- by Michael S. Eddy
Conexus Arts Centre overhauls its rigging system
A complete gut renovation of a rigging system takes time to do it right. Time was not something that the Conexus Arts Centre had a lot of to spare when it looked to completely renovate its 40-year-old rigging. With a Broadway tour scheduled into Regina, Saskatchewan’s busy theatre, there was a limited window that the theatre could be dark. With no wiggle room for delays, only three months from bid to completion for the rigging company and add in a summer install—high season for the rigging industry—and you have stacked the deck against yourself … or maybe not.
Conexus started out as the Saskatchewan Centre of the Arts, opening in 1970 as a part of the commemoration of Canada’s 1967 centenary. (That isn’t a typo; they opened late. So history was also against their three-month renovation plan.) The main theatre, which seats 2,031, is home to the Regina Symphony Orchestra as well as touring productions and local events. Management at Conexus knew that the original rigging system needed addressing, and in August 2011 they hired rigging specialist Jay Glerum to inspect the system.
Glerum’s report concluded that the entire rigging system needed to be replaced and he wrote a specification for a new one. It was determined that the best window of availability to demolish the old system and install the new was in July 2012. Management reviewed bids and selected the Brickhouse system from Thern Stage Equipment as best suited to their needs. To complete the project by August, Thern was left with only three months for the equipment to be manufactured, assembled, shipped to site and installed.
New Rigging, Tight Schedule
Sam Michael and Michael Kunz, project managers for Thern, worked out a detailed timeline “The biggest challenge was the timeframe, which was extremely tight,” says Michael. “While the project was close—only about 1,000 miles from our offices—it was also an international project. They had a very tight window of 45 days that they could be dark to allow us the time for the installation.”
Thern’s team worked closely with the house and IATSE Local 295 crew led by Conexus’ head lighting technician Gary Exner. Again, not a typo, and you may wonder why the head lighting technician led a rigging renovation. Exner took the reins when the head stage carpenter, Dannyll Challis, left for another job during the demolition process. Challis has since returned to Conexus as the head stage carpenter and Exner jokingly notes, “Dannyll gets to enjoy the final results and I never want to do another renovation!”
The summer is traditionally slow for Conexus, but the arrival of the touring production of Mamma Mia in early August meant they had to meet a firm end date. “Up here in the summer time, people want to be outdoors,” explains Exner. “Still, management didn’t want to be down too long and they didn’t want to put off Mamma Mia. However, the fly system had already been pushed one year because of other things that came up. In the end it was decided we couldn’t push the show and we couldn’t push the fly system, so we had six weeks. We did have a little time in June where we went ahead and started stripping out every lineset that we weren’t going to be using before the renovation. So when we hit June 30, we were down to 18 linesets from 74.”
Once the last show came down, it took two days to strip out the remaining linesets and two more to pull all of the arbor tracks off the wall. Then it was time to begin the big push. Thern supplied a complete remodel of the existing rigging system, including 68 double purchase counterweight sets, motorized winches and motor assisted counterweight lines. “For the counterweight system, we used our Brickhouse system ” Michael says. “It has front-loading arbors, our multi-groove loft blocks, and T-strut channel. Also, all of the rope locks were replaced as well as the battens and all new wire rope. We replaced the original lighting bridge with a custom 8,000 lb. capacity motorized lineset with 20-inch box truss.”
For the new first electric, Thern used one of their standard lineshaft hoists with a custom design. “Due to the well spacing and the travel length, the drums would have needed to be huge,” Michael comments. “Since they have a walkable grid, we had to mount below it; so we turned the drums perpendicular so they ran upstage to downstage.” Exner explains idea behind changing the first electric. “We got rid of the traditional bridge, instead I spec’ed the 20-inch box truss and lengthened it to 75 feet. It’s been working fantastically well from the day they installed it.”
Raising the Bar for Audio
With the symphony as a major tenant, the acoustical shell is an important feature for the theatre. In the past the linesets for the acoustical shell pieces were all manually operated. “They were extremely heavy,” says Exner. “We made the upgrade and automated the four linesets. That’s been working incredibly well. The guys from Thern came up with a new tilt mechanism; sometimes simpler is better.” Michael explains Thern’s solution. “For the acoustical panels, we used our Traction head blocks, which adds a motor assist to double purchase counterweight sets. These had arbor weights ranging from 6,000 to 8,000 pounds.”
Another motorized lineset was installed for the speaker cluster. Since the large stage is often used for tradeshows, dinners and other events the speaker cluster is required to be re-positioned to aim at the stage. “In the past, we had to land the array, undo the rigging and cabling, turn it all around, re-pick it and re-cable it all, and send it out,” explains Exner. “The new line array design was spec’ed by our head audio engineer Michael Wilson. It’s a custom piece that will fully rotate. Now we are able to lower it in, pull a pin, rotate on a pivot, pin it, and send it out. To turn the cluster is quick; under 10 minutes. It takes longer for the hoist to go the 45-foot travel distance. It’s a lot easier on the boxes. Before they would get all banged up landing them on the floor. So we save time and money on paint.” The team from Thern engineered the custom design for the speaker pivot and uses a three-line pilewind hoist, a yo-yo drum style winch.
Controls for the automated linesets and winches are very minimal. “For control, Jay Glerum specified basic controls, essentially an up/down arrangement of buttons,” Michael explains. “For the FOH speaker array, we have one user interface station with a pendant control at stage level. For the acoustical panel controls, there is one up/down button panel per acoustical panel and they are mounted on the rail in the gallery.”
When All Is Said and Done
The system was mostly complete when Mamma Mia loaded in. “We weren’t quite done by the time the show came in,” admits Exner, “but we had enough done to run the show. Thern came back after the Mamma Mia run and did the final tweaks. The system has been working great. Sam and Mike from Thern really helped out with the timeline and it went a lot smoother than I thought that it was going to go—even though it looked like chaos a lot of the time. We even got an extra two linesets done for traveler tracks. We are very happy with the entire new system; Thern was great to work with.” The system was officially finished at the end of August after a total of eight weeks.
For Thern’s Michael, the project went well, even with the demanding schedule. “Given the timeframes, it all went rather smoothly,” he says. “There were some major hurdles to deal with but everyone was on board, from our shop to all of our suppliers, so we hit the targets. It was fairly standard product with some custom work to solve some challenges. It is a good solid system for their needs moving forward.” In the end, Conexus has a brand new fly system to see them safely through years of productions to come, not to mention a head lighting technician with an impressively strong skill set in rigging.