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Rigging Design For Theater Basics

Enjoying a live theater performance is an experience like no other, and it’s made possible by the actors, costumes, sets and rigging system that go into a show. A theater’s rigging system is the unseen and unsung hero of the theater. It allows for smooth transitions between scenes and can help create all sorts of visual effects. Take a moment to learn more about what a rigging system does and the various components that make it work.

What Is Rigging?

Rigging systems are what allows theater stages to become technical marvels. More specifically, they host the lighting system for the stage and make it possible to open and close curtains, raise and lower scrims and backgrounds, move scenery and even help actors perform flying stunts. This is why you’ll sometimes hear a rigging setup referred to as a fly system. Whether actors, scenery or other objects, a rigging system hoists them through the air. This is an impressive feat when you consider that theaters can have loads that weigh between 60,000 pounds and 90,000 pounds or more.
Rigging systems come in various types. The two basic categories of rigging systems are traditional counterbalance systems, which operate manually, and automated systems, a newer type of rigging that is motorized and programmable. In every case, rigging systems can be fairly complex and consist of many moving parts. Some theaters will have extensive, multifaceted rigging systems.
The earliest rigging systems consisted of hemp ropes, wooden pulleys and sandbag weights. These systems have become increasingly rare, and even older theaters that were originally “hemp houses” are undergoing upgrades. Today’s rigging systems, including the manual ones, are generally safer and easier to operate than the earlier versions.
A rigging system is typically concealed above the stage where the audience cannot see. Scenery, props and equipment are held in suspension, ready to be lowered onto the stage and then removed again at the right times. From the audience’s perspective, a great rigging system will make scenery changes appear effortless and seamless.

Why Rigging Design Is Important

Proper rigging delivers some valuable benefits to a theater. The ideal rigging design will look different from theater to theater, but these designs share similar goals. For the audience, an effective rigging system helps to create a vivid story that transitions smoothly from scene to scene with no visible equipment. For the crew, it makes putting on a production a more convenient experience and allows for safe and easy access to equipment.
The following are additional reasons why rigging design matters in your theater:

1. It Helps Tell The Story

Theatrical performances should tell a story that transports the audience and seems to unfold seamlessly. A lot has to go on behind the scenes to make this possible. Without a rigging system, things like set changes will likely seem clumsy, which will detract from the story and interfere with the audience’s suspension of disbelief.

When the curtain opens and closes and the backgrounds and sets descend and disappear smoothly at just the right times, the show will be more enjoyable overall. If a play requires any flying stunts, a rigging system can also make that part of the story a reality.

2. It Conceals Equipment

A quality theatrical show should mask equipment like lighting, sets and backgrounds for other scenes so they don’t detract from the aesthetic quality of the show. Imagine if you were watching your favorite play and had to do your best to ignore all the unused set pieces at the back of the stage. You’ve likely never had to do that because a rigging system was in place to conceal all this equipment.

Rigging systems keep all the pieces you need for your show out of sight when they’re not being used. For centuries, curtains have provided a lovely frame for a theatrical stage and have helped to cover rigging systems, further obscuring equipment from the audience’s view.

3. It Enables Safe Equipment Access

When you’re not in the midst of a performance, rigging still comes in handy. A rigging system is designed so that you can lower equipment down to floor level so you can access it safely. This allows your team to conduct routine maintenance, such as changing out lightbulbs, and allows you to remove and add set pieces to accommodate new shows. You can also connect new equipment you purchase to enhance your productions.
Without being able to lower equipment down, you would have to use ladders or aerial platforms to access equipment. A rigging system is more convenient and safer since your team can simply work on equipment at floor level. Keep in mind, however, that rigging systems are not inherently safe since they involve lifting loads that can be quite heavy. It is critical that you purchase quality rigging equipment and have professionals with the proper credentials install your rigging system. It’s also critical that you use proper rigging practices to maintain a safe environment.

Components of a Rigging System

Rigging systems can include many different components. Let’s take a look at some common parts that go into a rigging design:

1. Batten

Battens are a centerpiece of rigging systems. If you’re only somewhat familiar with rigging systems, you’ll likely picture a batten first when you think of rigging design. This is the long steel pipe or truss where sets, lights and other equipment are attached. There are various types of battens, including electric battens, truss battens, tab battens and light ladder battens. The batten can be just a few feet long or can span the width of the stage.

The batten is suspended by lift lines and hovers up in the loft or “fly space” above the stage, where the audience cannot see. When a batten descends toward the stage, it is said to be “flying in,” and when it is raised, it is “flying out.” Other parts of the rigging system allow the batten to move like this.

2. Lift Lines

As mentioned, the lift lines are what hold the batten in suspension. These lines are cables that attach to the batten and connect it to the rest of the fly rig. For shorter battens, there may be just two lift lines attached, and for longer battens, there could be several lift lines spaced out across the batten. For example, a 40-foot batten would likely have at least four lift lines attached to it.

