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The Move to Automation

Kevin M. Mitchell and Jacob Coakley • Sets, Scenery and Rigging • February 1, 2012

Rigging isn’t just about holding up lights and scenery—Flying By Foy handles the rigging for hundreds of fliers a year, including this chandelier performance on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines Splendour of the Seas. Courtesy of Hariton/Baral Design

Rigging isn’t just about holding up lights and scenery—Flying By Foy handles the rigging for hundreds of fliers a year, including this chandelier performance on the Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines Splendour of the Seas. Courtesy of Hariton/Baral Design

The strategies and safety concerns driving the rigging industry

The demands of audiences, the needs of directors and the concern for safety appear to have created a perfect storm toward more complicated rigging. FLI Rigging’s Kevin Phail points out that rigging is getting increasingly important as bigger rock ‘n’ roll-like shows like American Idiot and Rock of Ages get more popular.



Additionally, there’s a real concern to keep equipment in theatres safe. “The rigging technology is moving fast and PLASA is working to keep up by creating standards,” states Richard Parks of iWeiss. “It’s important because we don’t want a situation where it turns into the wild west.”

Indeed. A recent roundtable of industry leaders brought out discussions on training, safety, innovative products and exciting new projects.

FLI Rigging

Alex Mills and Kevin Phail, of Michigan-based FLI Rigging, part of Fantasee Lighting, are urging more theatre tech people to get training and certification. “We’re the first professional rigging company in Michigan to offer training and certification,” says Mills, senior design consultant. Working with the Entertainment Technician Certification Program (ETCP) they are advocating for more certified theatre technicians.

The challenge today is educating producers and theatre owners that certification is an important and necessary step. “It’s about education and making sure we’re setting an example of holding ourselves to higher stands,” Phail says.

Mills points out that making sure a certified rigger is doing the job is more than just a good idea. “The liability issue alone is pretty staggering,” he says. “It’s not a place to cut corners, because should something happen … well you don’t want to take chances.”

For those theatres who rent rigging-related gear, Phail recommends going with a company that has a strong reputation for maintaining their equipment. “At FLI, every time we rent truss or chain hoist, we make sure every piece gets fully inspected before going out.” It’s challenging, since the company can get a piece of truss back with a ding or a scratch that in fact compromises the integrity of it. “Sometimes something needs to be pulled out of service because I don’t want to be unsure that it can’t hold a full rigging load.”

LVH Entertainment Systems installed J.R. Clancy motorized hoists in an upgrade at the Garvin Theatre Complex at Santa Barbara City College

LVH Entertainment Systems installed J.R. Clancy motorized hoists in an upgrade at the Garvin Theatre Complex at Santa Barbara City College

LVH Entertainment Systems


“We just finished up a couple of big rigging installs—surprisingly, even with the economy, they have not slowed down,” declares Mark Stickelmaier of LVH Entertainment Systems. “We’ve especially been doing a lot of colleges and just wrapped up a project at the Garvin Theatre Complex at Santa Barbara City College,” spearheaded by theatre architect John Sergio Fisher.

It was a big renovation with a counterweight rigging system that is now fully automated. “In this particular case, the automation that was put in was not that much more expensive,” he says. “Being a training school, they wanted some counterweight rigging” but the advantages to automation are significant. “You can run the entire system from a J.R. Clancy ScreenControl 500 console and the system is portable. You’re not locked into working at a fly rail, so the flexibility is nice. And if the production has multiple cues and sets, it’s really consistent. That piece of scenery is going to land on the same spot every time.”

That said, he never sees a time when colleges will have all automated rigging. “Students should know the history of theatre and know all aspects of rigging, because you don’t want to turn them loose from a fully-automated school and have them go get a job at a theatre with traditional rigging.”


iWeiss recently got to work on the renovation of the Kupferberg Center for the Arts at the City University of New York in Queens, which had received a private donation which allowed them to go to an all motorized rigging system.

Richard Parks, senior project manager at iWeiss, worked with Stage Technologies on the project and replaced 26 double-purchase counterweight sets with 46 motorized lines. He says a console they have offers dual speed capability, which can move up to 900 pounds five feet a second. “Most allow for three feet a second, which is fast, but some directors just want sets to vanish.”

And iWeiss has gear of their own—their ViaWinch is a self-contained motorized winch featuring an 8:1 safety factor designed for overhead lifting with primary motor brake. “I do a lot of rigging inspections in older schools with manual hand cranked winches, but do you really want 1,000 pounds of lighting electrics being moved by hand by a 16-year-old kid?”

