Open Forum

Rigging System

  • 1.  Rigging System

    Posted 02-06-2019 10:44
    An architect hired to do consulting work for the renovation to my auditorium says that most schools in the country use an automated rigging system. I found that to be a big surprise. I'm curious how many of the members have automated rigging systems in your schools. Further, in your knowledge, do "most schools" using an automated system?

    Thanks for the input.

    Kevin Welsh
    Auditorium Director
    Columbus IN

  • 2.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-06-2019 11:37
    I do not believe that a lot of schools, at least in our area (southwestern Illinois) have automated rigging systems.  We have a large auditorium at my school and we do not have such a system.

    However, a rigging system is not safe (probably not code compliant) without either an automated system or a loading platform for the rigging.  We discovered that our theater has neither of these and it is something that we are going to need to change.  We have been using our rigging in an unsafe manner for years without knowing that.  The "brakes" on the ropes are not designed to hold an imbalanced load of more than 50 lbs.  This means that you cannot raise a heavy loaded batten and lock it with a brace to put on weights to balance the load.  Instead, without an automated system, you need to leave the load on the ground while adding balancing weights high above (using a loading platform).  Only after the weights have been added and you think the load is evenly balanced should you attempt to raise the load.

    Bottom line: contact a theater professional to inform you and possibly inspect your auditorium before finalizing a decision on what you need.  Do not rely on an architect (as we did) to make decisions about the safety of the rigging.


    Brad Schmidt
    Belleville East High School Library Director
    Drama Coordinator
    Chess Coach

  • 3.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-06-2019 13:27
    I don't generally design for high schools, but have visited a number of them over the years in MA, upstate NY, and now in the SF Bay Area. So far I haven't seen any that do, but the other side of the coin is that a rigging system (of any type) would be practically useless if there's no room up there to fly stuff. And, from conversations with the staffs, these schools were designed by architects specifically to their understanding of a high-school stage, which is where the low ceilings come in.

    I'm totally with Brad on this one: find a qualified theatre consultant before you proceed. If you're renovating, as opposed to building from scratch, there are existing structural issues to consider besides the rigging system itself.

    George F. Ledo
    Set designer

  • 4.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-06-2019 20:07

    I think this is a trend in new installations but by and large, existing systems (and even modest retro-fits) still use manual systems.
    We have 17 line sets (all manual) and only two schools within 50 miles have automated systems (and only for their electrics). Automated systems
    are safer in that you don't have to deal with loading/unloading the arbors, but still can have issues, especially in the hands
    of an untrained user. Automated systems can still only handle so much weight and do have many more parts that can break down than in a
    manual system. Regardless of system, users need to be trained.

    Also, be certain that your administrators understand that rigging requires annual inspections. In the case of
    automated systems, you can void your warranty if you fail to get them as directed by the manufacturer.

    As others have stated, getting a theatre consultant is a priority.

    Here is a link to the new ANSI Rigging Inspection Standard, and although not law, it is expert opinion.



    Dana Taylor
    MSD of Mt. Vernon
    Evansville IN

  • 5.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-07-2019 06:37
    In having designed systems for schools and colleges, please keep in mind the following:

    Motorized rigging systems tend to be safer than manual systems as the weight is addressed by the system not by loading stage weight.

    Either system must/should highly have 1) basic inspection every time used and operated by a trained operator. 2) An annual inspection to verify nothing is wrong, these inspections need access for inspection to all components of the system for hands on inspection 3) Only be operated by Trained persons, never send a person(student, staff, volunteer) without training to run the system. 4) Ongoing maintenance performed to keep the system properly operating.5) Review the system coverage under your schools insurance.

    Other considerations are based on new construction vs. renovation:

    New construction can be for either system as long as the design staff take into consideration the size of the fly loft, more height required for manual rigging vs. motorized, but the structural design could possibly be revised based on the system.

    Cost a motorized set can cost between 15,000 and 25,000 per set compared to a manual set at 8,000 to 11,000 per set( rough numbers only not based on your or an exact space)

    You should /would need/want a designer who has worked on rigging designs in the past and who understands the full creation of the system into your facility.