The lift lines run through blocks in the rigging system, which allow the cables to move freely on the operator’s command. In a traditional rope system, the lift lines run up to the headlock and continue to run down to the fly floor. This means the lift lines are also the hand lines.

3. Pulleys

Pulleys are an important facet of rigging systems. You’ll often see these pulleys referred to as blocks. Blocks support the lift and operating lines and allow these lines to move in a controlled manner. In most standard rigging systems, the most important pulley is called the head block. All the lift lines within a line set have to pass through the head block at the corner of the rigging system.

There are other types of pulleys too, such as mule blocks, loft blocks, tension blocks and idler pulleys. These pulleys are positioned in various places along the rigging structure. Along with counterweights and other devices, the system of pulleys helps sets move as needed.

4. Arbor

The arbor is also called the counterweight arbor because it is designed to hold counterweights. This structure is made up of steel plates at the top and bottom that are connected by a bar and rods. An operator can place a stack of counterweights and spreader plates topped with a locking plate on the arbor’s bottom plate in order to balance a load. The rods at the sides hold the weights in. Some newer arbors allow you to load in counterweights from the front rather than the sides.

The hand line emerges from the top of the arbor and works its way through the whole system of pulleys, ending at the bottom of the arbor. Guide systems of rails or wires help the arbor travel up and down.

5. Hand Line

The hand line is critical. This is the rope or cable that connects everything in the rigging system and is what operators use to control the system. That’s why hand lines are also called operating lines. In the past, hand lines were made from hemp rope. Today, hand lines for manual systems are still made from rope, but it is more often synthetic rope. Some lines are made from steel cable.

In manual systems, operators pull on the hand line to move scenery. In automated systems, there is no need to pull since a motor does the heavy lifting for you.

6. Line Control

In order to keep a set from moving when it’s not supposed to, you need some sort of line control. One of the most popular examples for counterweight systems is a rope lock. Rope locks hold a hand line steady and keep a properly balanced load in place.

Other options for line control include belaying pins, swage fittings, trim chains, turnbuckles, shackles, cable clips and knots in the rope. A rope lock or other type of line control does not guarantee you’ll never deal with a runaway set — line control items are only designed for loads that are in proper balance with counterweights. It’s critical that you follow careful lifting and rigging procedures to maintain safety.

7. Hoists and Winches

The power that moves the lines in a rigging system comes from hoists and winches. These terms are often used interchangeably, but technically, a winch is designed to pull the line horizontally while a hoist is designed to lift a load vertically.

Manual hoists and winches include a drum and gearbox with a hand crank you turn in order to let out the line or tighten it. These devices are still common in many rigging systems. Some hoists and winches are motorized, however, and run on an electric brake motor. Some types of motorized hoists and winches include drum hoists and winches, point hoists and winches, and line shaft hoists and winches. These devices make moving lines in the rigging system more convenient.

8. Counterweights

Lineset loads need counterweights to balance them. Traditionally, these weights were sandbags. Counterweight systems today generally use metal bricks, usually made from steel, as counterweights. Counterweights are placed within the counterweight arbor. Operators can add more or fewer counterweights as needed to provide the right balance.

As you change out sets or other loads attached to your rigging system, you will need to adjust the counterweights accordingly. This is a task that stagehands must perform carefully in order to prevent loads from running away during the process of counterbalancing.

Importance of Proper Rigging Practices

It isn’t enough to have a quality rigging system in place. You also need to have a good understanding of proper rigging techniques in order to get the most out of your rigging system and operate it safely.

Stagehands should be thoroughly trained on how to use the rigging system correctly and safely. Training is essential because there are some possible dangers with rigging. For instance, improperly balanced loads could come crashing down. Operators should know how to avoid this hazard and how to respond if it ever happens.

There are also routine aspects of rigging that can be inherently hazardous. In some situations, stage crew may need to climb up the system to make repairs on parts that cannot be lowered down. This necessitates safety measures, such as wearing a harness and using ascenders and descenders.

Ascenders and descenders are tools that rigging technicians use to move up and down ropes in the rigging system. These devices are also used in other climbing applications. An ascender allows a person to climb up a rope freely without being able to move down, and a descender does the opposite. In either case, these devices can make climbing safer.

Ultimately, following the practices you find in rigging and lifting handbooks will help keep your staff safe and help you put on an excellent show.

Rigging Design Assistance From Illuminated Integrations

A quality rigging system is essential for a theater. If you’re looking to install a rigging system for the first time or are looking for design help to improve your current setup, Illuminated Integrations is here to help.
We specialize in both static and motorized systems, and we can handle everything from design to installation. You won’t have to shoulder any of the burden, and we’ll be sure to share our custom design for your approval and deliver results to your specifications. We can also assist with other aspects of your theater, such as acoustics and lighting.
Contact us today to learn more about how Illuminated Integrations can help your theater put on amazing performances with an ideal rigging setup.

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