Sightlines: Learning How to Play Cricket

Article by Kathy Kohls

Kathy Kohls is a long time freelance costume designer in town and is known for her very creative style.  She has worked extensively with Frank Theater, the Cricket, and many other groups over the years and here she explores a little bit of that history. - Mike Wangen

 Photo Credit: Earl Leatherberry

Photo Credit: Earl Leatherberry

The  ‘80s. It was an eventful decade for the Twin Cities: the downtown skyscrapers were finally topped off, giving the city a confident new skyline; the Walker had installed the Cherry & Spoon as the centerpiece of its Sculpture Garden, to the delight of PR people; and the Ordway was the shiny new home of the Saint Paul Chamber Orchestra and The Minnesota Opera.

Music from the likes of Husker Du, The Replacements, The Suburbs, and Prince  garnered national attention and helped First Avenue shape the flourishing rock/punk scene.  Hennepin Avenue was still seedy.  Jeune Lune had its offices in the Dickensian maze of the Berman Buckskin building on the banks of the Mississippi, as it waited for the wrecking ball to clear the way for the new Federal Reserve Bank.  The Twins won the World Series.  And the Cities were absolutely teeming with theaters.

I relocated from northern Wisconsin to Minneapolis in 1983 as a graduate student in the U of M’s Theatre Tech & Design MFA program, at that time a three-pronged approach that required a working knowledge, if not a mastery, of scenery, costume and lighting design.  I was hired by Vern Sutton as the Costume Shop Teaching Assistant at the School of Music’s Opera Theatre, whose venue was Scott Hall on the East Bank. With all that on my plate—plus a couple of sons to help raise--there was little time or money to participate in all the burgeoning excitement; I mostly observed it from a distance.   

By late 1988 I had completed my MFA thesis and oral exams and was casting about for work in a local professional theater.  There were a few big companies with in-house costume shops: the Guthrie (Jack Edwards’ domaine), Children’s Theatre Company (under Riccia Birturk), Minnesota Opera (Carol Sahlstrom),  Chanhassen (Sandy Schulte).  In Saint Paul, the smaller Chimera Theatre made its mark as a  producer of big musicals. Housed in what is now History Theatre, it had a costume shop with a nearly full-time staff to produce costumes for its large casts.  Rich Hamson apprenticed here under Ed Jones in the early 1980s, as did Lynn Farrington.  Performing at the Jemne Auditorium in the Minnesota Museum, Park Square quietly persevered, building up its subscription audience with plays from the classic repertory.

There was also an impressive second tier of theaters launched in the ‘70s, all hitting their stride around this time.  Edgy, energetic and well-respected, they included Penumbra, Illusion, Mixed Blood, Red Eye Collaboration, The Cricket.  Company lists from their playbills read like a “Who’s Who” of our current & beloved Old Guard.  Jeune Lune, Frank Theatre, Theatre Exchange were just entering the picture.  

There were many companies headed by women:  Frank (Wendy Knox), Theatre Exchange (Julia Carey), At the Foot of the Mountain (Martha Boesing), Eye of the Storm (Casey Stangl), Lyric Theatre (Sally Childs).  

And then, as now, the number of enthusiastic small theater companies outnumbered all the others, popping up regularly, lasting a few years, moving on.

I had met The Cricket’s set & lighting designer, Chris Johnson, at a memorable lecture she gave at the U (she likened the properties of lighting instruments to the timbres of musical instruments, an important insight to this musician!). When she later designed for Opera Theatre, she mentioned to me that The Cricket was looking for a props person, and that, though this wasn’t my main area, at least it was a foot in the door.  I figured I could stand it for a while, so signed on with Bill Partlan, the artistic director.  

The Cricket had recently moved from an old movie theater (now the Ritz) in Nordeast to downtown Minneapolis, and was housed in what is now The Music Box on Nicollet and 14th.  This was before they renovated the theater, and it was pretty shabby, it’s lovely architectural details hidden under plasterboard, layers of paint, false ceilings and some nasty carpet. The theater’s second balcony was open but rarely used, the basement dressing rooms dingy, the props storage (in the unfinished hallway under the stage) badly lit and downright creepy.   And yes, there were rumors of a resident ghost . The smell of Ping’s Restaurant permeated downstairs.

The design team was hired per show, with a strong base of freelance regulars: Tina Charney and Chris Johnson covering lighting,  an unstoppable Nayna Ramey on sets and costumes, Lynn Farrington, Anne Ruben, Rich Hamson on costumes.

