Rigging Systems For Small Venues

Whether you're working in a small theatre, a new club, or have a great idea for an event venue, one of the first considerations should be about the rigging and the load-bearing ability of the structure. You have to do your due diligence. Get an inspection by a structural engineer. Just as you need to inspect the electrical service and the plumbing before you sign on the dotted line, you really need to see if the structure can support the rigging system you want. Rigging systems are serious business, both financially and liability-wise and should be treated with thoughtful consideration.

For this article, we went to experts in the rigging field: Tom Young, vice-president, marketing, with rigging manufacturer JR Clancy, Inc. (www.jrclancy.com); Barbara Pook and Ted Ohl, partners of Pook Diemont & Ohl, Inc. (www.pdoinc.com), a design and build contractor specializing in stage equipment systems for theatres, sound stages, corporate, and retail installations; Bill Sapsis, president of Sapsis Rigging (www.sapsis-rigging.com), who installs rigging both for permanent and temporary installations as well as conducts safety inspections; and Richard J. Nix, project coordinator with Entertainment Structures Group, a division of Steven Schaefer Associates, Inc. (esg.ssastructural.com) that provides engineering solutions for the entertainment industry.

For Sapsis, a huge consideration when planning for rigging is load rating. “Load rating, load rating, load rating,” he says. “Did I mention load rating? The biggest problem I encounter is that owners do not investigate whether or not the building will support the rigging they want to put into the space.” From a structural perspective, Nix agrees. “What are the loads? Where are they located, and where can I attach them?” A space may look like the perfect opportunity — location, space, amenities — but can it support the kind of work that your company does?

Ohl agrees, noting that, particularly in existing spaces, one must heed the building's structural capacity and existing conditions. “Often a ‘great deal’ becomes less so when the limitations of the building are recognized,” he says. “This is a great argument for bringing in a consultant or other knowledgeable person early. On the other hand, there are many ways to solve a theatre production problem and numerous rigging options. A thoughtful rigging system design can often overcome a building's limitations or at least minimize the amount of infrastructure work that is required.”

Young explains that the place to start your system design is by knowing what you will want in the future, “not just for the next production, but for the next five to 10 years,” he says. “A rigging system is a major investment, and the decisions you make today will be ones you'll need to live with for many years. Work with a consultant or an experienced rigging dealer to plan the system you'll be happy with years from now.”

So, how do you know if the space is just too small for rigging? “If you have room for moving scenery or equipment, then you probably have space for the mechanism to make it move,” Young says. Sapsis adds that rigging systems are quite adaptive. “We may not be able to put a counterweight system in that particular black box, but we'll find a way to achieve the effect,” he says. Nix concurs, noting that even the smallest of spaces may require a single-point load or a wall-bracket attachment. “It could be specific to the event, to the building, or to the programming,” he says. It all goes back to being realistic about knowing what you want to do in the space. “The ceiling can be too low,” says Pook, “…or there might not be enough residual structural capacity,” adds Ohl.

When choosing between permanent and temporary rigging, owners have more to consider. Of course, temporary systems are lower cost, but, as Young points out, “You will need a skilled rigger to make changes. Temporary rigging, modified by well meaning non-experts, can be very dangerous for your staff, audience, and checkbook.” Sapsis sees the biggest difference in the maintenance of the different systems. “While all rigging requires inspection and maintenance, permanent equipment needs it on a long-term basis,” he says. “A temporary system, when put in by a reputable and experienced person or company, will be checked so the gear is adequate for the run of the show. Permanent installations don't always have that person who can come back on a regular basis and inspect the equipment and make the adjustments that are invariably needed.”

Nix feels it comes down to frequency of use, ease versus complexity of the installation, and the cost. “Is this a capital improvement that needs to be amortized over time, or is it a relatively low-cost and repeatable investment that can be recovered on a show basis?” he asks. “This question helps characterize the difference between a venue that hosts longer run productions, as compared to rep or roadhouse environments.”