    If you have /get this system be as safe as possible, keep a well trained staff, remember ignorance is not an excuse if an accident occurs, and you are as liable for the system as the end user as the facility should something occur. maintain good records of all inspections, operators logs, and maintenance records and document all inspection requests and approvals or declines from your facility.

    It is scary to think that facilities install systems and expect them to last with no additional costs or training required, these items need to be added to the ongoing maintenance budget for the next 35 to 50 years.

    As a rigging supply/install company in the Midwest,  there are maybe 10 or so high schools of hundreds in our area that have the motorized rigging.

    good luck in your project.

    Jerry Onik
    V.P. Theatrical Supplies and Equipment
    Omaha NE

  • 6.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-07-2019 08:00
    "Most" is certainly the wrong word to use in discussing Middle/High School (especially public) theatre spaces.  However, I would agree that "Many" school systems that value the Performing Arts and Arts Education in general would have such facilities.

    In our region, no one has a fly space.  I have to request the scissor lift weeks in advance in order to adjust the lighting over our deck.  If a lamp blows out in rehearsal or performance and I don't have the lift, we just have to deal with it.  A sister school does have a code-rated grid in their space, but it wasn't designed by theatre people, so conduit, wires and other infrastructure is always in the way of their plot.

    When we visit schools in wealthier (and wiser!) districts and see their fly systems, rigging, batons, etc., my students and their parents are often devastated.  I use these as teachable moments and explain the realities of funding, code/insurance issues, design elements, and the value some school systems place on having such facilities.

    Football fields, basketball courts, etc. all must have the same sizes, dimensions and layout.  Theatres don't.  One positive note:  unlike sports, we don't have to conform to regimented specs.  If our theatre is a different size/configuration from others, we don't have to "forfeit" our performance.  I've actually had discussions with coaches about this some were actually envious of the variety and adaptability Drama Directors can offer.

    Josh Ruben, M. Ed.
    Fine Arts Head
    Northwest Whitfield HS (dba, The Northwest Theatre Co.)
    Tunnel Hill, GA

  • 7.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-07-2019 08:42
    Just piping in here again again for a moment...

    A rigging system is not an end in itself: it's a means to an end - a solution to a problem. That end - that solution - is how to raise and lower stuff, mainly electrics, masking, and scenery. There was a discussion here recently about the merits of a motorized electric vs a catwalk, and some good points were made in favor of each one. Might be worth checking it out.

    Masking, both soft and hard, can be flown, pushed aside, or taken down, so there are options there.

    Scenery can be flown or moved on the floor, and the reason for doing so is to change sets. In some cases it can be switched a vista, which can be very dramatic and impressive. I love flying stuff in and out a vista when the story and presentation (and director) jive with it, but it calls for very careful design and planning of what's "up there" to avoid pieces hitting each other or jamming. Just flying a few flats in and out to change a box set is kinda pointless.

    A rigging system (either type) can be a great teaching tool if used correctly and safely, but, as mentioned above, it does require training and TLC. And they're expensive.

    My point here is just this: consider the end you want - the problem you're trying to solve - before choosing a solution. A rigging system is great to have, but it's a shame to have one and not get any mileage out of it. And I've seen a bunch of those.

    George F. Ledo
    Set designer

  • 8.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-07-2019 09:25
    We have an automated rigging system in our new facility opened in 2016. It is my understanding from our consultant that it is somewhat unusual.

    He insisted we use one so that we could lower the height of the stage house and therefore eliminate the coded need of a fire curtain -- thereby saving a ton of money.

    Mark A. Zimmerman
    Theatre Director,

    Akron School for the Arts
    Firestone High School
    470 Castle Blvd
    Akron, Ohio 44313


  • 9.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-07-2019 10:49

    So the code requirement for a fire curtain is based on the height of the stage house? That's interesting. In my experience, the need is based on the designation of the  space as either a theatre or an assembly space. Sounds like your code might designate the difference based on the height of the stage house. I guess  that would/could make sense.

    But the bigger quesgion is, do you have adequate room up there to fly stuff out?

    George F. Ledo
    Set designer

  • 10.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-07-2019 11:13
    I am not expert and am only remembering what I was told. I was told that in Ohio if the stage house is under (I think) 50' high, a fire curtain is not required.

    We have enough room to fly curtains and scenery out because the mechanical hoist system does of require as much room in the loft. We do not have a lot of extra room.