My first assignment was a new piece, Diamond Cut Diamond, set in the 19th century. It had an unusually large cast (The Cricket tended to do small-cast plays in contemporary settings).  I had the good luck to work under scene designer G.W. (Skip) Mercier, brought in from New York early in his far-reaching career and very kind to this new kid on the block.  

However, the props list was challenging—was it really 15 pages?--and I quickly became overwhelmed.  Amongst the predictable period table settings, linens, doilies occasional chairs and lamps, it listed an Eiffel Tower paperweight that I managed to build out of not much, and–now I was in trouble--a functional inventor’s whiz-bang box of wonders.  Of course, the budget was minimal.  This was a big order for a costumer who had never propped and didn’t really know the Cities’ resources yet.  I learned them quickly.  Thanks to someone else (Michael Klaers?) who took over the Box of Wonders, I was able to gather the list and had time to re-upholster a big pouffe requested late in the game, a project that probably kept me my job.

It was tough show on other designers as well: I clearly recall Nayna exhaustedly chanting “No more notes…” during an over-long post-rehearsal notes session. Lynn and I bonded while working on those endless notes overnight in the lobby space, which has a wall of glass doors onto Nicollet. The street people found us fascinating.  

Nevertheless, I went on to prop several more shows there, many under Skip Mercier: All God’s Dangers was a one-man show starring Cleavon Little.; Drinking in America, for which I was promoted to Skip’s design assistant;  Reckless introduced me to the amazing set designer Jack Barkla.

After a year I felt I had paid my dues as props person, so I revealed to Bill that I was really a costumer and would much prefer that job.  Not only did he invite me to costume upcoming shows, he also spread my name to other directors (Julia Carey at Theatre Exchange, Michael Robins at Illusion).  In About Time, I worked with director George C. White of New York’s O’Neill Center.  George guided me on my maiden sushi-tasting tour at Ichiban’s during a tech week break.  I found my first style niche while costuming Drugs, Sex, Rock and Roll, tricking out JC Cutler in leather studs and chains.

Around 1989-90 the Cricket followed a downtown trend and took on a massive renovation project to bring the old building back to its original glory. 

They uncovered and restored the lobby and theater, closed off the unused upper balcony, spiffed up the dressing rooms.  It took at least two years to finish (longer for the balcony), went over budget and resulted in a delicious Baroque bonbon of a building.

Alas, the theater never recovered.  It finally had to give up its lovely venue and moved to a less accessible suburban location, never regaining its vitality.  I had caught on to the Cricket’s back legs in what turned out to be its final leaps, & I am more than grateful that I was given the opportunity to fire-start my design career with this fine company.

The fact that so many of these theaters and a large number of directors, designers and performers are still active today is remarkable. These people grew up together in the business, which helps to explain their enduring camaraderie and the surprisingly low level of job competition here.  They have indeed taken the long view of our community that doesn’t hesitate to extend a helping hand, knowing that it will be repaid with interest at a future date.   

My thanks to Rich Hamson, Lynn Farrington, Sally Childs, Wendy Knox for their remembrances and insights, and to the Star Tribune reviewer Peter Vaughan, who donated his files of theater programs—with his scribbled notes--to the Minnesota Historical Society.

The Costumer's Toolkit

Article by Andrea Gross

Costume Designer Andrea Gross is a well-known and highly regarded designer around the Twin Cities. A company member with Nimbus Theater, Andrea and I have worked together at the Jungle Theater. She is a sharp thinker and a frequent contributor to this newsletter; I always look forward to her essays. - Wu Chen Khoo

 Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Costume designers in the Twin Cities do a remarkable variety of work. We shop, we build, we rent, we alter; we create costumes for every kind of theatrical experience on every kind of budget. And over the years, we’ve collected techniques and tools we employ over and over for all kinds of effects. I asked a few costumers who work in all areas and types of theatre to share their favorites with me. The best answer by far: A HEALTHY SENSE OF HUMOR.

The design tricks and techniques that these great designers shared with me varied from the hands-on practical to the high-level philosophical, and I loved all of them.

