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Entertainment Rigging for the 21st Century: compilation of work on rigging practices, safety, and related topics.

Entertainment Rigging for the 21st Century

Compilation of work on rigging practices, safety, and related topics

Edited by Bill Sapsis; Burlington, MA, Focal

Press, 2014. 288 pp. Paper, $49.95.

Towards the end of the last century, some in the arena rigging industry began to realize that it was no longer good enough--or safe enough--to expect working riggers to pick up all the necessary skills on the job. In 1985 Mountain Productions and Columbus McKinnon (CM) started offering an annual workshop featuring hands-on instruction in CM chain hoist maintenance and use. (CM hoists were then the workhorse chain hoists used in the vast majority of touring arena shows.) Truss manufacturers like Tomcat and Thomas Truss soon got into the act sponsoring workshops of their own. They added a truss component along with additional training by manufacturer reps and rigging professionals covering fiber and wire rope, round slings, connecting hardware, rigging math, best rigging practices, fall protection, automation, and more.

By the early 1990s a group of production and industry professionals coalesced around the demand to teach their specialties at these workshops. This pool of traveling rigging experts included Randy Davidson (risk and safety), Rocky Paulson, (rigging math and rigging craft) Jay Glerum (theatre rigging), Peter Foy (performer flying), Mike Garl (lighting truss), John Gray (threaded fasteners), Wally Blount (hoists), Jerry Gorrell (OSHA regulations), and Randy Longerich (fiber rope). (Davidson, Glerum, and Gorrell were USITT Fellows.) The workshops were sponsored by production companies, truss manufacturers, safety companies, universities, and IATSE locals. The presenters varied, of course, according to who was available (they all had regular jobs) and who the sponsor wanted.

By the mid-90s the format for these multi-day workshops was generally the same. Each expert would present his own understanding of a topic refined to fit into a half-hour to two-hour block. Their presentations featured hands-on instruction accompanied by a stack of photocopied handouts. This ad hoc system of rigging workshops grew organically out of the professional entertainment rigging community without a formally established curriculum. The workshop structure foreshadowed how knowledge in the Internet age would be organized and transmitted, breaking up what once would have been a coherent and sequential body of knowledge into discrete units untethered from surrounding chapters or context and often consumed in random order.

Over the next decade, as the number of workshops grew, so did the roster of freelance rigger instructors and their specialized topics. When the Entertainment Technician Certification Program (ETCP) was established in 2005, it instituted a system of certification renewal that did not endorse any specific curriculum but required in-person continuing ed classes from trainers that it officially recognized (called Recognized Trainers) teaching their specialties. These workshops formally became the primary method of gaining basic to advanced rigging skills and knowledge.

Interestingly, very few reference texts have been published to complement the breadth and detail of information being communicated in the workshops over the past several decades. The late Jay Glerum's Stage Rigging Handbook was published in 1987. It addressed most aspects of theatrical rigging and for years was the only text available about any form of entertainment rigging. Concert touring rigging (arena rigging) topics were not formally covered until 2002, when two books were published: Harry Donovan's Arena Rigging and Chris Higgs's UK-based An Introduction to Rigging in the Entertainment Industry. Donovan's book was a refinement of the handouts he had been using in the SynAudCon rigging workshops. Published treatments of rigging craft and skills beyond the scope of stage rigging and arena rigging were only to be found in a few trade magazine article and rigging workshop handouts. Until now.

Compilation of work

This background is helpful to make sense of the "compilation of work" that is Entertainment Rigging for the 21st Century. The editor, Bill Sapsis, an ETCP Recognized Trainer himself and chair of its Rigging Subject Matter Experts, has collected fourteen essays, each with a different author, each dealing with a different aspect of entertainment rigging, each differing in scope, depth, and delivery. He has presented them without introduction either as a group or individually. The normal expectation of a reader of an anthology is that the editor, especially an expert peer of the authors, would explain the concept behind the book, his or her relationship to the writers, and how all the essays collectively make a whole. Perhaps more importantly, you expect a brief introduction at the top of each essay introducing the author, summarizing his or her credentials, and putting the essay into the context of the subject.

But Sapsis provides none of that. It's as if he just cued his rigging peers to go out on stage in succession without warming up the crowd or showing up between acts to apprise the audience of what was coming up next and of what significance each has in the show. If these essays were presentations at a rigging workshop (and many of them certainly started that way), there would be an organizer to welcome the attendees and introduce each presenter.