    Mark A. Zimmerman
    Theatre Director,

    Akron School for the Arts
    Firestone High School
    470 Castle Blvd
    Akron, Ohio 44313


  • 11.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-07-2019 12:07
    Okay, thanks. As long as you have room to fly stuff...   :-)

    George F. Ledo
    Set designer

  • 12.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-10-2019 00:36
    If you are under NFPA Life Safety Code or IBC (International Building Code), then the rule is if the height from stage to roof is less than 50', then "proscenium protection" (of which a fire curtain is one method) is not required. Local jurisdictions may of course have more stringent rules, but this seems to be the guideline for most of the U.S. There are other requirements that are also reduced at this height, so keeping height below 50' certainly can save construction costs.
    (Whether that is an appropriate height for a specific theatre is an independent question. This is just the "switch" as it were for when a fire curtain comes into play.)

    Kimberly Corbett Oates
    Dallas TX

  • 13.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-07-2019 12:26
    I've never seen this type of system in a high school or college. My gut reaction is this guy is trying to sell you something you don't need.

    Billy Houck
    Theatre Teacher, retired
    Carmichael, CA

  • 14.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-07-2019 13:06
    I would recommend checking with your code officials on any fire curtain requirements, just to be safe, easier to check than to be wrong or take for granted

    Jerry Onik
    V.P. Theatrical Supplies and Equipment
    Omaha NE

  • 15.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-07-2019 16:11
    Quick clarification: are you talking about a fly tower or rigging over the audience area?

  • 16.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-08-2019 19:42
    The rigging/counterweight system in a high school theatre is such a serious safety issue that it gets a full chapter all to itself in my High School Theatre Operations book, but in response to the discussion here, here's some excerpts for you: 


    The Counterweight System (or Fly System or Rigging System as it is interchangeably called) is potentially the most dangerous system in the theatre.  Although mentioned intermittently in the Safety chapter, it gets its own chapter as well because of the seriousness of operating this system safely.
    For a start, consider that you are flying hundreds of pounds of weight above the heads of people – children, in the high school setting - who have no hardhats on.  What construction site allows that?  Not only that, but during an actual performance, although the movements of the scenery have been choreographed and practiced, no one calls out any warning before hundreds of pounds of set pieces come flying down to the stage deck at a fast rate.  The people (your students) below simply cannot be in the wrong place at the wrong time….


    High school students – and anyone who will be operating the counterweight system - must be taught the theory and practices of operating the system safely.  The operator is a part of they system.  Whether a rope or cable fails or whether the operator fails, the system is compromised as a whole.
    The fact that as soon as your student lays hands on a rope s/he becomes a part of the system, is pause for thought. For this reason, you must have a strict protocol about using the fly system, and although teenagers can actually be trusted to use the fly system safely (high school techies do tend to take ownership of the protocol), they must first be trained....

    Not only does this counterweighting have to happen, but it has to happen in a specific order.  It is very important to keep the majority of the weight on the stage side, so that when you load weight you load the sets or lights first, and when you take away weight you take away from the arbor side first.  Each of these procedures is designed to ensure that a heavy weight will not come crashing down onto the stage where people may be standing. In addition, counterweight systems are generally built such that, while re-weighting, the lock can hold an imbalance of about 50lbs while re-weighting, but there are precautions you must take in order not to rely on the lock…


    It's not only important to make sure your students go through the correct training, and have their parents sign a waiver form (see the Safety chapter) before they can operate the counterweight system, but it's also very important to supervise them at all times and to make sure they continue to follow the proper procedures.  It's my philosophy that shows should be entirely run by students whenever possible, however there should always be a theatre technician present to supervise, even if it looks like on the surface that they aren't doing anything.  As I often say, you don't send the babysitter home after the children are in bed...