In the larger philosophical sense, some good practice techniques: letting actors use shoes in rehearsal from fittings forward helps allows a character to be built literally from the feet up, and informs us of potential pitfalls from ill-fitting shoes, to shoes that won’t work on the set as designed. Treating first dress as opening night allows one to focus more completely on the notes the tech process generates. Keeping current on the nitty-gritty details in the show binder is at the core of sanity for some designers.

When it comes time to apply the design, the foundation of a look is exactly that: undergarments, undergarments, undergarments are indispensable for setting the period or the world of the play. A. Emily Heaney employs a technique (usually with skirts that hang from a yoke) where the inside of the pleat is a contrasting color: when standing still, the actor appears to be wearing a skirt of a single color; when the actor moves the surprise of contrasting color makes the garment and the character more dynamic. In my world, Barb Portinga and Rich Hamson are the masters of unconventional materials: the doily that becomes a crown, the kitchen gadget that becomes a hat, the sun-bleached velvet curtains from a thrift store that would be ruined to anyone else but become a purposefully streaked vest on stage. Kathy Kohl, who often works on expressionistic plays, loves to use markers and paint directly on clothes. I like to do distressing work with rasps and sandpaper, but also with spray paint as a poorman’s airbrush.

Tools:

While the thing I really can’t live without is a 60” measuring tape which counts up from either end (double sided, so no matter which end you grab you have 1” on one of the sides), my favorite tools also include a 1”x 6” see-thru ruler. When I’m working as a pattern maker, it’s perfect for adding seam allowance, especially in tight curves. When I’m rendering designs with textures and patterns, it’s a great way to keep the scale of things similar across the body.

Other specialty tools in my kit include tailor’s chalk, brought to me by a former student from Taipei. And a favorite technique with that tool I learned from Carol Lane: using a cheap toothbrush as an eraser to lift the chalk off the fabric.

And I do love my knife-edge tailor’s points: 4” scissors with a tip that can cause injury (ask me at a bar sometime about the time I thought I’d pierced my lower lip with them while exuberantly celebrating a pants crotch seam….). I can use them as a seam ripper, an awl, and scissors.

Heaney loves the walking foot on her sewing machine, and I agree: its grippy teeth add leverage to the machine’s foot by sandwiching materials between the feed dogs and the walking foot to allow more grip for stitching through slippery or otherwise difficult fabrics.

Kathy Kohl’s favorite tools include the 1 ½” sized safety pins that are large enough to use easily but thin enough not to mar fabrics; both scalpel-style seam rippers and single-edge razor blades are speedy ways to open up seams no matter how small the stitches were. (As a side note, Kathy raises a good point: “Isn't it interesting that costumers tend to be an accommodating, rather friendly if not downright shy breed that carry very sharp tools?”)

Lane loves her “old crappy dented, turn-my-finger-green open-top tailor thimble.” I love how often the tools we’re most attached to are the ones we couldn’t replace, or which wouldn’t serve us as well brand new as they do broken in.

Portinga’s favorite tool is “this irreplaceable needle. It is about 6" long and several millimeters thick. I use it for ALL sorts of weird ‘push that into there’ sorts of jobs, as well as ‘dig that out/apart’ things. It is slightly bent from its years of service and if I ever saw another I would TOTALLY grab it and pass it out as the best present ever to my pals.”

Which brings us to the idea that, as I suspect is true for all disciplines of theater, we often find the best success with a tool that wasn’t necessarily designed for the job. A carpenter’s chalk line will serve when a long enough ruler isn’t available. When I don’t have access to curved rulers, I’ve been known (or maybe this is a terrible secret I’m about to air) to true a curve with a coffee cup or dinner plate. One of Kohl’s favorite tools is a hem marker, but when I don’t have one, I’ve fashioned a standing measurement device out of a yardstick and a binder clip. Not ideal in every setting but a good way to get a consistent distance off the ground, especially in a large circumference garment.

A few things that came up that were combinations of technique and tool: Amy Kaufmann uses a cloth-covered headband as an anchor for all kinds of head dresses and animal heads on performers. “Flippy bones” are fabric covered short bones (3-5” of boning covered in fabric that matches the garment) at the neck, waist or arms’ edge; the “flip” into the actor’s undergarments to keep a garment in place. Known as a “Dior Belt” from its application in the waists of post-WWII “New Look,” a piece of belting or grosgrain ribbon sewn to the inside seam allowances of a garment gives a remarkable amount of control, and is a technique I like to apply whether it’s at the waist or somewhere else.