And what about the different rigging options out there? All our experts agree that it really depends on what you're looking to accomplish. “Manual counterweight sets are flexible, take up a lot of space, require a loading bridge, and may need several operators,” says Young. “Motorized sets have a higher initial cost, take up less space, and can have central consoles that will repeat cues flawlessly.” Ohl sees it as “cost versus safety and repeatability — high capital costs versus higher operating costs.” Sapsis suggests that you think about what personnel will be operating the equipment. “If you do not have skilled personnel to operate the system, then a motorized system might be best for you, but motorized systems are expensive,” he says.

When considering rigging systems, in general, communicating specific requirements of the system to an engineer or consultant and having a realistic budget are key. “You should tell them how you anticipate using the space and don't wait to be asked,” says Pook, and Ohl adds that it's important to do your own research, so you know what you want going in. Sapsis agrees that “a better informed client makes for a better designed system and one that will function in a way to fulfill the clients' wishes safely.”

Nix echoes Sapsis' original point, saying, “Loads, loads, loads, structure, structure, structure — if it's an existing facility, is it well-documented? Original as-built plans are good to have. Discovery can be an expensive process, especially if the walls are concrete.” Young recommends the report “How to Communicate With Your Structural Engineer” by Entertainment Structures Group, included on the ESG website (esg.ssastructural.com) in the reports section, with more reports, such as “New Loads for Old Structures,” also available.

As far as safety procedures after the installation is complete, the rigging manufacturer or installing contractor should provide training as well as a venue-specific manual. “Make sure that everyone who will be using the rigging has been trained — keep a list — and is authorized to use your rigging system,” says Young, who recommends keeping formal records of training and policies and cites Jay Glerum's Stage Rigging Handbook as a useful resource. Ohl adds that annual maintenance and inspection should also be included in the venue's budget, “especially if outside users are involved at all…and implemented by a third party and not necessarily the installing contractor.”

Sapsis is a strong advocate for training as well, no matter the simplicity or complexity of the system. “That training can come from many sources, but it's usually best if it comes from the contractor,” he says. “Follow-up training, if necessary, can come from outside professionals.”

The pros also have some advice for dealing with temporary rigging for an event or for a specific effect in a show. Checking credentials is one place to start. “Do they have an ETCP [The Entertainment Technician Certification Program] certificate?” asks Young. “Insurance that covers you?” Sapsis adds that it's common that an owner or client doesn't have time to dedicate to the rig for a temporary event. “The best course of action is to hire a professional rigging company to take care of the event,” he says. “Not only do you decrease the chances of an incident, but you bring the company's liability insurance into play. But the owner should be careful about whom he hires. Not all rigging companies are created equal.”

For small venues or non-traditional rigging environments, mistakes certainly exist in the rigging world, including what Sapsis notes as the most common: trying to do too much with the space. “Sophisticated automated systems, just because they're expensive and look very cool, are not always the way to go,” he says. “Whatever system you get should be compatible with the room, not always fighting it.” Pook has seen that such systems mismatched to the space “don't have enough flexibility, or there is inadequate infrastructure.” For Nix, the errors in rigging he has encountered usually deal with three crucial questions going unanswered: What are the loads? Where are they located? And will the structure support the loads?

The bottom line is that most of these rigging experts advise careful planning, research, and enough pushiness to ask key questions. “You need to know what you don't know,” says Nix. “If you don't know the answers, ask. If you don't understand the answers, find someone who does.” Pook's final bit of advice is to focus on robust infrastructure — structural and electrical — and add equipment as cost allows.

Rigging systems have come a long way. There is a wide variety of manual systems, automated systems, and hybrid ones that combine manual with automation. There is more than one way to solve rigging challenges as well as structural ones. If you are building a new facility or renovating one that will include rigging, you need to include a structural engineer in the initial planning, as rigging systems tie into the structure of a building. Speak with rigging manufacturers, see products in actual use, and know your needs and your staff capabilities. Work with both a rigging contractor and a structural engineer, and get lots of answers. You should also speak with rigging installers or theatrical dealers that handle rigging. There are many that are affiliated with ESTA (Entertainment Services & Technology Association), and in fact, ESTA runs the certification process for riggers, The Entertainment Technician Certification Program (ETCP) Rigging Certification (etcp.esta.org).

One thing is certain, proper rigging systems are designed, engineered, and manufactured with a lot of safety built-in, but a rigging system, in the end, is only as safe as the people operating and maintaining it.

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