Parks acknowledges that sometimes safety is a tough sell, but “When I’m talking to an educator about the importance of annual inspections, I compare it to cars. Most states make you get it inspected once a year because the day your brakes go out is the day you could hurt a lot of people. You have to create a comparison of what is the long-term safety aspect and why it must be part of the annual costs.”

 On an inspection last year at an Theatre Design Services found an all-too-dangerous lesson on how not to shim a mule block.

On an inspection last year at an Theatre Design Services found an all-too-dangerous lesson on how not to shim a mule block.

Theatre Design Services


Jyle Nogee, CSI, USITT, is an ETCP certified rigger for theatre with Houston-based Theatre Design Services. The importance of inspections is something he’s very passionate about.

“Rigging inspection services by Theatre Design Services are performed by an experienced ETCP certified theatre rigger and are based upon a practiced understanding of building and safety codes, national standards and manufacturer specifications,” Nogee says. “Rigging safety inspections include the generation of a rigging inspection report that includes a system overview, an itemized list of damaged or worn equipment, notes issues of non-compliance and suggests remedies.”

It’s all about diligent record keeping and documented safety instructions, which are requisite components to risk management relating to a theatre’s rigging system. Nogee understands that money is tight, but usually after a discussion about the potential of liability with overhead lifting systems the cost of inspection is justified. Importantly, he finds that the funds for inspection services most often come from building maintenance budgets, not drama departments, which might make more money available.

So how does a theatre know when it’s time to get an inspection?

“If there is no record of pervious formal inspections then the system should be inspected,” he says. “Also if there are known incidents of misuse, accidents, or damaged equipment, then the system should be inspected.”

J.R. Clancy

Bill Knapp has a fun factoid for you: Despite the economy, J.R. Clancy still finished a large number of new installs for schools and colleges last year, not to mention the amount of renovation work he’s been seeing. “Think about how many high schools and colleges were built in the 1960s,” Knapp, an estimator at J.R. Clancy says. “Equipment doesn’t last forever—typically about 30 years is the mark, though we see things that are 100 years old and still working.”

While he’s in those theatres, the wishlist of wants includes motorized rigging. “It’s more expensive, but it adds safety to the system,” he states emphatically. “There is no greater cost than risking health and safety issues. You put a motor in your rigging and you spend more money, but how many accidents did you prevent by doing that?”

Yet he’s not advocating for all-motorized theatres. “In higher education, all kinds of rigging—hemp, chain, counterweight, etc.—should be incorporated. But if you’re talking a high school that’s not necessarily true.” He advocates motorizing some lines moving heavier sets and keeping a counterweight system for backdrops. “A hybrid system provides bang for the budget.”

BMI Supply

“The main trend is shifting to motorized rigging,” says BMI Supply’s Jason Melchert, project manager for rigging systems. But slowing down what seems like the inevitable is cost, as motorized rigging can be three to four times more expensive than traditional rigging. “For schools, and even some professional theatres, it’s hard to justify that expense when you’re not changing all your goods every day.”

Yet the advantages are alluring, and BMI carries J.R. Clancy and ETC motorized rigging products for those ready to take the leap. “Those are the two most popular options we’re seeing from consultants so far. Many buildings are not initially set up for motorized rigging, but these two products are well-designed and work in almost any situation.”

Melchert takes a lot of phone calls on this subjects and laughs about how often the only information he gets is that they think they want motorized rigging and want to know the cost without realizing the need to share specifics. “We have to go in and measure everything—it’s not just a matter of getting general rough dimensions.” Another common misconception is that putting in motorized rigging is something that happens quickly. “We need three to five weeks with nobody else on the stage for us to do our installation and that becomes a matter of coordination.”

Stage Technologies

Gemma Guy of Stage Technologies has an important message to get out to the stage technicians in training: the world of live event entertainment needs qualified professionals to run the increasingly advanced rigging for shows—and these are great high-paying gigs for techies.

“From cruise ships to opera houses to Cirque du Soleil, we have trouble finding high quality technicians,” she says. Stage Technologies has gone so far as work with universities and gotten them the advanced equipment needed to train interested parties, including the University of Southern California, Brigham Young Univeristy and the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill.

They are involved with symposiums and three-day workshops, usually free to students. They’ve also joined USITT and are doing an elite four-day intensive training course with them in Las Vegas. They offer the Illusionist control desk, an economical control desk that allows smaller venues the ability to automate axes in live entertainment, sure; but it’s also a great training tool. There’s also their PC Wing, which connects over USB and provides playbacks and a dedicated keyboard for offline programming. Stage Technologies is working to get databases from actual shows so that students can simulate what it would be like to handle the automated rigging for a performance at, say, the San Francisco Opera House.

