Wires Into Wings
A Department of Theatre Arts workshop takes hands-on learning to new heights.
In the theatre, the stage is rather important. After all, the stage is where the performance happens. It’s where aspiring artists dream of standing. It’s what architects design entire buildings around. It is so revered, that the word itself is synonymous with the entire art form.
So why were so many Ohio Northern University theatre students so excited to leave the stage behind?
Soaring! Flyyyying! Thank you ONU and ZFX flying for a wonderful day 2! Can't wait for day 3! pic.twitter.com/7luvfHWlD6— Hayley Reynolds (@hm_reynolds18) January 20, 2014
The answer partly lies with 17th-century philosopher and mathematician René Descartes. Descartes invented a system for mapping coordinates on a plane using an ordered pair of perpendicular lines called the x- and y-axis. This revolutionary development led to advances in the fields of astronomy, engineering, navigation and physics, to name just a few.
If a theatre stage is a plane, then Cartesian coordinates are in play during a theatre production even if the choreography routines aren’t necessarily mapped on grid paper. In this model, stage left and stage right is the x-axis, while stage front and stage back is the y. All the movements of the actors on the stage, all the scenery and props, have a pair of coordinates mathematically validating their existence at any given moment during a show.
Fortunately for everyone, Descartes wasn’t satisfied with two measly perpendicular lines, so he added a third, the z-axis. And it turns out that the z-axis is the coolest one of all. The z-axis lets actors fly.
The z-axis adds a third dimension to a plane, effectively turning it into a cube. The z-axis exists on a stage as well, and it has been used to some degree in theatre since someone hung the first house curtain. But some theatre productions make use of the z-axis in much more exciting ways, like suspending actors from wires and flying them around.
Perhaps the most famous flying character in all of theatre is Peter Pan, but he is far from the only one. Broadway blockbusters Beauty and Beast, Wicked, and Mary Poppins all have flying characters, and as these shows grant stock-and-amateur licensing rights to colleges, high schools and community theatres, there is more need for flying effects. Seeing this trend, ONU’s Department of Theatre Arts contracted with the appropriately named ZFX Flying Effects to host a three-day workshop on aerial acting at the Freed Center for the Performing Arts from Jan. 20 through Jan. 22.
“Theatre is more of spectacle now,” said Brian Phillips, technical director of the Freed Center. “There are a ton of shows that are incorporating flying effects, but for most people the only way to learn how to do it is to actually work on one of those productions. We wanted to give our students experience with this, because it’s a big part of the industry now.”
The workshop immersed students in all things flying. The ZFX team of flying directors Stu Cox and Andrea Gentry arrived on campus with a truck full of equipment and their expertise. ONU students provided the labor. Cox and Gentry taught them how to install the block-and-tackle systems that control an actor in flight. They ran the cables and hoisted the rail systems into position in the grid deck suspended high above the stage. They checked, double-checked and triple-checked the flying systems for safety, and in the span of a few hours turned the Freed Center stage into something completely new and exciting, a launching pad ready for lift off.
Performer flying is far more complicated endeavor than the actual finished performance may suggest. An actor gracefully gliding through the air belies the technical acumen and sophisticated engineering in play behind the scenes. Various riggings and harnesses are used to produce specific flying effects. For the workshop, ZFX brought five different styles of harness and rigged up six flying positions so that students could gain as much experience as the time allowed.
Harnesses differ by the number and placement of pickup points. For example, a harness that allows actors to perform somersaults has two pickup points located at the hips with a wire connected to each. A so-called Tarzan harness has a single pickup point at the navel, while a rear pickup harness has a pickup point on the actors upper back. Each harness has its purpose, and understanding the differences can be key to a successful production.
Most flying effects in musicals or plays use a dual rigging system to control an actor in flight. One operator (or team of operators) is responsible for lift, and another operator controls the movement across the stage. The lifting system includes thick ropes intended to fit comfortably in the hand. The fact that each one is rated for 26,000 pounds is just an added bonus. A pulley system is mounted to the stage floor and reduces the force required to lift an actor, but slows down the rate of ascent. For quick bursts into the air, an operator might actually jump off a ladder with the rope in hand and let gravity do the rest.
The other operator uses a separate rope-and-pulley system to drag the actor back and forth across the stage. This operator must know the choreography perfectly, because ultimately he or she is responsible for making sure that the actor’s gestures match the movement. In this case, a single performance seen by the audience is actually a shared performance of three or more people; all but one is off-stage.
“It’s kind of strange, because the technicians and the pullers actually make the show. The performers just make it look pretty,” said Lani Coleman, a freshman musical theatre major. “It’s different in that you have to really rely on each other for the performance.”
Another type of rigging system is the pendulum mount, which requires an off-stage operator to control lift, while the actor maintains responsibility for his or her movement across the stage. This effect is commonly used to exaggerate movements in choreographed dances between two people on stage. During the workshop, Gentry worked with ONU student actors Veronica Hrovat and Tyler Matanick on a choreographed dance using a pendulum mount and an automated lift system.
“I liked using the robotic rig because I don’t weigh very much, and the manual rigs were hard for me to use because my weight had to offset the performer’s weight. With the robotic rig, this didn't matter,” said Noah Orr, a senior computer science major. “And since I am not a performer, this was a really amazing opportunity for me to help create some really beautiful art.”
Phillips invited the entire campus community to take part in the workshop because he wanted anyone who wanted to try flying on stage to have the chance. He estimates that upwards of 60 students, faculty and staff members took part, including the chair of his department, the dean of the College of Arts & Sciences, and even the president of the University.
But beyond sharing the fun with the rest of ONU, Phillips was particularly interested in having students from engineering and technological studies attend the workshop so they could see the opportunities for those fields that exist in theatre. He insisted on having ZFX bring a robotic winch for precisely this reason.
“The fact is, the arts are becoming more and more technology driven,” he said. “When ZFX asked me what I wanted them to bring, the robotic winch was at the top of the list.”
The robotic winch Orr operated is the same device that ZFX uses in professional productions all over the world. Its benefit is that it can be controlled directly by an operator via a control panel, or it can be programmed to match the choreography. For computer science major Orr, this blending of art and science was appealing, while cautionary at the same time.
“One comment that Andrea made illustrated the rift between computer programmers and artists. She said that the lift hadn’t been programmed as well as it could have been because the programmers don't understand what the flying directors need the machine to do,” he said. “This surprised me because in many of my classes at ONU, we are taught to listen very closely to what our users need. I think this really drove that home for me, and I hope it helps me react better to my software clients later in my career.”
As a learning experience, the workshop provided students with a bit of everything. Not only did they learn what it takes to prepare a theatre for flying effects, but they also learned how to rig everything up and how to do it safely. They learned how adding flying effects can alter a production in unanticipated ways — everything from lighting to props to costumes. They learned about the various movements that different harnesses and rigging can accommodate, and what it’s like to choreograph in three dimensions. They held the ropes in their hands, propelled their friends high into the air and discovered muscles they didn’t know they had.
“This is the epitome of hands-on education,” said Catherine Albrecht, dean of the College of Arts & Sciences. “To have the opportunity to spend an entire weekend learning the skills and practicing both as a operator and as a dancer/actor is fabulous. These skills they are learning will serve these students well if they pursue a career in theatre.”
Phillips hopes to invite ZFX back in the future and thinks that offering the workshop every three years might be a good idea. And while there are no immediate plans to put on a production that features flying, ONU’s Department of Theatre Arts has prepared plenty of students to soar should the opportunity arise.
The ONU Performer Flying Workshop was sponsored by the Department of Theatre Arts and the Committee for Cultural and Special events.