    But, how do the scenery and lights get on the pipes in the first place?  There are specific techniques for attaching scenery to pipes with cables. Hundreds of pounds of weight is being hung above people's heads, so the proper procedures must be followed. I have always required that a rigging technician be present and in charge of weighting the fly system during set load-ins in high school theatres.  I can't recommend strongly enough that you do the same. There is a proper technique and procedure for flying, and the following is a sample of a written procedure you should have in your theatre…


    Most high schools these days have a counterweight system where the weight of the scenery or lights is counter-weighted with weights, which are moved by pulling on ropes.  As you have read if this is not done correctly this can cause a very unsafe condition.  For this reason some districts are persuaded by their insurance companies to install electric winch systems instead.  Electric winch systems allow the user to move the pipes with the scenery and lights on up and down with the push of a button.  They winch system is strong enough to hold huge amounts of weight, thereby eliminating the need to re-weight every time you add or take off another light or piece of scenery (although the winch can be "taught" what weight it is moving). More sophisticated systems come with a computer, whereby you can program "cues".  For instance, if you need to prep for a show, you enter a cue number and all of the legs and the cyc come down in place at once.  If you are doing a scene change, you enter a cue number and three pieces of scenery fly out and two fly in.  Presto change-o.

    On the surface, this may sound far preferable in the high school theatre setting.  But I haven't met a high school theatre technician yet who thinks so.  There are several negatives about an automated winch system.  They include:

    To program in, and execute, a cue needs only one person.  In a high school setting where there are usually several students wanting to work backstage, this denies jobs to too many students.

    Career and Technical Educational value is lost. The high school students haven't been taught and therefore don't learn about counterweighting protocol and rigging procedures and if they go on to work in another theatre – community, college or professional, most of which have counterweight systems - they could be put themselves and others in danger with a presumed level of training that they don't have.

    Most older winch systems have a button that you must actively hold down in order for the pipe to move, however because it's so 'simple' to use, safety training is not adhered to.

    In the newer winch systems with computers there is an auto stop built into the system, so that if a drape or pipe hits an object it automatically stops moving.  The trouble is, it has to hit the object first.  That object could be a student's head.

    Electric winches don't know to stop when someone yells "Stop!".   When a student is actively lowering a piece of scenery with a counterweighted rope system and a student on stage sees that it is about to hit something that was not meant to be there, the student on stage can yell "Stop!" and the student on the fly system can stop lowering the ropes in order to avoid an accident, or worse.  If a student pushes a button on the computer screen of an electric winch system that student knows that the system will do what it's programmed to do. So even if that student has been trained to stand by the screen, they are not actively doing anything, or do not appear to be doing anything to other students.  If that student is distracted (say by another student – like that would happen!), when the student on stage yells "Stop!" the student operating the screen may not be able to get to the control in time to avert the disaster.

    One perceived positive feature about an automated winch system is the ability to create "cues", where several pieces of scenery and/or drapery can fly in and/or out at the push of the button. However, consider a situation where a show is in progress and a crew member leaves a piece of scenery, say a desk, in the wrong place during the previous set change.  The next set change comes along.  The operator pushes the button and several pieces of scenery fly out while a some fly in.  Suddenly a crew member realizes that a wall that is flying in is going to hit the desk.  He yells "Stop!" over his headset to the winch operator.  The winch operator quickly pushes the stop button.  In a situation where a counterweight system is in use, the crew member flying in that particular wall can stop, while the remaining crew members can keep flying their set pieces and drapes.  The desk is moved, and that wall continues to fly in.  The audience notices nothing amiss.  The show goes on.  In the same scenario using an automated winch system, when the stop button is pushed all pieces of scenery stop flying in and out.  The whole set change is put at a halt.  This disrupts the flow of the play. A crew member manages to move the desk and the winch operator can continue the set change cue, but by this time the audience is now drawn into the situation and drawn away from the 'magic' of theatre.

    System failure.  One high school I'm associated with had a full winch system installed in their new theatre.  Within the first two years of its operation the computer system failed several times requiring service.  A well maintained counterweight system can last decades.

    Again, even though the counterweight system may be perceived as more dangerous to an insurance company, I've never met a theatre technician who is in agreement with that perception.  Occasionally more convenient, perhaps.  But safer?  No.

    The system I like the best is a combination, where the light pipes are on a winch system and the scenery pipes are on a counterweight system.  One theatre I worked in had a combination system like this and it seemed to work very well.  It allows the lighting technicians and student crew to move instruments around quickly without having to close the stage in order to re-weight every single time.  Also, during a show, it's very rare that a light pipe has to be brought down to the stage deck.  Hanging scenery usually takes up the whole stage during the process regardless, and scenery is being moved in and out during the course of a show. So the counterweight system employs more students and, with a properly trained crew, is actually safer than a winch system.

