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Backstage Video | Arts Centre Melbourne’s State Theatre Upgrades its Flying System

Michael S. Eddy • Industry News • June 30, 2021

Hidden behind the State Theatre’s famous hand-painted curtain at the Arts Centre Melbourne, is the flying system – a crucial component of any theater. Made up of a system of battens, wire rope lines, pulleys and computer-controlled electric hoists, the flying system enables the stage crew to lift or “fly” components of a production on and off stage. Here’s an inventive backstage video of this new flying system:

Over the past year, a team of contractors working under COVID-19 restrictions has worked tirelessly in the grid – 25 meters (82-feet) above the State Theatre stage – to replace the flying system. After 35 years of dutiful service to thousands of performances, the State Theatre Flying system needed an upgrade. First the old system was painstakingly demolished, with the team at one point removing nearly 30 tons of material each day to be recycled into various steel products. New hoist support steelwork was installed in ‘Betty Blue’, named for Arts Centre Melbourne’s most significant bequest donor Betty Amsden, and brand new hoist controllers – Unicorns from Waagner-Biro Austria Stage Systems were installed. The project was successfully completed on budget and on time in April 2021.

“We saw this project like a production,” says David Harvey, Arts Centre Melbourne’s Technical Director of Production. “We had an end date that was not going move, and we made a commitment to Opera Australia that it would be in the theatre by May 2021. There were some dark days in there certainly with COVID, but with every roadblock we chose to just keep going because there was no other option. Because the curtain will go up – it’s very rare we don’t put a show on in this joint.”

The new State Theatre flying system constitutes a massive upgrade for the theatre, providing efficiency and safety improvements, as well as the ability to visualize the entire staging system in a 3D environment. This state-of-the-art technology will for the first time allow Opera Australia to bring its stunning digital sets and projections to Melbourne, premiering with Aida.

The new Unicorn hoist controllers, from Waagner-Biro Austria Stage Systems, on the State Theatre stage ready to be installed. Photograph by Teresa Noble

Technology Behind the Scenes
The new flying system came from Waagner-Biro Austria Stage Systems, and was chosen by members of Arts Centre Melbourne’s own production team. Also on the panel were technicians from Opera Australia and The Australian Ballet – two primary users of the venue – as well as representatives from theatre planners Schuler Shook and Creative Victoria, Development Victoria.

“Waagner Biro is a very established company and we have more than 160 years in the market,” says Sales Manager Walter Weinwurm. “Our company is based in Austria, but we are internationally acting, so all over the world we have references because of this long tradition of work.” After 47 years with the company, Weinwurm has overseen similar projects all over the world, including Esplanade Theatres on the Bay in Singapore, The Royal Opera House in London, Sydney Opera House, and Arts Centre Melbourne’s own Hamer Hall.

“I’ll never forget Art Centre Melbourne giving us the opportunity to re-enter the Australian market with the Hamer Hall refurbishment,” Weinwurm says. “For me, personally, a highlight in my career. And then with this new project, what I like is this big step in improving the technology behind the curtain. And believe me, you will see it, when Arts Centre Melbourne reopens again. And that’s why it’s really a good performance space. It’s a favorite of mine.”

Safety First
The old State Theatre system had seen no significant upgrades in its 35 year lifespan. But over the last decade alone, there have been massive changes to what’s possible with theatre technology – both in terms of the machinery itself and the control system.

“What I also can see as a major change is that safety became a much higher priority,” says Weinwurm. “That’s safety for the machines and safety for the people. You know, theatre is a very dangerous place for the actors but there is a big improvement nowadays. For the future, what we expect to see is a strong tendency to move higher loads, faster changes of decoration, and the possibility for more exciting shows on the stage. So it’s important that we have new and more function due to the control system.”

A row of the brand new winches on Level 9 of the Theatres Building, high above the State Theatre stage. Photograph by Teresa Noble

In the State Theatre, Waagner Biro will provide a state-of-the art system matched to a highly specialized and custom designed winch. There are 112 winches sitting above the stage, each with a capacity of 800kg. They have also developed a special control panel for the State Theatre’s unusually narrow fly floor – the area where our flying system operators work – ensuring the utmost safety of the production team and the performers below.

From Austria to Australia
Although Arts Centre Melbourne was able to begin demolition of the existing flying system in July 2020, COVID-19 restrictions initially prevented the Waagner Biro team travelling to Australia to oversee the project. “So you can imagine we are on the other side of the world and we have to bring the machines and tools to Melbourne and all of a sudden, you know, that’s not possible anymore,” says Weinwurm. “How do you get the tools and all the things you need on site?” Eventually the hoists and other equipment were loaded onto a container ship – the MSC Tianjin – and made the long trip to Melbourne by sea.

“The second problem was because of the strict travel restrictions to Australia, it was not possible to get our engineers in to the country. And this was a very critical moment for the project because we are the specialists for that; it’s what we were hired for. It created a real risk to the project.” Thankfully, four specialists from Waagner Biro were granted a travel exemption through the Australian Government’s exemption program for essential workers. As a result the State Theatre Flying System project ran smoothly and ahead of schedule.

New battens being attached to the grid. Photograph by Teresa Noble

The Art of Engineering
“If you’re faced with such a situation, you automatically get trained to think out of the box; it improves your flexibility,” says Weinwurm.

But it’s clear that this is something the company already understands from many years working in theatre. “The arts and engineering, these are really different disciplines, but the arts are the minds that create the requirement for the engineering,” concludes Weinwurm. “And the engineering, we see in its technical developments, gives artists new opportunities to design the show. So we influence each other. And this leads us to new opportunities and lets us make the next step. So we are different, but I think it’s a good combination.”

“There was so much for us to learn in this project,” says Claire Spencer AM, CEO of Arts Centre Melbourne. “And I think seeing the team in full flight, with such determination, should give us a lot of confidence as we go through the rest of the Reimagining project – which is a long-term program with enormous complexity. But the problem solving that I saw going on – in my whole career I’ve never seen anything like it. A sincere congratulations to the entire team that worked on it.”

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