Favorite larger scale tools included an industrial serger (although I’m a fan of my old-school all metal home-ec-class style serger that I can toss in its case and take with me when I need to), a blind hemmer, a dye washer (a designer can dream….or make messes and clean up carefully), and sturdy collapsible rolling racks.  The prize for best large scale favorite tool, however, goes to Kaufman: “My favorite tool is Collective Spaces (cspaces.org)- a community of costumers and fashion designers who work together in a shared costume shop space have a wealth of knowledge and resources on how to solve the sewing challenges you run into on any project.”

And what a prize it is: a work space of our own might be carved out of a corner of our homes, or used after hours at whatever shop we’re otherwise employed in, but when it comes with a team of people who can help you think outside the box, or teach you a technique you’ve never considered, its value increases ten-fold. I think it’s the reason so many of us stay to work in the Twin Cities: the resources available to us include not only the number of companies producing work that we can be a part of, but also the number of people who are able to help us think about our work critically, and to continue to grow and evolve our skills as designers.

With special thanks to A. Emily Heaney, Amy Kaufman, Barb Portinga, Carol Lane, Kathy Kohl for participating in my small survey, and to all the shops I’ve worked in for teaching me so much, especially Rich Hamson.

Sightlines: Ode to Olympia

Article by Mim Solberg

Mim Solberg continues her history of her work here in the 70s and 80s with an essay on the creation of the Olympia Arts Ensemble, an outgrowth from the MET Theater and the theater with which I began my career in 1978.  Mim is currently living in New York and continues to perform whenever she can. - Mike Wangen

 Olympia Arts Ensemble

Olympia Arts Ensemble

We trudged our way up a dark and skewed staircase…unbolted a heavy fire door, pushed our way into a huge dusty loft, mid afternoon light and shadows twisting, turning, kaleidoscope patterns ….piles of lumber, rusty metal, machine parts piled in a corner of the 2,500 sq. ft. floor, years of dust on windows across the front;  brick walls, layered with paint.  The only thing in perfect order and evenly spaced were metal pillars. A bathroom and a small room in the back were next to a freight elevator.  

Peter’s dark eyes were on fire, I hollered, squealed and danced around the open space…”listen to our voices Peter, the sound is alive…feel the energy of this space…the call is out, the answer is YES!” Through the dust we saw actors in masks, processions, crawling, writhing, leaping through the ample space. Plays we’d dreamed of doing emerged from the light and shadow of that portentous afternoon.

Peter and I were talking at the same time…”We can haul out the debris, sandblast the walls, sand and varnish these fucked up hard wood floors,  paint the bathroom, make dressing rooms out of the small room in the back.” We could see the whole space come to life for artists and a theater. It would be the first of its kind in Minneapolis, in a warehouse, unique, we’d design and build the whole thing.  The brick walls in front would be gallery space for our painter friends.  Halleluia! close to downtown Mpls, 2nd floor, formerly a Levis blue jean factory.  

It took us an hour or so to come down from the heights…to “where were we going to get the money ? The answer came…we can get artists to chip in whatever they could.  We had about $200 in the bank and figured others could come up with a comparable amount. We had talent, could do fundraisers. We got most of the money and, remarkably, the engineering company on the first floor rented the space to us.  Neither they nor we had the slightest idea what we collectively were in for.

First we had to renovate in order to open with a fundraiser. We rented sandblasting equipment for a weekend, rallied a few artists, who had never seen such paraphernalia and began the work at about 7:00pm Fri. It was the most disgusting labor we’d ever done .  The core group didn’t emerge from the space until 6 am Mon. layered in paint dust and asbestos, but we had an exposed brick wall (a rather new concept in 1976) for the gallery and lobby. We recovered for a few days and then tackled sanding 2,500 sq, feet of hardwood floor. A new and very poor theater was being born out of factory ashes, lost theaters and “impossible dreams”.

Peter Scangarello and I were partners both at home and in the theater, sharing a common vision for the theater based on Jerzy Grotowski’s “Towards a Poor Theatre” Peter said he wanted to direct; I said I want to help direct a new company and act.  We would continue to call on Grotowski to be our guide.

