Eric Rouse recently took a new position as director of rigging and training at Entertainment Project Services in Las Vegas, NV. He has been in the performer flying and rigging industry for 25 years and has been doing rigging training for 15 years. He has done training for Columbus McKinnon, IATSE, Disney, and Cirque du Soleil among others, and teaches annual rigging classes at LDI, this year a new, two-day course titled: Fall Protection and Rescue Planning for Technicians and Venues. Rouse chats with Live Design about his work, rigging inspections and safety, and his course at LDI.
Live Design: How did you develop your career as a rigging expert?
Eric Rouse: I would change the question slightly and ask how I became a rigging professional. I'm sometimes cautious of people that are labeled (or label themselves) as experts. There's always something new to learn. Anyway, I was very lucky early in my career and worked with some of the best in the industry in Las Vegas. My first job with Joe McGeough at Foy, and the next one with David Chabira at Cirque's O show, laid out an immediate groundwork of precision and thoughtfulness. Granted, these were different types of rigging than "normal" theater and arena rigging, but in some ways, rigging is rigging and a lot of the same principles apply. In these jobs, I learned tons more about design factors and gear, but I also learned how to speak rigging...how to talk about ideas and plans in an intelligent and clear way. Continuing my work with Foy over the years, and getting to work with Bill Sapsis and Chris Harris of Sapsis Rigging, among others, really gave me a breadth of experience that I will always be grateful for. All of this experience, and teaching at the university level for over 10 years, lent itself to doing the training I have loved doing for quite a while now.
LD: What are the day-to-day tasks of your new position?
ER: At Entertainment Project Services (EPS), my job is split into three different categories, installations, inspections/maintenance, and training. One part of my job is to support the incredible design and project management team we have here at EPS. We look at what the scope is and discuss ways to design effects in a safe manner. I also assist with installation supervision for our projects that entail rigging. A larger portion of the job is devoted to our cruise ship clients. I have worked within the cruise industry for about 10 years, so this was a perfect fit for me. I'm tasked with keeping track of our inspections and maintenance on equipment we have installed on a variety of cruise ships. I also help work on new projects as the shows are always evolving. The largest part of my job is supervising our new training center in Las Vegas. The Entertainment Technical Training Center is slated to open this November, and we think it will be a fantastic resource for industry veterans and new people alike. We are going to offer classes in all kinds of rigging, fall protection, automation, and project-focused topics such as drafting and installation. We are very excited about this new venture and are actively looking for industry partners.
LD: What are the main safety concerns for riggers? And how are they implemented?
ER: That's a far-reaching question and one that will be very specific to each job, so it's hard to say. Working at height is always going to be an issue. On most rigging jobs, we have people working at height, and we want to make sure that they all get to go home at the end of the day. The work has its risks, and we do our best to mitigate those risks as much as we can within the situations we are given. Planning is key in the beginning phases of a project. It's important to study the project and the space or spaces the show will be in and come up with a fall protection plan for any work done at height. A lot of productions do this part, and that's great, but where they fall short sometimes is the development of the rescue plan. If someone does fall and is arrested by the gear, there is a chance they will need to be assisted out of that situation. Figuring out how to assist that person in that moment in time is a horrible idea. It must be planned out in advance. Not only that, it has to be practiced as well. The gear is very specific, and combined with the panic that can ensue...well, it's a bad combination. LED walls are also something that keeps riggers awake at night. These things are big and heavy and sometimes don't act the way we think they are going to act. For outdoor shows, they turn into big sails and impart loads on structures in ways that the structure may have not been designed for. And then there's the issue of how to best hang them so we don't put too much force on the connecting hardware of the individual panels. A few companies, such as Reliable Designs in Texas are designing systems for touring LED walls that make them very easy to hang and also distribute the load of the panels to put less stress on the integrated panel hardware. It also helps make the load more predictable in terms of how it is distributed to the structure. It's very forward-thinking and can make our jobs much safer.
LD: What is the most challenging rigging project you ever worked on?
ER: I'd have to say that a serious contender was the last job I did with Chicago Flyhouse at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center in Queens. We were asked to black out the main portion of the stadium roof for the Fortnite World Cup. Mark Witteveen designed a very clever and simple system that allowed us to install 65,000 square feet of black opaque fabric in about a week. We worked nights in a very warm roof and had to fight off the ridiculously large raccoons that live throughout the stadium. We even found paw prints out in the middle of the beams. The real challenge was coordinating starting and stopping points with the production manager and keeping to those as best we could. We were working while everything was being installed so we had to work these huge fabric panels around LED walls, bridle legs, and lighting. We had to negotiate some very tight spaces to get it done. The rope access crew on the job was absolutely amazing and willing to try anything once...as long as it was safe.
LD: What do you look for in a rigging inspection?
ER: On any rigging inspection in any space, I am basically looking for evidence of wear and tear and maintenance. I focus on finding the things that are wrong, while looking to see if there is proof of folks taking care of their gear. Things break. It's a fact. But it's also a fact that regular maintenance can help extend the lifespan of a lot of the gear we use. You can tell if a space is well maintained the second you walk in. It is usually that obvious. As an inspector, this flips a switch that kicks things into high gear. I'm always meticulous, but knowing a space is in bad shape right off the bat, makes me look at things even more closely. There's a ton of other stuff we look for: safety items, code compliance, etc. But in broad strokes, that's how I think about it.
LD: Can you talk a little about your rigging class at LDI this year, as it's a new one?
ER: It is a new one, and I'm pretty excited about it. This year's class will focus on fall protection and rescue planning. We will discuss OSHA codes and ANSI standards so we all understand where the rules are all coming from. We will talk about who is responsible for what. As a manager of a venue, what is your responsibility? As a worker at the venue, what are your rights and expectations? Given the wrinkles our industry provides, how do we make those two sets of parameters come together in a way that allows us to get the work done safely? We will also get into gear inspection and record-keeping. It is becoming more and more important to keep good records of the gear. It can help with budget planning and could also be important and very useful during safety audits.
LD: What advice do you have for entry-level riggers in terms of careers?
ER: Rig and rig often. I know this seems silly and obvious, but it's true. I have a lot of people ask what kind of job they can get after taking classes or after their degree. While classes are great, there is no substitute for getting your hands dirty and doing the work. There are things we cannot simulate in the classroom. People need to experience rigging while under the pressure of production. That is something you absolutely cannot learn in a class. When they are on site, I would encourage them to watch and listen as much as possible the first few times out. It's a great way to soak up information from folks with experience in the venue, as each venue is different. Don't try and show how much you know. Just do a good job. That's what will bring you back.