    Again, a student crew member actively working the ropes on a counterweight system can see a hazard about to happen – say an actor walks under a piece of scenery that is being flown in – the student crew member operating a counterweight system would see the actor moving and stop the scenery before it hit the actor on the head.  A winch system would only stop itself once it sensed it had already hit something.


    One of the two best ways to optimize safety is to make sure that anyone operating the fly system is properly trained and/or supervised, has turned in a signed liability waiver form, and follows the proper procedures.  The other is to make sure that your fly system itself is inspected at least every couple of years, whether you have a counterweight system or a winch system.
    A fly system inspection includes a visual inspection of the accessible components of the system (although some parts may be virtually impossible to view if they are above a grid that is close to the ceiling of the fly tower).  The inspector will do a physical check of the system to assess if there are any hazardous conditions that might compromise the safety of those operating the system and those on stage while it is being operated.  They should fully raise and lower each line (rope) to determine the condition of its functionality, and to look for things such as whether the ropes are frayed, determine the condition of the blocks, cables and other parts, and determine if any lines are out of weight.  The inspector should then present your theatre with a full written report, which will recommend any repairs or replacements, and also recommend any preventative maintenance.
    I am not a theatre safety expert, and this book can only recommend, not replace safety training in a high school theatre.  If you want some specific hard-core information about rigging safety you should contact a professional company such as Stagecraft Industries on the west coast ( to come out to do a safety inspection, or check out websites such as
    For more in depth information about codes and accepted standards in the rigging industry as a whole – such as ANSI 1.4 2014 about manual counterweight rigging systems – check out"

    And to add to George and Mark's posts, the reason that there isn't enough room to fly out a piece of scenery without the bottom still being visible, is that architects and school administration think they are trying to save money by building a "3/4 Fly Tower" instead of a full fly tower.  It not only saves on materials for that extra few feet of building, but fire codes say that with a ¾ fly tower you are not required to have an automated fire curtain, but with the full fly tower you are.  So, money saved?  A+.  Functionality?  F!

    Beth Rand, EBMS
    Educational Lighting Designer
    School Theatre Operations Coach
    Westminster, CO

  • 17.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-09-2019 08:30
    You may have to revise this chapter because we have an electric winch system and we very much prefer it to the counter-weight system we had previously. You can no longer say you have never met someone who does. Although, technically, I suppose we have not actually met.

    Further, your safety concerns about the electric winch system can for the most part be also assigned to a counter-weight system.

    Student training is of course the key factor.

  • 18.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-08-2019 22:06

    My space is 15 years old (today), since we opened, I have consulted on 7 other facilities all in secondary or university education. None have motorized sets. Only 1 facility I have been in in my region has them. One other has a hybrid system where electrics and orchestra shell sets are motorized and the rest are manual.

    I agree with other.... seems like they are trying to sell you something. I always stand by the thought that I can teach a student far more on a manual system than on a motorized system. And I can put the extra money to MUCH better use too.


    David Simpson
    Performing Arts Center Manager
    East China Schools
    East China MI

  • 19.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-09-2019 18:06
    We do not have automated rigging in our system.  Most schools in the Portland, OR area do not have automated rigging, though a couple do for electrics.  This is to counteract the fact that electrics:
    -are often extremely heavy and thus difficult to move given their inertia
    -don't need to move quickly (and quietly) like other line sets during a production
    -can be difficult to balance give the transfer of cable weight that happens when an electric moves up and down, and thus the main power cables are sometimes resting on the electric (up) or hanging (down)

    Sydney Thiessen
    Fine & Performing Arts Coordinator and Technical Director
    Reynolds High School
    Troutdale OR

  • 20.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-10-2019 01:08
    Hi all

    This is clearly a hotly debated topic, and many entrenched in their camps.  I bring you the perspective of a 53 year old ETCP Certified IATSE rigger who is also a tenured professor at a major university and the owner of a company that uses fly systems in all types of theatres all over the world - part of our job is to do a basic inspection of every system we use before we install our gear.  Here is the view from that balcony:

    1) Advice - Architects are NOT familiar with what we do in entertainment rigging and ALL of their opinions should be taken with a grain of salt.  Its not what they do, and their perspective should be questioned in every single case.  If your project has a theatre consultant, the end users should be in direct contact with the consultant and should have many long conversations about how the facility will be used.