But Guy emphasizes the shortage of hands on deck: “The reason there is a short of workers is the demand for automation is growing quicker than people can be trained. With every Cirque show alone you need eight to 15 trained people.”

H&H Specialties

Reid Neslage, president of H&H Specialties, a stage rigging and curtain track manufacturer, has been with the company for 35 years and is pleased with the increasing emphasis on safety he’s seen in that time. He credits that to Dr. Randall Davidson, former commissioner of heath and safety at USITT.

“Randy was the first one to specifically develop seminars and workshops through USITT on rigging safety and inspections,” Neslage says. “Jay Glerum has also been a major contributor for rigging safety and explaining the mechanics of rigging to non-engineers through his books and seminars.”

This increased awareness in safety over the decades has been matched by a drive in the industry to do more with rigging—with heavier sets and more complicated rigs. Thanks to their manufacturing capabilities, H&H is in a good position to take on these projects. “We do a lot of crazy things on very short schedules,” Neslage chuckles. “You tear your hair out doing it, because the time schedules are almost impossible. But you somehow figure out a way to pull it off.” All the while thinking of safety, too. They’re currently subjecting all of their rigging products to a complete engineering review based upon currently accepted principles of structural engineering and ANSI E1.4 – 2009, Entertainment Technology Manual Counterweight Rigging Systems.


Ralph Cichetti, VP of sales and operations at Tru-Roll, was retired from rigging, until Advanced Entertainment Technology came calling—when they bought Tru-Roll they asked him back “Only for a few months, but it’s been close three years now,” he laughs. Those three years have found Cichetti focusing on renovations and safety training. “We have always felt that Tru-Roll’s philosophy is that we are problem solvers,” he says. “When we’re dealing with schools or small community centers, for the most part they don’t have the expertise to know what they need and our job is to help them solve their problem, to get them what they want.”

They’re also on board with the trend of replacing counter-weight systems in schools with motorized sets. “We find that it’s a whole lot easier for them to operate.” But whether it’s counter-weight or motorized they place a heavy premium on training and education—since education helps prevent accidents.

“For a high school we may do a dry run when they’re getting ready to do a show,” he says. “We send a rep to the school while they’re doing the dress rehearsal to observe them and give them some help in operating the system correctly.” They also always follow-up six months or a year down the road to ensure the equipment is still being operated and maintained correctly.

Mutual Hardware

Mutual Hardware may be a family-run rigging hardware business—but they’ve got enough inventory to make a multi-national blush says President Mary Piotrowski. “You’d have to go to 800 Home Depots to get the number of turnbuckles you’d need for a rigging job,” jokes Piotrowski. “But if you come to Mutual, we’ll have them on the shelf for you.”

Although located in Long Island City, N.Y., they have their own manufacturing facility in Pennsylvania. They’re proud of their American manufacturing skill and the safety ratings they can assign to gear like their drop-forged cheeseborough clamps. “We always have been the industry standard for the cheeseborough clamps,” says Piotrowski. The theatre history of the family behind Mutual Hardware spans generations. They know what to make for theatres because they’ve needed it themselves.

Like their Macgyver Clamp, which is a cross between an I-beam clamp and a cheeseborough, which allows you to clamp truss directly to the beam with no loss of ceiling height. “And in some cases that’s really important. In our industry a couple inches can make a big difference.” And so can a couple of days—which brings Piotrowski back to her inventory. “We specialize in being there when you need us because we know you don’t have all the time in the world to build a show.”

Teqniqal Systems

Erich Friend is another one who is beating the drum to better rigging safety. He speaks and blogs on the topic regularly (including our own and works with companies like J.R. Clancy and SchoolDude doing video chats on the topic.

“We walk into a lot of theatres and the condition of the rigging is just appalling,” Friend, owner of Fort Worth-based Teqniqal Systems, states bluntly. “It’s a concern that facility managers are not keeping up with this—it seems like they will spend money for new tires on school buses for safety concerns but forget about the dangers in the theatre.”

He has a couple of theories of why this is, including the tendency of theatre people to want to keep how “the magic” is created out of sight of, say, principals and superintendents. “But we need to pull back the curtain like in The Wizard of Oz.  When I get into facilities, I’ll take principals and administrators, have them put on their jeans and gloves and get them in at height. When they come back down the ladder with knees shaking and eyes wide, I know I have gotten their attention.”

Another aspect of his training is getting school administrators to think of theatres like they do the auto body shop or the chemistry lab. Responsibility needs to be taken and walks through the scene shop and on the catwalk need to be done.

