Stage Rigging in Historic Theatres
Burt J. Boettcher, P.E.

 

The purpose of this article is to make the lesser informed theatre personnel aware of a much ignored and neglected area of theatre restoration and renovation referred to as “stage rigging.”

First of all, let’s define the words “restoration” and “renovation.”  According to the dictionary, restoration means to bring back to a former condition (unfortunately this means the bad as well as the good), and renovation, on the other hand, means to renew.

In a historic theatre, the auditorium seating area usually adds itself quite well to restoration (assuming there weren’t too many bad things like sightlines, acoustics, etc.)  Chances are, when most people think of “restoration” they think of patching the leaks in the ceiling, painting the walls, reupholstering the seats and “some work” backstage.  Unfortunately, “some work” can eat up to 50% or more of your precious budget in order to make this fine old theatre legal, safe and functional.

If the stage area is to be used strictly as a museum, then “restoration” would apply.  If it is to be used as a viable, functioning performance area, then “renovation” is the answer; not only from the standpoint of safety and code compliance, but also from a practical standpoint.

Most renovated theatres find it difficult to operate at a profit, so it behooves everyone concerned to improve the efficiency of the backstage area, if for no other reason than to reduce the loss.  Many traveling “road shows” will shy away from performing in a theatre that is too labor intensive.  Unfortunately, they could care less if they are in a historic theatre or a recently built facility.

This brings us to the main subject of this article – “rigging.”  What is rigging?  Realizing that many people involved in the theatre are not technically oriented, allow me to insult the intelligence of those who are by describing the purpose and principles of operation of various types of rigging.

The purpose is rather obvious.  Rigging is what opens the front curtain.  It also supports the other curtains, stage lighting, movie screens, scenery, etc.  Most importantly, rigging must provide for the movement of the above, either vertically or horizontally.

Principles of operation are not so obvious.  The art of rigging has progressed tremendously during the last century – from crude wooden grids, wooden pulleys, brute force rope systems, to the modern, electrically operated winches controlled by sophisticated computers.

Basically, theatre rigging consists of a pipe or truss to which is fastened various types of scenery, curtains, lighting instruments, etc.  These pipes (or battens) are supported by various types of cables or ropes which, in turn, are threaded through pulleys fastened to a wood or metal grid or roof supports over the stage; then over to some sort of “powered” lifting device.  This “power” can be brute force unassisted manpower (or womanpower); counterweight assisted manpower in the form of sand bags, or iron or lead bars on tracks; motor assisted counterweights or simply "dead haul” hydraulic or electrically operated winches.  The latter can be directionally controlled by simple manually operated switches or by more sophisticated programmable computers.  Actually, many theatres – historic, renovated or new – may end up with a combination of many or all of the above, depending upon specific requirements.

So, how does this all affect the historic theatre that is attempting to restore and renovate a once-beautiful old showplace? Obviously, in rigging, renovation and safety and code compliance must have top priority with efficiency close behind. Unfortunately, most theatre renovation projects start out with a very limited budget, so it becomes rather impractical to even attempt to install a new megabuck computer rigging system.

What are the alternatives?  First of all we must determine what we have to start with.  In some instances the rigging system has been so neglected and damaged over the years that it has to be totally “gutted” and started from scratch.  In some cases the rigging systems may still consist of useable brute force hemp systems without any mechanical advantage, with the possible exception of a few sandbags used to counterbalance the loads on the stage.

In other cases, depending upon the age of the facility, we may find that the rigging system consists of a later type of rigging system consisting of steel cables connected to some form of counterweight and track system.  This would have either been installed in the original theatre or installed during some later attempt at renovation.  Because many of the theatres to be restored have this type of manually operated counterweight system, let’s analyze its merits.

The theory of a counterweighted system is one of simple physics.  It means that for every pound of weight put on the scenery battens, it becomes necessary to counterweight a pound of weights on an arbor which is mounted on a track on the wall.

This has the potential of becoming rather dangerous, for example, when 1,000 pounds of lighting instruments on a light batten at stage level requires putting 1,000 pounds of weights on the counterweight arbor.  This is usually accomplished with individual iron or lead weights weighting anywhere from 20 to 40 pounds each.  If the theatre has a loading gallery up near the backstage ceiling and the arbor will be there, someone has to climb up to install the weights every time the load changes.

If the theatre doesn’t have a loading gallery, a number of stagehands (or one very large one) will have to haul the arbor down to stage level so the additional weights can be installed.  In some cases, a portable electric winch may be brought in and the hauling line will be connected to the winch to bring the arbor down so the weights can be installed.  This is what we mean by “labor intensive.”

