Our second interview with Brett Copes comes at a crucial time. One can’t talk about rigging without taking about safety, and Brett had a lot to say on this topic. Everyone has the right to know about the structure suspending them 30 feet in the air. The world of rigging isn’t a scary one of indecipherable equations but one where physics and art merge.
Sarah Arrigo: You’ve done a lot of shows of varied scales. Why is that?
Brett Copes: I had to start small and grow into the bigger ones. I enjoy problem solving and creating those standards and practices, physically moving to making those things happen on every level. I want to solve problems that really exist. I don’t want to create problems out of speculation just to have something to do or to assert my “expertise” to others.
SA: You mean like riggers who talk down to aerialists? Or assume that they are the only ones who know even the basics?
BC: That’s just people being people, playing status games with each other. Sometimes it comes from a genuine place of help, but not always. It’s not my job to make aerialists think they don’t know enough. If it’s not a glaring risk that needs to be mitigated or managed…I don’t need to force it on them.
SA: Usually the most dangerous part is how you get into position for your act, like climbing in the dark at a nightclub. Memories of one of my first gigs at Webster Hall in NYC.
BC: That’s what I tell aerialists all the time. I think most of the dangerous part of your night IS climbing into up to height, on a ladder you have never been on, alone, in the dark, 15 minutes before the show, with people below you, 30 lbs of gear on your shoulder just to hang your equipment. Then you do it all over again just so you can drop into your roll-down on the right music cue at the start of your act. As the “Performer Handler” it’s up to me to make sure people can get into position safely. I’ll spend 7 weeks working on someone’s act. One’s chances of losing focus and falling there are way smaller then the moment of hanging one’s equipment.
SA: What’s a good formula/checklist for seeing if a site is riggable and for what kind of equipment?
BC: I’ve been trying to create a basic breakdown for what we all look for in rigging, overhead anchors, equipment…etc. I have it boiled down to three “goals” that I think encompass everything.
1- Is it “strong enough”? Whatever it is — anchor to hang from, equipment in the system, floor tie off point, harness…. The first focus is whether it can hold the maximum weight (weight/force/load) we are about to put on it. And if we are using a design factor (safety factor/design factor/safety ratio), then the next question is “Is it strong enough for that too?”
2- Is it “useable”? Can we get access to the overhead anchor? Even if it is strong enough, if we can’t get to it, we can’t use it. I think this category is the one where most decisions are made, and those decisions are made based on ones experience or training, economics, and management. Are we using the appropriate equipment for this part of the system and is it being used properly. This “useable” is the hot topic in most debates… and most myths and misinformation as well.
3- Does it fulfill our artistic and logistical needs? Can everything we are looking at and considering do what we need it to do? If we find an awesome overhead anchor, but it’s 15’ up and we need 25’, then no. If the director has a specific vision and we can’t solve it within our own experience, available equipment, the rules laid down by outside management (Theatre TD, Fire Marshal, etc) and the laws of physics… then we have to look elsewhere to hit those goals.
I think everything we do and talk about fits into one of those three “Goals” at its core value. No matter who it is: Rigger, Aerialist, Stuntman… etc, those are the three things we look at when figuring out how to get things in the air, use them in performance, and how to evaluate and mitigate risks.
SA: Those are very helpful questions to ask every time one approaches a site. I don’t know what its like from a rigger’s perspective but I know amateur aerialists who are engaging in unsafe practices. It’s not necessarily your concern or responsibility to educate everyone in the industry. That said, what is your role in education?
BC: I like to wait to be asked. And I believe that’s a rarity. It’s a rarity from aerialist to aerialist and I think it’s a rarity from rigger to aerialist as well. It’s easy for people on my end to over-assert their “expertise”. The first thing any “rigger” does is walk into a room and point at things and tell you what they think is wrong. A lot of the time, it actually shows the limits of one’s knowledge. I think it takes more confidence and skill to wait, learn, and truly assess what’s going on rigging-wise. What’s the best way to help? Much of the useable info is easy to find: from equipment manufacturers to textbooks. You can easily go to any of the online forums and get distracted by info that may be unhelpful at the very least, or at the worst completely incorrect or unfounded. If you ask a question and there are a couple of answers that are helpful but then someone jumps in and says “that’s helpful but what’s REALLY IMPORTANT is this little nugget of information that I have” then they’ve kind of hijacked the whole thing. It’s hard… that’s people being people again. If I’ve gained any success, it’s because I try to address the things that seem to be the most pertinent needs to the topic or question.
SA: That’s great because it’s just going to make everyone’s job easier and smoother. When you give people the tools to do something that they couldn’t do before it opens up the time for them to focus on deeper aspects of their work and be efficient.
BC: Its Education 101 that moving things in a positive direction is better than making people afraid. It happens at every level. From the 1 one-aerialist shows to the big gigantic shows. I’m not adverse to saying NO… I like to say NO or stop a show. I’m not afraid to do it. But for me, and I hope for others, we say NO or make decisions based on the best, educated, info available. An educated and knowing how to say “NO.”