An unlicensed opening to public fundraisers launched our dreams.  Soon after, we opened the Olympia Arts Ensemble to workshops in the spring of 1976,  from where we would create a space for artists and a theater company; same principle as the MET (Minnesota Ensemble Theater)…no auditions, workshops until we were ready to perform. “Times were a changing”, and so were we, in the mid 70’s …seemed more difficult to challenge and keep actors who were ready for the “poor theater” ideals and regimen. There were warriors who came and stayed, thrived and we grew together; Heidi Arneson (brilliant wild child), Colin Rich, Doug Berry, Tony Thomas, Marlo Thielen, Eleanor Giametti, Molly Olin,  Michael Yonkers… to name a few.  

After a few months, it was time to take a leap with a production: Wolfgang Hildesheimer’s “ Mary Stuart.” Hildesheimer was a German Absurdist playwright .  Our production preceded the 1981 Public Theater production in NY. The play takes place during the night of Mary’s execution and begins with her sitting on the chopping block, praying wildly and in dialogue with her soon to be executioner. Mary’s throne becomes a toilet before her execution.  Mary Stuart remains one of my favorite characters and Hildesheimer, a beloved playwright, though our production wasn’t exactly a box office smash.

Financial struggles mounted even with every production’s minimal costs. Peter and I and a few of the tribe kept going…productions followed one after another. We lost actors, we gained others. We “hosted” after hours musicians when the theater went dark, we opened the door to music,  Bonnie Raitt, the Suicide Commandos, whoever had the bread to promote themselves and support the Olympia Arts Ensemble. This was of course illegal and we were visited often by the vice squad, fined but never busted or put behind bars.  

Olympia Arts Ensemble was about artists of all disciplines. We had our gallery in the front, hung paintings by Sean McLaughlin, Jan Attridge, Heidi Arneson and more.  We hosted poetry readings. Almost all our plays were done with live music, Milo Fine, Michael Shelby, Steve Kimmel….

Our theater life continued to breathe and even thrive with Pirandello’s “Six Character in Search of an Author” a children’s holiday play created by Peter, complete with borrowed live goat and pony (a story in itself).  Then we made a brilliant choice to do Lorca’s “Yerma”with full Flamenco,  dancers Susana (de Palma),Valerie, Eleanor, guitarists Michael and Tony Hauser, flamenco singer Elena Cordebesa and a full cast of 24 young women and 2 men. We made great use of our 2,500 sq. feet and usually filled what was left of the space with a sizable audience.  Yerma was barren, I played her.  I often joked ..,”wonder how many of these 24 beautiful fertile women will become pregnant, in real life?” The production of“Yerma” also delivered a great gift to Olympia, bringing unimaginable light and shadow to every play going forward,lighting designer Michael Wangen. Mike and Peter synchronized their visions,  painted coffee cans black, bought a few spots and gels and Mike built a magic board to light “the way of our plays”.  He arrived in time for “Yerma” in 1978 and stayed with us through Jean Genet’s “The Balcony”, Max Frisch’s “The Firebugs”, Peter’s and Fred Gaine’s “La Ville Sanglante”  and many others.

During rehearsals for “The Balcony”, while playing Mme. Irma, I discovered I was pregnant.  Peter and I were thrilled, even without employment, a beautiful 12 yr old boy, Kristofer, and a theater that took 85% of our time and funds, but somehow we weren’t worried. Our lives took on even more meaning.  Next, Antonin Artaud’s “Cenci”, Mim as Beatrice slithered and wailed down a red carpet, on my belly full with child. Doug Berry masterminded great bird masks as well as played the lead.  We delved into taboo shadows of incest...by exposing to light all we knew at that time.

A glorious little girl, called Beret made her entrance in March of 1979. She was welcomed with joy by the company and her infant self was held by Peter as he directed in whispers, or passed her to me or other actors during breaks. Workshops and productions continued. We mounted and closed Hungarian Imre Madach’s “Tragedy of Man”.   Mama Mim and Colin Rich tackled Beckett’s “Happy Days” which drew large audiences and critical acclaim.

Theater and personal debt were mounting, stress was dimming our bliss. We wanted to hold on to Olympia. I felt I had to make a change to help support our now family of four. I auditioned for the Guthrie and after a long process was accepted.  Peter was using some of his many skills as a carpenter to pay the bills and we managed to hold on to the theater through the early 80s. Olympia produced Max Frisch’s “Chinese Wall” and collaborated with Frank Kinniken on George Buchner’s “Lenz”.

The 80’s were upon us, funding and critical support for small arts organizations was almost non existent. It hurt that we might have to give Olympia up. I watched Peter’s silent pain and the darkening shadows cross his dream. I felt like my heart was being torn off a frozen window pane.