There is a foreword by Monona Rossol, which gives an excellent overview on the current safety environment affecting many of the rigging topics in the book. However, it does not explain how the essay fits into its chapter description or into the larger body of knowledge of entertainment rigging. We are left with fourteen stand-alone essays which the reader must provide the context for. Fine for someone with some rigging background, challenging for the more general reader.

So, without an editor as guide, you just have to jump in and judge each essay on its own merits. Flipping through the pages, I went to where my interests took me.

"Arena Rigging" by Roy Bickel was first to catch my eye. A quick look at the List of Contributors at the front of the book revealed that this was indeed the Roy Bickel, former circus performer and early pioneer of arena rigging (way before it was even called arena rigging). He begins this way: "While it's difficult to pinpoint exactly when arena rigging began, it's a pretty safe bet it started with the touring ice shows in the early to mid-60s." Starting with a bit of history about the early days of rock and roll touring, when riggers hauled the hoists to the beams, he goes on to describe how to hang a point in a leisurely, clear, and friendly way, as if he were sitting on a rigging road box telling a bunch of young stagehands how arena riggers have done their job for decades. Hearing this basic information from one of the early practitioners of arena rigging in his own voice is something that will appeal to everyone from the general reader to experienced riggers.

The chapter's title, "Arena Rigging," belies the narrow focus of Bickel's essay. It's about hanging a single "point" (i.e. overhead rigging attachment) with some personal reflections added. The title reflects a similar relationship between all the chapters and their content. The titles are broad, while the content within tends to be of smaller scope.

"Performer Flying" caught my attention next. Joe McGeough tells us in his introduction how performer flying came into his rigging career in 1978, when he met Peter Foy through the Ice Capades. "Like many who met Peter," he writes, "I was immediately drawn to what he did and to the man himself. I knew nothing about his craft, but he was very willing to teach me countless things in many areas over the decades that followed. The following is a direct result of that relationship." McGeough, now director of operations for Flying by Foy, rewards us with the history of performer flying, starting with the Greeks and following through with colorful descriptions of Peter Foy's innovations like the Track-on-Track system and his work in the movies, all supported with fly rig diagrams and amusing show anecdotes. Again, getting to hear the foundational stories of a rigging specialty like performer flying in the voice of Joe McGeough, who lived them and was a participant in its development, is priceless.

My third reading foray took me to the first essay, "Forces and Formulas" by Rocky Paulson, which covers the essential math that must be mastered by every entertainment rigger. It is long and densely packed with force symbols, diagrams, and math problems, making it look pretty off-putting for the casual reader or even the beginning rigger. This is probably the most obvious place where editor Sapsis could have provided the introduction and context that would allow readers to evaluate an essay. What only the experienced rigger will recognize is that this chapter is a collection of material originally used as workshop handouts by Paulson, another pioneer arena rigger, who founded the first arena rigging production company in 1977. Paulson started assembling the material in his chapter as class handouts back in the '90s as an instructor at the early CM hoist workshops (I still have my handouts from one of those workshops), and he has been expanding and refining them ever since. This is the first time they have been published in their entirety in a book. Every entertainment rigger will want this chapter on his or her reference shelf.

Complementing how Paulson drills deep into practical rigging math, structural engineer Bill Gorlin leads us through an intuitive understanding of how structures behave under load in "Structural Behavior." In "Outdoor Roof Structures," Keith Bohn entertainingly explains in plain English for both the general reader and entertainment rigger the practical requirements and implications of ANSI E1.21, Entertainment Technology -Temporary Structures Used for Technical Production of Outdoor Entertainment Events. (Temporary structures covering outdoor music concert stages, like the one that collapsed at the Indiana State Fair in 2011.)

Rock star riggers

In each of my descriptions I have focused on the author, because this compilation is very much about getting the well-rehearsed voices of these industry "rock star" experts on the record. (And, for the record, here are the other voices: Tray Allen on "Lighting Truss," Karen Butler on "Counterweight Rigging," Stu Cox on "Aerialist Rigging," Scott Fisher on "Stage Automation," Dan Culhane on "Mechanics of Stage Automation," Eddie Raymond on "Training in the 21st century (US version)," Chris Higgs on "Training in the 21st century (UK version)," Bill Sapsis on "Working Safely at Height," and Carla D. Richters on "Medical Issues in Fall Arrest/Rescue.") I suggest that before you start any chapter, go to the front of the book and read the author bio. Their long career histories are fascinating and enlightening and give authority to what they have to share.

