bit disappears and this bit arrives.’” But of course the rigger’s job is to make that happen not with cardboard but with full-sized scenery, sometimes over the heads of a stage full of actors who are concentrating on their lines and their actions and not on being careful of scenery moving 15 metres above them.

“And that planning stage is where you need to continue that discussion process with your creative team in developing your solutions. You will have to fulfil their creative vision, without your apparatus getting in the way physically or visually, while carrying out a possibly complex lifting operation, to an exact schedule and timing, often in low light and above all keeping it safe.”

You will note that the planning starts not as normal with a known load weight but with a piece of cardboard.

“Some of what you’re going to be asked to deliver can be given to you sometimes not in the ideal order that you would like,” says Wheeler. “But you need to evaluate that. We need to try and ascertain the weight but in some cases your scenery won’t be built yet and you will still be looking at your model.

“So how is it built? Sometimes you have timber scenery, sometimes steel, sometimes we use aluminium and sometimes a mix. Again it comes back to your knowledge base and being able to evaluate that piece of scenery and that design, hopefully at planning level, to make sure that you end up with a piece of scenery that you are happy to lift and that will come in at a weight which you can manage when it arrives on stage.

“You will have been working with your carpentry shop, your metal workers, the sound and lighting departments... Is the scenery going to be plain, unadorned, or have we got lots of lights, lots of sound equipment that are mounted on it?

“Is it ‘live flown’? We use that phrase to refer to a piece of scenery which is flown in view of the audience. That sometimes changes your lifting method. If you have a large scenic element, a large wall say, which is flown in a blackout during the interval then your method of lift isn’t as important as when it is live flown in audience view. You could use a manual or an automated chain hoist for the first case, but they can bounce a piece of scenery, and can look a bit ugly, so you might want to use a winch to give a much smoother operation when you fly it out live. Then there’s the consideration: how does the cast interact with it? Maybe you must relocate an actor – or more likely relocate your lifting point. Maybe you have an actor who stands on your piece of scenery as it flies in or out. There might be doors in the ‘wall’ which will need to be moved or closed before it is flown.

“And if you are flying large pieces of scenery over the top of lots of performers, that needs very careful management and also means that you need to interact with the production manager again. You might want to push for extra rehearsal times to make sure your automation operators are happy. In amongst all of that you still want to maintain the artistic visions and needs of the show without the artists and director feeling that that has been compromised.

“How quickly does your scenery need to move? That too will potentially dictate your method of lift, because we have lots of options: we have winches, we have chain hoists, we have fly bars and manual lifting equipment depending on the weight and on where it is on the stage. We have wonderful things on our plans called ‘No Fly Zones.’ They are areas of the stage that are dedicated for lighting positions, or are underneath a catwalk or some other obstruction where it is very difficult to put lifting equipment. Most productions will none-the- less try to put something to be lifted into a no-fly zone. You as a rigger must try either to find your solution or to manage that expectation. That is a very important phrase for the entertainment rigger: ‘Managing the expectation’ of the production, of the production manager, of the director is crucial.

“In our venue, and in many others, you might not always interact with the designer directly. Your key point of contact as the rigger is going to be a production manager. So, you’re having to liaise with him or her; and it’s ultimately very important as a rigger that you deliver to an agreed remit with your costs and with your time, that you manage that expectation.

“The production manager is the person who will be very interested in knowing that you’re delivering to standard, or who will be asking you questions about hiring or looking to buying a piece of equipment to come into the building.

“The designers, to be honest, are not so interested. They want to know that you’re using a really nice small steel cable but they don’t want to see it, they want it out of sight. So what colour is the steel cable? Would it change things if we used a chain to lift that bit of scenery? So what size chain were you thinking about?

“Those are the sorts of conversations you will have with the designer, that you then need to take away and then discuss with your production manager.

Those communications are really important to ensure that you are focusing your information in ways that the production team can use properly; and that’s what I mean by ‘managing the expectations.’

For example, typically you may see in your notes that a flown element is to take 30 seconds over a move. You know that with the equipment available you have a window: you can go as fast as 23 seconds or as slow as 120 seconds. And that gives the production manager a window they can offer the creative team: if the director asks ‘Can it go faster?’ the production manager already has the answer. Similarly, if the lighting or the sound people want some extra lights, extra speakers, is there space for that in the fly tower, the area where equipment being flown?

Rigging is often called the Dark Art in the entertainment industry, and it is often out of sight and out of mind. And that can often be the aim of what you are delivering onstage: to be invisible, to not intrude on the artists’ vision.

Lifting gear works unseen up in the roof and people tend to leave it there; but as the rigger you need to make sure your production team are aware that if you have a complex arrangement up there you will need time during the shows run to manage and look and maintain that equipment. That is really important and sometimes it gets missed. Glastonbury is a quick event, over in days; but events at the National Theatre will often run straight for three months; some shows run for years.

But if you have added all those things in, if you have that remit and that agreement and that dialogue with the creatives and the production manager – and it is no easy feat to be achieving all that – then you can then move forward quite nicely with the production team and everyone can be quite happy and know they will be getting what they require when the show starts to open.

Before opening you head into what we call pre-production or pre-prod; that’s when we will start to rig and lay out the roof trusses and installing rigging equipment and scenic elements and get the stage prepared for the show. During fit-up it will all come together; and then eventually, hopefully, we get to Preview and Opening Night and then eventually to our press night and a run of the show.”

And if the show is a smash hit and a success, the critics will say so and applaud the stars and the producer and the design. The odds are that none of them will so much as mention the team that has done the rigging and the lifting and the flying of the scenery. That’s show-business.

London’s National Theatre on the South Bank
Lighting in St Mary’s Cathedral, Hamburg; credit: Wikimedia Commons, Rabanus Flavus