SA: Yeah especially with aerialists and collaborators. You want people to be at the highest level and have the freedom to be creative. I’m curious about the stunt-rigging that you’ve done because some of the work I’ve done has aired more on the stunt side. I’ve never jumped out of a burning building or done a fake car crash, but I’m curious about what that really is how it differs from the circus work you’ve done.
BC: I don’t think it’s that different — in circus/aerial work we focus a lot on shock loading/dynamic loads. That’s our biggest concern because it’s always happening. In stunts, say we are going to fly Peter Pan….it’s not a lot of shock loading and the artistic focus is different. Like, you don’t want to see the cables. So it doesn’t generate as much force and we can calculate our “design factors” differently. In stunt work, a lot of what’s being done only needs to be successful 2 or 3 times for a few seconds each. So there’s a different focus on equipment and techniques of using it. I like to talk about “how close to the edge of the cliff are you working.” Doing handstands at the edge of the cliff… doesn’t make your handstands better, it just makes you closer to falling over. Moving away from the edge gives you more “cushion” for things that may change or need to be considered.
SA: That concept of the edge of the cliff is interesting. Can you explain that more?
BC: In design it’s called the “design factor” ,“safety factor” or a “design ratio.” Quite simply, if you want something to hold up 100 pounds it needs to be able to hold up more than that. At least twice, or 5 times as much, or 7 times as much times would be great. You know, all your anchors and equipment needs to be stronger than the number put on it, whatever that known value is.
SA: So you have a cushion in numbers?
BC: Yes that’s exactly what it is. And the bigger that cushion is, the better off you are. I find when people are pushing their equipment close to its limits– or their bodies, for that matter, it’s just a lack of awareness. When we hook a device up to an aerialist’s fabric and show that they can easily generate 900 to 1000 pounds that’s generally not what most people think.
SA: Of course not. Most people don’t understand physics the concept of exponential force. I would think the flipside though, is that people want to use less than what’s required.
BC: One of the things I run into often is with older or limited rigging experience is that they still do a lot of old- school circus or stunt stuff… Lots of natural or plastic rope and lots of chain, really small shackles, some knots that could be rethought… etc. I’m not saying it’s not strong enough, but technology has advanced. A lot of the gear and practices that are still used are…
BC: That’s not my term. I won’t just call things “unsafe” because somebody has to decide what that means. It’s a human feeling, it means something different to each person, and it doesn’t exist in physical reality. I will say things may/may not be strong enough, or the best useable, or efficient…etc.
SA: Yeah, that’s how a lot of people in circus still learn.
BC: It doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with it. But there is likely some better information available. The three factors that go into why people use what they use are experience, someone else’s standards, and of course cost. Cost determines what we are exposed to, which then creates our experience level.
SA: True. But I do think it means that there’s a lot that people miss because that realm is limited.
SA: Yeah, I’ve worked in traditional circus. Have you seen any updates to old style equipment? In “trad”, as we call traditional circus, you have acts that you don’t see in modern circus. I’m wondering if you’ve seen any of these old acts technologically updated?
BC: It’s like what we said before. Someone has to want to change it and/or learn more about what’s really going on physically. I have seen some rigging setups where both are present. They have some brand new equipment and better practices but some things are done in a traditional/old school way. It might not be as strong or efficient as the new stuff, but how close to the edge of the cliff are you, and why?
The three goals in all of our rigging: Is it strong enough to hold what we want? Is it useable…can we make it do what we want it to do? Does it fulfill the needs, like does it pick the person up off the ground the way you want it to? All these conversations people have, it all boils down to these questions.
SA: Like the three pillars.
BC: Yeah, a big part of our job is actually just how we get you up off the ground.
SA: (Laughs.) Yeah that’s the very first step. People forget “How do you get up there in the first place?”
BC: Another is does it look the way you want to look. The artistic side, our choices have a hand in that. There are limits easily and quickly found.
SA: That’s where I see the rigger as an artist. You are manipulating physics for illusion’s sake. Good design and concepts. The more complicated shows get the more you have to factor that.
BC: Safety is first. Mitigating a hazard. Its either strong enough or its not. I would say that most people are actually doing things just fine. They might not know why. But it’s usually fine.
Some key advice and reassuring words from Brett Copes. It’s important for everyone to circus to not fear their equipment, but to educate themselves. With more collaboration between aerialists and riggers, we can create a world where everyone is in the know and is part of the safety process.
In the last part of the series we’ll learn more about what Brett does in his spare time and learn about how YOU can get involved in this fascinating profession. Stay tuned!
Sarah Arrigo is a former professional acrobat, current circus educator. She’s lived and performed in Belgium, the U.K, Canada and as part of the 2012 London Olympics. Her favorite material to train in is, undoubtably, spandex.