While the system of expert talks at rigging workshops has done a great job of putting rigging experts at the top of their game in front of working riggers hungry for new knowledge and skills, it has not helped get their presentations published. Handouts in three-ring binders still prevail. What is wonderful about this new book is that now some of the best presentations have been captured in print, retaining the unique voice and delivery style of their authors.

If you read your way through all the essays, it becomes apparent they were developed individually, without reference to other chapters. That is probably nowhere more apparent than in the two that address aerial performers, "Performer Flying" and "Aerialist Rigging." While developing from different performance traditions (theatre and circus) and employing different specialized hardware, both traditions share the unique issues of performer safety, dynamic loading, and safety factors that are different from flying an inanimate truss rig or a piece of scenery. Yet they neither address those issues in a common way nor reference each other's approaches.

Also sadly missing from this book are full rigging system photos or diagrams that would help contextualize the descriptions of counterweight rigging systems, arena rigging systems, aerial rigging systems, or outdoor roof systems. Each author has apparently supplied his or her own photos and or illustrations, and they vary from great (diagrams of Foy rigs in "Performer Flying" and illustrations of truss in "Lighting Truss") to non-existent (in "Outdoor Roof Structures"). Karen Butler's "Counterweight Rigging," for example, is accompanied by photos of all the components parts of a counterweight system but never shows them as part of a complete counterweight system pictured from locking rail to batten. "Arena Rigging" and "Aerialist Rigging" have the same problem. Closeups of component parts are included but no full system photo or diagram in a venue from overhead anchorage to the load. That last link in the chain of understanding is missing, making what would be otherwise understandable to the general reader or beginning reader, opaque. (I suggest when using this book, you should have close at hand the full stage photos in the Fall 2014 Protocol, pp 24-27 (http://na.plasa.org/ publications/protocol.html).

Changing centuries

Here we've gotten to the end of the review and the question implied by the title has not been addressed: How is entertainment rigging in the twenty-first century different from rigging in the twentieth century? Eddie Raymond in "Training in the 21st century" provides a perfect description of the knowledge the contemporary entertainment rigger must possess:

   The variety of rigging tools in the theatre
   has never been greater. Many houses use
   combinations of counterweight systems,
   mechanical and arena style rigging, and even
   hemp systems to hang and run a show. Many
   elements of modern scenery have made this
   a necessity. For one thing, scenery is heavier
   and more complicated than ever before.
   Automation systems that work above the stage
   require stability that is not always possible
   with counterweight sets. Lighting units are
   heavier and more complicated than ever
   before. Projection systems require specialized
   rigging as well. The modern theatre rigger
   must be familiar with all of the possibilities in
   order to be at the top of their game.


He goes on to succinctly address what's needed in rigging training in the twenty-first century:

   What's missing at this point is an agreed
   curriculum that lays out a progressive order
   of training from how to tie a knot to how to
   calculate complicated loads that includes
   everything in between and builds skills
   based on the concept of linear learning.
   Additionally there is yet to be developed a
   way to train instructors for the best methods
   for adult educations (yes, I know, not all
   stagehands are adults) and to insure the best
   success of the majority of students they teach.
   Many stagehands are far removed from the
   classroom and training methods must take
   that into account. We must accommodate all
   styles of learning.


Entertainment rigging today is the mashup of once discrete rigging technologies and traditions that now must be synthesized by riggers to function safely together in each entertainment space.

Bill Sapsis's Entertainment Rigging for the 21st Century gives us a collection of writings by experienced working professionals explaining topics on which they are undeniably experts. Taken individually, each fills in a small area of the mental map each rigger has of the ever expanding craft of entertainment rigging. Taken together they begin to document what entertainment rigging has become (and is becoming). We can hope that there will be future editions of this book, with similar anthologies to follow to document in print more of the constantly expanding entertainment rigging body of knowledge. But next time around with editor Sapsis stepping forward to take on a more active role as master of ceremonies to showcase his rigging peers with a framework to give them context and a few grand scale backdrops..

Steve Nelson is a project manager with Iacono Productions in Cincinnati. He first learned about rigging while sailing aboard the tall ship Regina Maris in 1979, learned how to build scenery from the late Bill Raoul in 1983, and was a member of the first class of ETCP riggers in 2005.
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Author:Nelson, Steve
Publication:TD&T (Theatre Design & Technology)
Date:Jan 1, 2015
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