Sometimes, due to a lack of stage house height with a manual counterweight system, it becomes necessary to install a more expensive “double rigged system” and/or provide a pit on the stage for the excessive travel of the counterweight system arbor.

Double rigging is a system whereby the actual weights travel half the distance traveled by the scenery batten.  According to the laws of physics, this means that it takes 2,000 pounds of counterweights to move a 1,000 pound loaded batten.  Furthermore, it means that the load on the roof structure also would need to be increased proportionally.

By their nature, counterweight systems require a tremendous amount of wall and floor space, and are greatly limited to their visual contact with moving stage battens.  Motorized winches, on the other hand, can have remote controls with infinite location possibilities, especially with a hand-held controller on a long cord.  Counterweight systems are more dangerous than most people realize, especially when operated by untrained personnel, which is often the case in historic theatres operated by volunteer stagehands.

When operated by inexperienced personnel, the operator very often forgets to put the proper number of weights on the system, and either the counterweights fly up in the air or the light pipe comes crashing to the floor, damaging thousands of dollars worth of expensive lighting instruments, to say nothing of danger to nearby personnel.

As in any other building project, stage design should not contain any built-in obsolescence.  Design should incorporate a state-of-the-art system that can be expanded as the state-of-the-art changes, with a minimum amount of renovation.

In the area of stage rigging it appears that electrically operated winch systems are the answer.  Actually, motorized stage rigging is not new.  The question is then, why isn’t motorized rigging recommended by more professionals instead of the older style manually operated counterweight systems?  Perhaps they do not feel comfortable with changing or they feel it is too expensive (or both).  Unfortunately, many owners and designers have been frightened away from motorized systems because of the cost of the early system included an expensive computer control, etc., which usually couldn’t be justified in most historic theatre renovations.

In an overall installed comparison, motorized rigging is more expensive than manually operated counterweight systems; but when you consider the added architectural cost for extra loading galleries, arbor pits, additional grids or roof structures, loss of stage floor space, and liability claims, the difference becomes minimal or non-existent.

Now that you know all about manually operated rigging systems, let’s take a look at the electrically operated motorized systems.  From a scenery standpoint the battens and the cabling systems look like those of the counterweight systems, but instead of being connected to a stack of weights, the cables are wound on a drum that is connected to an electric motor.  It’s almost that simple.

In addition to the drum and the motor, there is an electrically operated brake and a gear box that determines the speed at which the batten normally travels.  Actually, in some cases, the speed is also varied by controlling the speed of the motor.

Being electrically operated does not mean they are dangerous.  On the contrary, systems are equipped with electrically operated brakes, so if the power goes off nothing moves.  Winches are equipped with upper and lower limit switches to prevent overtravel in either direction, slack cable switches to detect “fouling,” and, best of all, a locked main power switch which prevents unauthorized operation.

Control of these winches can be as simple as pushing a button on a basic switch panel or cuing a computerized console.  Once the basic winch system is installed, the control options are limitless and can be changed or added on as the need demands.

The simplest control consists of a single three-position switch for each winch.  To this could be added a digital indicator to show the relative position of each batten.

A further adaptation would be to add a small programmable controller with a hand-held remote control that could be taken out on the stage to maintain full visual contact with all pieces of moving scenery.  This eliminates the services of a spotter and also prevents fouling of scenery that could not be seen from the wings.

The ultimate, of course, is a full-blown computer control system complete with keyboard, printer, floppy disk, telephone modem, etc. With a system of this type, it is possible to put an entire Broadway-type show rigging into memory and recall it by a cue actuator.

This also enables the director to synchronize the scenery movements with the lighting and sound.  This is currently being done on Broadway where the producers are requesting the older hand-operated rigging systems to be motorized so they can be computerized.  This then becomes rather redundant -- to buy a manual system and then buy a motorized system to run the manual system.

Some people think that motorized rigging is only for the larger commercial stages.  This is not true.  Many small high schools and college performing arts centers are putting in fully motorized systems while others have elected to only motorize the heavily loaded battens such as the light pipes, movie screens, orchestra shell, etc.

In spite of the fact that you probably have or will hire a very capable theatre consultant, it certainly does not hurt for those involved in management to be more intimately aware of the details and options in this very specialized area of theatre operation.  Or, as they say in the medical profession, “get a second opinion,” especially when you are spending millions of dollars of someone else’s money.