Soar Like an Eagle

by Michael Eddy

Opera Theatre of St. Louis’ production of Titus takes flight

For the production of Mozart’s Titus at Opera Theatre of St. Louis (OTSL), the scenic designer, Leslie Travers, created a giant eagle that could fly in and out as well as articulate. When we say large, the wing span was approximately 58-feet and approximately 12-feet tall; collectively weighing in at 1,700lbs—it took up most of the stage when it flew in. The eagle was built in five different pieces—two wings, two legs with claws extended, and a giant head. In consultation with the creative team, director of production, Steve Ryan, and technical director Hans Fredrickson, it was decided to employ automation to make the articulation and stage mechanics support the story of the opera.

“We used a hybrid of two systems to fly the eagle,” explains Fredrickson. “We used three ½-ton chain motors and control which we rented from eZ-Hoist and a Creative Conners’ drum winch that the theater owned. Each wing was about 20-feet by 12-feet, weighed in at 300 lbs. each, and automated via the drum winch. The legs and head were all on the chain hoists, because the legs, at one point, land on the deck; get disconnected; move around the stage; and then fly out at the end of the show. The head was supposed to do that as well but that changed in tech rehearsal; we ended up leaving it on its chain hoist.” The eZ-Hoist CM8+ cue-able chain hoists were controlled via eZ-Hoist’s eZ-Axis Drive Box controller with its Raynok motion control software. 

When the plans for the eagle’s movement throughout the show developed, Fredrickson explains why they went with chain hoists. “When the the two legs and the head would come down and would so to speak, “crash” onto the deck, in the story” says Fredrickson. “They would come down and essentially slack the cables that they were hanging from. So, we couldn’t really use a drum winch unless we set up a much more advanced rigging system, and we only have a day to load in each show at OTSL. It was therefore actually a lot easier for us to just hang the chain hoists and run cables to them. The hoists could be weighted and unweighted as needed.” 

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Because of OTSL’s unique set-up with a repertory festival season, they often have only about four hours to change over from one show into the next. “We actually prefer to automate lots of things,” says Fredrickson. “We can just leave everything rigged and ready and just clip in the scenic unit and keep moving. We do this to keep our changeovers fast, easy, and to keep all the shows repeatable.” Looking to broaden their automation options, Fredrickson reached out to eZ-Hoist. “I’ve known Royal [Marty, director of the eZ-Hoist Division of ZFX] for a while. I thought that it would be worth checking into the eZ-Hoist products and Raynok control software,” comments Fredrickson. “We hadn’t worked with their equipment in the space yet. As we plan out our capital spending, I wanted to spend some time working with Raynok and getting to really know its capabilities as our automation needs are getting more and more complicated.”

In the end, Fredrickson found the eZ-Hoist CM8+ cue-able chain hoists, “fantastic. They were a lot quieter than the classic chain hoist and they worked very well for this effect. The control that they gave us was what we needed. Plus, anytime we had any questions or there was a hiccup in programming, we called eZ-Hoist; they were quick and comprehensive in helping us solve any issues.”

Fredrickson thinks the key to using automation successfully, is to work with the designers and directors on new ways to employ automation. “The biggest hurdle that we run into right now is having designers think about automation in new and exciting ways,” the TD says. “Everyone uses a turntable or a trapdoor; something flying in and out, but being able to articulate an eagle and let it land on the floor and let it lift back up; that requires some new solutions. It was great to have a designer that wasn’t afraid to try something completely outside the box. There are options out there today to make things possible.” 

The TD continues, “Here at OTSL, we try really hard to work with the designers to find solutions that work, artistically, and for the production side. The eagle was a great example of this, because we started talking last September, and went through a number of revisions before we found something that not only worked for the show, but also worked well with what we could do. It was a great process, for us at OTSL and the designer was very happy with how everything turned out. So, this was a resounding success for us.”