    2) Risk - Moving any load overhead comes with an inherent risk, no matter how it is done.  There is an equal amount of risk in each type of system which is reduced or mitigated by the amount of training received by the users.
    > Manual systems
    --> Users must be trained in proper loading and balancing techniques.
    --> To adjust the weight, either heavy weights need to be transferred at height or users have to be trained how to move out-of-balance systems.
    --> Counterweight systems are typically more susceptible to runaways because users are not properly trained how to use them.  In my experience, it is typically people not associated with the theatre operating staff who are more likely to cause runaways because they are not properly trained.
    > Motorized dead-lift systems
    --> These systems operate inherently out-of-balance, so they contain components that must bear the out-of-balance weight.  Even though they are very well engineered, all components will fail as part of their life cycle, so they must be monitored regularly by trained people.
    --> The controls are NOT fool proof.  I have seen, with my own eyes, motorized control systems with built-in safe-guards that have been over-ridden by well meaning students, teachers, technicians, etc.  The engineered safety features are only as good as the users' willingness to keep them intact.

    3) Inspections - ANSI Standards require that manual systems receive a level 1 inspection annually and a level 2 inspection at least every 5 years.  Motorized systems are required to receive a level 2 inspection annually.  Level 1 inspections do not require that unreachable components be accessed, while level 2 inspections DO require that all components be closely inspected, which may involve ladders, lifts, or scaffolding.  In summary, the long term expense, especially in terms of inspection and maintenance, of a motorized system will be more costly than a manual system.

    4) Showtime operation - One item that is often overlooked is the limitation of showtime operation.  Many motorized systems operate at only one or two speeds (variable speeds are more expensive), and most motorized systems only allow a maximum number of linesets to be operated at the same time.  Only the most sophisticated systems allow for "fly cues" to be written where many lines can be moved simultaneously with variable positions and speeds.  With a manual system, the number of sets that can be moved is limited only by the number of operators deployed.  Also because a human is operating the system, speed of cues and target locations can be adjusted mid-cue as circumstances of live performances change.  Risk during showtime operation can be argued from both perspectives.  A properly functioning motorized system is accurate and repeatable, but a machine will always do what it is programmed to do, without emotion or conscience, while a human operator has eyes and ears and the ability to react if something or someone is out of place.  This is often the most overlooked factor when choosing between a manual and motorized system.

    5) Shutdowns for maintenance - One other area to consider is shutdown for maintenance.  A motorized system has more parts than a manual system, and most of those parts are not user-serviceable.  If a TD has a working knowledge of basic rigging system, a problem with a manual system can usually be diagnosed and solved, even temporarily, right away.  If a motorized system goes down, it is possible that an entire system can be rendered inoperable unless a service technician can be deployed.

    6) The mission of schools - I may lose some of you here, but I think its worth mentioning.  As educators, I feel that it is our mission to prepare our students for what they will experience in the profession.  I accept that there is some discussion regarding what point the training should start (high school or college/university), but theatre technicians who experience a counterweight system later in their training are functioning at a disadvantage.  I believe in training our students properly, teach them to identify and mitigate risks, and use the equipment found in heir industry properly.

    In closing, I thank you for your time.  Regardless of the type of system you choose for your facility, I urge you to make the decision based on all of the factors, and make the decision that is best for your facility, your program, and your students.

    I hope this helps :-).

    Tracy Nunnally
    NIU - Professor/TD/Area Head
    Vertigo - Owner/System Designer
    ETCP Certified Rigger/Trainer
    DeKalb, Illinois

  • 21.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-10-2019 02:22
    As a consultant that designs systems for many high school theatres, I most frequently see hybrid systems with single-purchase counter-weighted line sets for everything except Orchestra Shell Canopies, Stage Electrics, and occasionally a Grand Drape (which may be very heavy).  The Orchestra Shell Canopies and Electric Battens are single speed (slow: ~15 feet per minute), and NOT 'Automated' - just motorized (UP, DOWN, and E-Stop).  The Grand Drape may be higher speed hoist (and may be variable speed so the motion can suit the mood of the presentation).  A skilled operator can run a manual counter-weighted line set at 180-200fpm, so for a motorized set to perform as well as a manual set, it too, must be able to travel quickly.  This means larger motors and quicker reaction times for the operator and spotters.