One day we walked out the heavy metal door and the Olympia Ensemble was no more. So many dreams came to life during that time. Peter you claimed your voice and vision and passed them on to your company, Mike, me, Beret and Kristofer.  Peter, Marlo, Paul Smith, Elena, Jane Berry, Colin,  all of you who have crossed to the other side…you are remembered, we are grateful for the work and love that made those days possible. Love to all who still carry the torch to create, Heidi, Mike, Yonkers, Tony and Michael Hauser,  Susana, Larry Becker, Alan Gardiner Atkinson...

Why do we want to tell these stories, beyond nostalgia?  It is because we want theaters and arts ensembles to continue to rally, to fight, to realize all you can be as artists with unique visions and voices.  Your financial struggles may be as crazy as ours, but hang on...live and love your work.  Remember, there are a few wild elders wishing you the best.  The length of shadows is constantly changing as the earth rotates and those of us that remain, go on to tell the story.  When does the story end? When the tellers feel it’s enough to tell.

 

Rigging Insights

Article by Josh Peklo

Josh Peklo is the Technical Director at the Guthrie Theater and an ETCP Certified Theater Rigger. Josh is adaptable, innovative and principled, and is a well-regarded leader and manager. Josh has taught several workshops for us, and I’ve enjoyed working with and getting to know him over the years. - Wu Chen Khoo

 Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Photo Credit: Megan Engeseth Photography

Control the Load

All rigging starts with one guiding principle, safely control the load without ignoring (but many times exploiting) gravity. Whether a simple static load or a complex dynamic load, a rigger’s job is simply to safely support or move an object without dropping it. In the theatre business, we typically have the added constraint of supporting the aesthetics of the designers and directors while safely controlling the load. One cannot exist without the other or we have failed.  Accidents happen when a system becomes out of control; out of weight linesets, 1 person lifting a 2 person load, overloaded hardware to name a few. If we fly Peter Pan with a thick purple climbing rope we likely will not drop the actor but the magic will be lost; conversely, if we hang a scenic ceiling over an audience with undersized wire rope that fails and falls catastrophically the “invisible” attachment will not be remembered by any of the audience.  

The following is not meant to be an ultimate all encompassing guide to any rigging you might encounter but more as a framework for a safe rigging mindset. Rigging for entertainment is a broad and complex topic that combines science, math, engineering, management and art.

Know your load-

Foremost you must determine the weight of the load that you are hanging. Get in the habit of calculating weight estimates of the items being rigged. If you are hanging a commercially made lighting instrument or speaker you can obtain the weight  from the manufacturer. If you are hanging a piece of scenery estimate the weight using material weight values that you can look up. Some rules of thumb exist and these are fine to use, but strive for a thorough estimate rather than a guess. Paint and texture are often overlooked when estimating scenery weight but on large units this can become significant. A gallon of paint weighs about 10 lbs, and that weight remains when applied to scenery. Like paint, don’t forget about hardware and the actual weight of the rigging. If you have access to a scale, load cell, or dynamometer actually weighing the item is the  most efficient method of determining the weight. For items like soft goods that are used repeatedly develop a list or chart or label the goods themselves so you know every time you hang them how much they weigh.

Evaluate the entire system-

Think of every rigging instance as a complete system. If we hang a single chandelier from the pipe grid in a black box theater from a single piece of wire rope a system still exists and every part of the system must support the load of the chandelier.  After finding the weight of the chandelier and placing the chandelier in the space based on the designer’s specification, determine the attachment point at the top. Is there structure directly above the point capable of

supporting the weight? If there is only a ceiling, is there a way to securely attach into it or does the cable have to be redirected somehow to a more secure attachment point. Once the point is selected and deemed appropriate to the load, hardware needs to be selected to connect the point (upper attachment location) to the load (the chandelier). This could be as simple as a rope tied to the grid and the other end tied to the chandelier or a length of wire rope with end terminations and connecting hardware. If the latter, the wire rope and the connecting hardware must be sized or rated to hold the chandelier. Last the attachment point on the chandelier must be secure. If it is a commercially built chandelier, it should have an appropriate attachment point but it is not uncommon practice to reinforce or solidify this connection especially if the chandelier flies in a production. The chandelier purchased at the local home store is likely built to hang in a dining room from the ceiling but not likely engineered to move during a production. After evaluating all of the components in a system I like to determine what the weakest link is and reaffirm that the weak link is still capable of supporting the entire system. If not, the entire system needs to be redesigned.