Chicago Spotlight

Right now the best tool Ted Jones, manager of rigging and special projects at Chicago Spotlight—a turn-key theatrical supplier and installer located in, you guessed it, Chicago—has found for making counter-weight systems safer is the Tiffin Restrictor Rope Lock, which will not unlock if a lineset is out of balance.

“It won’t stop all runaways,” says Jones, noting that they can still happen if someone already has the lock open, “but it will stop a majority of them.”

In an ideal world, he’d have all theatres install motorized rigging, but he recognizes that’s a significant expense, especially for schools and smaller theatres. What he’s done for one school is installed enough Vortek hoists to handle their electrical grid—and installed the infrastructure for more. “As they get additional money down the road they don’t have to have a specialist come down for control and electrics,” which cuts down on expenses.

He also recently finished installing ETC Prodigy hoists in a high school and was very impressed with them. Thanks to the structural tube built into the Prodigy hoist they eliminated the need for bracing on the bar joist, which means less steel, less time to install, and consequently less expenses. Plus: “It’s the most elegant and beautiful method of electric feed cable management that we’ve scene,” he says. “They are truly beautiful machines.”

InterAmerica Stage, Inc.  (IAStage)

InterAmerica Stage is a specialty rigging manufacturer and contractor. While well known in the theme park industry for show action equipment and controls, the roots of IAStage are in construction of performing arts venues. Solana Bolton, a project manager at InterAmerica, says their SkyDeck TWG system has evolved into one of the companies most recognized products. SkyDeck is a modular tension wire grid that makes working with and around lighting and rigging safer.

“It’s really had to fall through a two-inch square,” jokes Bolton.

And thanks to some innovative engineering they’ve managed to eliminate two of the biggest problems with tension wire grids: large steel framing members and trip hazards. A proprietary steel frame means the wire grid can be placed at the top of the unit, eliminating the three-inch drop in height of most wire grids. Proprietary stainless-steel cable fasteners pressed on both ends of the cable are individually proof tested. “We can say with confidence that these fasteners will last for the lifetime of the product, which is typically the lifetime of the building,” says Bolton.

Flying by Foy

We’ll end with a look at what rigging can be used for beyond lights and sets. Matt Bevacqua of Flying by Foy reports that they’ve been retrofitting Royal Caribbean cruise ships for some acrobatics over the high seas. “We fit their Centrum space, which is an atrium that is about six decks tall and has a glass ceiling,” he explains. “It’s a completely open public area and we’re flying performers who never touch the ground. The safety issue is even more serious than usual because there are people walking around underneath them.”

Oh yeah. And it’s a ship. So they have to also account for the natural pitch and roll of a vessel in the ocean.

There’s nine performers in the air over the course of the show, Bevacqua says, “and all the performers load from the air, from a balcony deck. There’s a chandelier that we have three people on and when the show is done, we track them out. It’s quite a process.”

Meanwhile back on land, they are flying performers in Priscilla Queen of the Desert and American Idiot. “American Idiot is especially interesting because they aren’t just doing aerial acrobatics, but ballet. It’s what flying can really be, all about dance and movement in space. It’s what our company is dedicated to, the art of flying.”


BMI Supply
571 Queensbury Ave
Queensbury, NY 12804
P: 800.836.0524

Chicago Spotlight, Inc.
1658 West Carroll Street
Chicago, IL 60612
P: 312-455-1171

FLI Rigging
14857 Martinsville Rd.
Belleville, MI 48111
P: 734-699-4464

Flying By Foy
3275 East Patrick Lane
Las Vegas, NV 89120
P: 702-454-3500

H&H Specialties
P.O. Box 9327
South El Monte, CA 91733
P: 626-575-0776

InterAmerica Stage
4300 St Johns Parkway,
Sanford, FL 32771
P: 877.302.4274

815 Fairview Avenue #10
Fairview, NJ 07022
P: 201-402-6500

J.R. Clancy
7041 Interstate Island Road
Syracuse, NY 13209
P: 315-451-3440

LVH Entertainment Systems
300 Irving Drive
Oxnard, CA 93030
P: 805-278-4584

Mutual Hardware
36-27 Vernon Blvd.
Long Island City, NY 11106
P: 866-361-2480

Stage Technologies
6651 Schuster St.
Las Vegas, NV 89118
P: 702-798-3838

Teqniqal Systems
P.O. Box 126287
Fort Worth, TX 76126
P: 817-249-4024

Theatre Design Services
6139 Darnell Street
Houston, Texas 77074
P: 713-777-1070

A division of Advanced Entertainment Technology
735 Los Angeles Ave.
Monrovia, CA 91016
P: 626-599-8337

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