    "Automation" is not the same a 'motorized'.  A system that will 'run cues' is typically not necessary or desirable for High School level productions, but even if it is available, it requires spotters that are physically positioned to see the full range of motion of the batten and it's payload so they can allow the line set to move.  It is not a case of pressing GO! on the control console and the battens moving --- these systems should have a 'dead man' switch at the control console so if the operator lifts their hand from the console all motion will stop (this is NOT the same a pressing an Emergency Stop / E-Stop button -- that is another level of control over-ride intended to shut-down a hoist should a motor power contactor get welded contacts and require a deliberate power interruption).  Additionally, there would be multiple portable dead man switches for the fly crew to use.  Each portable station is programmed to force the spotter to keep the button depressed during the running of a fly cue so if a spotter is not plugged-in, or lazy, or inattentive, then the cue will not execute.  This is how professional Broadway type shows are automated, and anything less should not be accepted.  The operation of a system that facilitates this type of multi-machine sequential cuing is probably over-kill for a High School.

    A 'motorized' line set is just a simple hoist that is manually controlled (ON UP, ON DOWN) with momentary pushbuttons so the operator MUST keep their finger on the button for the motor to run.  Some systems have all of the Electric Batten and Orchestra Shell controls at a single station located on the downstage wall.  We do not design systems that way because the operator cannot clearly see each of the battens relative to the adjacent battens and floor below the batten.  Instead, we design a separate control panel for each motorized line set that is physically aligned with the batten it controls.  This forces the operator to stand where they can see what is happening.  (Grant it, we can't force them to look or think, but we can at least situate them where their odds are better of successfully completing a safe batten movement).

    The reason for installing a primarily manual counter-weight type rigging system is that most theatres that the students may encounter post High School will also have manually operated counter-weighted rigging, so this is to train them how to use the systems safely - the rigging system is a teaching tool.  Also, for the same reason, we usually specify at least one of the counter-weighted line set to be 'double-purchase' type.  This is to help them experience the difference in weight loading procedures.

    Something that seems to be misunderstood by some posters on this thread is that you have to choose between having a full height functional fly system and having the building structure still under the 50' maximum height so a Fire Curtain is not needed.  This is simply not true at all.  You can have a fully retractable fly system with a walk-on gridiron service deck all within a 50' Fire Code limitation.  Similarly, you can have a Fire Curtain within this building height, too (albeit, the 50' building limit is pointless with a Fire Curtain and just unduly constrains things).  It is our opinion that Fire Curtains should be included in a fly system design for an educational facility regardless of the requirement for one due to fire code considerations.  Fire Curtains are common in most college and municipal theatres and having one to show the students how they work and understand WHY they are there is a fundamental teaching tool for performers and technicians alike.  Remind the administrators that the Fire Codes are a MINIMUM requirement, you can, and should do more.  This shouldn't be a race to the bottom to provide the bare minimum that you can get away with.  This is not how excellence in education is achieved.