Know your limits-

Many limiting factors exist in rigging but staying within them allows the rigger to control the loads

safely and effectively.  Often in our business we are attaching elements to an existing house rigging system.  The rigger must know the capacity of the system that is in use but also what that number reflects.  A single purchase counterweight arbor that holds 1700 pounds cannot support 1700 pounds in infinite configurations. A question I ask in every rigging class is “What is the weak link in a typical counterweight lineset?” The answer is the batten. 1700 pounds evenly distributed, such as an electric with evenly spaced units and cable is likely no problem on an 1-½” schedule 40 pipe. Change the load to a scenic wall that has four attachment points spaced so that they attach at the system lift lines also likely not a problem. If the lift lines are 10 feet apart and our load attaches halfway between the lines the capacity of the 1700 pound lineset is limited by the strength of the batten between the lift lines: about 150lbs per point. Every rigging situation is different and the rigger must balance the limits and configuration of the system with the parameters of the load.   

The other often overlooked limiting factor is the means or process to hang the actual load. If the system supports 1700lbs and a large scenic wall is designed to work within these limits do we have the crew or process to safely attach the wall and stand it up. Does the counterweight system having a loading rail, a mid-rail, access to a capstan winch or just crew members and brute strength? The rigging plan must be tailored to the resources at hand both equipment and personnel. The training and skill of the crew must also be evaluated as part of the plan. An experienced crew of four with access to a chain motor package could probably hang the 1700 pound wall more safely and efficiently than a crew of 20 inexperienced volunteers.  Don’t overlook the fact that every static load has a dynamic state during the hanging or striking. The dead hung wall unit is most dangerous and prone to the most forces when it is being moved into place.

Invest in Hardware-

Shortcuts in rigging often start with the selection of the hardware. In the same way that a rigger must know the load or loads present, the rigger must also know and trust the capacities of the hardware used. Hardware selection is obviously a topic worthy of more than a paragraph but this should serve as an introduction to best practices in hardware selection. Hardware largely falls into two categories: rated and unrated. Manufacturers of unrated hardware do not specify and sort of load rating or capacity. The most recognizable piece of unrated theatrical hardware is a D-Ring. They have been used for decades to safely and effectively hang lightweight scenery but as a rigger you cannot definitively trust that is will support a specific load. Unrated hardware has its uses but the rigger is making a choice based on instinct or experience not science. As loads have become heavier, the industry has wisely chosen to rely on rated hardware.  A rated piece of hardware will typically have a load rating stamped or engraved on it and more importantly the user can look up via the manufacturer the load rating, how it was calculated, how the piece of hardware is designed to be used according to the manufacturer, and how to inspect it. The manufacturers who build this hardware stand behind the hardware as long as it is used in accordance with their recommendations. This trust between user and manufacturer is necessary so that the rigger can trust their own work. As a rigger I want to be able to literally stand under a piece of scenery that weighs 1000 lbs knowing that every piece in the system will hold the 1000 pound weight.  Part of trusting a rated piece of hardware goes beyond a stamp or engraving that says 500 pounds. Using a shackle that only contains a 500 pound stamp and a country of origin in my opinion is not a trustworthy piece of hardware. Use hardware from reputable manufacturers- if you can’t contact or identify the manufacturer you can’t verify any information about the piece of hardware.

Ask for help; Find training; Trust yourself.

If you don’t understand how a rigging system or a particular piece of hardware works ask for help. Come up with a total plan before having an out of balance load and a missing component. Make a scale mock-up to prove out an idea with ounces instead of tons. Find an expert, take a class, read a book, build up your experience however you can, watch how other industries rig. I can’t walk past a construction site without looking to see what the crane is doing. In the grand industry of rigging our loads are smaller but the principles and hardware (although scaled down) are the same. When a director or designer ask us to hang a speaker cluster in a specific spot they are trusting that we will do it safely and accurately and that the speakers will stay securely in their spot; our success reinforces this trust but I think more importantly the rigger must trust their own plan and choices. We did not get specifically into math and design factors in this article but a final factor of my own which requires no math I refer to as the “Sleep At Night Factor”-  a rigger must be able to walk away from a project without doubts- this does not replace the empirical engineering side but it should not be ignored.