    I find that most of the misunderstandings that mislead administrators and risk managers towards thinking that 'Automated' systems are what they want are this:
    • Bad experience with run-away line sets (This is usually due to poor training, unauthorized users, and a lack of TWO Loading Galleries.  Modern counter-weighted rigging systems  have the proper number of Loading Galleries, typically have Front Loading arbors which reduce the physical stress of transferring counterweights (and significantly reduce the likelihood of dropping a counterweight!), typically have better Rope Locks (like the Thern Brickhouse Rope Lock) that allow easier regulation of the rope speed, and (hopefully) a higher awareness of training than in the past.
    • They confuse 'simple operation' with not having to have trained personnel.  These items are completely unrelated.  Untrained personnel are a recipe for disaster with ANY system.
    • They think an 'Automated' system will save them work or set-up time.  Not true.  The time for the movement of a few battens per year is insignificant relative to the other physical set-up that must be done to transform a stage from one configuration to another.
    • The think that they won't have to physically access the system for maintenance or inspections, so they can omit the Fly Galleries and walk-on Gridiron Service Deck.  This is a 'total disaster' decision that affects the speed and cost (remember: time = money) of installation, maintenance, and ANNUAL inspections (of the Stage Rigging, the Smoke Vents, and the Fire Protection Systems).  This would be like buying a truck with no engine.  True, they can eliminate the Fly Galleries, however, the access ladders and walk-on Gridiron Service Deck still MUST be provided or they are setting themselves up for some VERY expensive Service Calls and Annual Inspections.
    • They think Fire Curtains are a 'nuisance' because they once had one (which had likely never been inspected or tested, and was designed to a much older standard) deploy unexpectedly and interrupt a show.  Modern Fire Code requirements for the design and installation of a Fire Curtain eliminate these problems (again, assuming that the system is properly  maintained and inspected), AND the Fire Curtain can be used to add a layer of security to the stage by placing a easy to deploy and retract barrier between the seating chamber and the stage (because it is explicitly designed to do just that).
    I encourage you to see that the school hires a Theatre Consultant so they can guide the Owner, Architect, and Engineering team  towards a venue renovation that is balanced and sensitive to the needs of a theatre / music program(s).  The project should also strongly consider the Sound, Acoustics, and Noise Control needs of the venue, too, as part of the balanced planning effort (some Theatre Consultants are knowledgeable about Sound, Acoustics, and Noise Control, while others are not, so this may require another consultant in the mix).  I suppose that there may be Architects and Engineers out there that 'get' theatre, but I have yet to meet them in 40 years of practice . . .

    A side tale of 'how not to do it':  I visited a High School venue once to find a brand-new set of fully automated rigging (maybe 20 or so line sets) installed in a stage house that was only about 150% of the proscenium height (250% would be closer to 'normal').  The result was that they could raise all the drapes up off the floor so they could sweep under them, but that's all.  Had they spent the money they wasted on the automation system they could have afforded a full-height fly tower and could have retracted their battens high enough for the legs and scenic drops to be out of sight . . .

    Erich Friend
    Theatre Consultant
    Teqniqal Systems

  • 22.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-10-2019 11:10
    Tracy and Erich hit the nail on the head. Thank you to both for piping in here.

    Now I'm going to repeat something I've said before: a rigging system is not an end in itself. Sure you can use it to raise masking and electrics, but it would be a shame to spend all that money and not use it to move scenery. And this is where things get interesting.

    Whether there's a need to fly scenery or not is a factor of how the set is designed, which is a factor of the director's and set designer's vision. But that vision is not created in isolation. It's a factor of the show itself, which is often picked solely by the director. So, in order to get any mileage out of a rigging system, you need:

    - A show that lends itself to moving scenery vertically. Many musicals do, but your typical one-location show (i.e., a box set) does not.

    - A design concept that works for the show. Scenery can be raised and lowered in full view of the audience to great dramatic effect, but so often it's raised and lowered during a "blackout" or behind closed curtains, when it could just as easily be rolled off.

    - A design budget that allows for a design concept that can get some dramatic mileage out of flying scenery.

    - And, as mentioned above, a trained staff.

    What I'm saying is, don't put the cart before the horse. Define what you want the system to do before you spend the money.

    George F. Ledo
    Set designer

  • 23.  RE: Rigging System

    Posted 02-10-2019 12:09
    Edited by Kimberly Corbett Oates 02-10-2019 12:33
    What this discussion reminds us is how poor recordkeeping and statistics are for the theatre. The reality is it seems no one is really sure how many high school theatres there are, (although some groups have/are trying to get to a number), let alone what percentage has x.
    The manufacturers probably have the best data on how many high school theatres have motorized rigging systems, particularly those for cuing shows (systems that go beyond fixed speed motors for electrics and shells), since they know what they've sold.
    I'm aware of a number of high schools with motorized systems. I still work with many high schools where, after discussion of the benefits and disadvantages, we recommend counterweight rigging, except for shells and electrics. (ETA: But some choose motorized. It’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition.)
    This is a great discussion of the issues that should be considered in the selection of a rigging system, rather than (unknown) statistics.

    Thanks to everyone contributing.

    Kimberly Corbett Oates, ASTC
    Dallas, TX