Have you seen them? Hanging high in the ceilings, twisting the laws of physics. They are a crucial part of how a show runs, and without them there would be no circus. Nope, they aren’t the acrobats. One of the most important people in any circus is one that often goes unrecognized: the Rigger. He or she is the person who keeps you safe so you can focus on your tricks. He’s the person who knows exactly how much weight your drop on fabric takes. But what is his work really like, and where does he fit in to this crazy circus world?
Meet Brett Copes: full-time Rigger. I first “met” Brett on Facebook. We seemed to have mutual friends from all over the world. I was impressed by his credentials and laid-back yet professional aura. He’s just become the Lead Acrobatic/Stunt Rigger for the new Marvel Universe Live Show. He’s worked for Cirque du Soleil for years, yet prefers collaborative shows. He’s extremely knowledgeable, but earnest with sharing that knowledge. Basically, he’s an incredible asset to the circus economy and community.
There was such depth to his experience that one can only get from sharing stories; our conversation ran the gamut from funny anecdotes to educational theory. Hence, we bring you the first part of a three part series:
‘Behind the Scenes with a Rigger’
SA: Riggers have always struck me as the working class, macho men of the circus. An aerialist friend of mine even had a rigger fetish. What do you do as a rigger?
BC: First, your friend is weird.
Rigger is a kind of non-specific term… so I’m going to say that “riggers” are part of your stage crew and our focus is on things that happen off the ground. It seems easy to acknowledge that a part of our job is to stop things from falling from the sky, but we also tend to be the ones who have to figure out how to get those things UP there in the first place. I look at the work, using skills and experience. And a reasonable amount of creativity to get equipment, crew and performers at working height in the least risky way possible.
There is a “macho” aspect to it for sure. Riggers are the “jocks” of the stagehand crew. I think the risk aspect of the work attracts people who are certainly looking for something more than pushing scenery on the ground. But I think that can easily bring as many hazards to the work as benefits. Anybody who knows me, knows I have no ability to be “macho” or a “jock”… I’m just a geek for the work and the creativity it demands.
SA: What’s the longest amount of time you’ve spent setting up a show?
BC: It varies from show to show. Once I was asked how long it would take to rig 3 acts at a symphony/circus show. I had asked how long it has taken in the past, the producer said 1-3 hours. So I asked for 3 hours. Of course the producer budgeted for 1 hour and it took 3. It is not uncommon for me to be told how much time I have to rig 1-10 acts in a gig, as opposed to being asked how long I think it would take. This is always a challenge. At every rigging job, there is some amount of problem solving involved, no matter how much pre-planning is involved (often there is minimal pre-planning). Even on the largest productions, with dozens of brains involved in the planning stages, there are a bunch of problems that will come up when you start to put the parts together, and even more when you start adding people/performers into the mix. Everybody in the production knows what they want the final “picture” to look like… but they often forget how to get a performer into position, out of risk, before hand, or how to get a rigger into position to operate the equipment.
Working for CdS on “IRIS” was a different experience. The company had done a year of pre-planning, the install of the show was scheduled to take months, and there was very little, if any pressure from above to hurry, skimp on money/time/personnel, or ever work at risk. Plenty of things came up that had to be solved every day, but if we couldn’t get a rigger into a work position without fall protection we didn’t work there. If safety gear was not showing up to install something until next week, we waited until next week. We never hung a performer in any apparatus to practice or perform, (or allowed any Lighting Technician to climb, either) unless the entire team had rescue training and a rescue plan in place. We never climbed alone, always with a buddy. Nobody worked below us when we where working at height. But that was a rarity…. I doubt I’ll ever work in another environment where there was that attitude and attention to reducing risk. I try to bring what I can of those standards and practices into my own work as much as I can.
SA: Any funny stories? Any absolute disasters? What’s the craziest thing you’ve seen happen on a show?
BC: At the CCCF this year, we had some limitations on the rigging points we had available, so when a performer showed up all the way from Finland to discover we couldn’t hang her equipment at a diagonal across the stage, we had to come up with some creative solution. In the end we shifted the set at a diagonal and the rigging stayed going left to right. A simple fix, but different than she was used to. In the end she liked the way it looked on the stage to the audience, and decided to keep staging it that way.
Disasters, unfortunately I have been around for a few big ones. But on the less dramatic end of things, I have seen a lot of performers get tangled in other equipment hung too close together. I have seen riggers backstage, pull the wrong rope backstage and fly the wrong performer by accident. As a Stunt Performer, we always had problems rappelling while wearing a cape. It would billow over out heads, or jam itself into the rappelling device. Not super dangerous, but you lose a lot of “cool points”.
I have shown up for a job to hang an aerialist, asked where we are hanging her and as the producer pointed to the stage, I looked up and only saw open sky above me. I can solve a lot of problems, but I can’t hang a girl on a cloud.
Most of what I have found “crazy” comes from riggers actually. “I am a Rigger (too), and I….(fill in the blank)” is the second thing I hear from just anybody who wants to show me what they know. Sometimes the (fill in the blank) remarks are quite memorable, often as an example of how little they know. I am waiting for one or two more to make a funny t-shirt.
I showed up on a set to drop off equipment and saw 5-7 Stunt “Riggers” climbing around on a 40 plus foot tall truss structure, all wearing harnesses, and not one of them clipped into anything. As far as I could tell, only one of them had a piece of fall protection on, but was not using it. Then I watched one of them walk across the span of the structure, on top of the truss, no hands, not clipped in, 40 feet across, 40 feet up. That was the “craziest” thing that comes to mind.
I worked with an aerialist troupe’s owner, who was also their “Head Rigger”. We were hanging points for her aerialists about 40-60’. “Head Rigger” hung 6 points in the same time it too me to hang 4, but I was wearing fall protection and she wasn’t. She told me “I don’t tie in, because I don’t fall”….. That’s the person responsible for the safety of everybody who works for that troupe, and just that statement to me is crazy.
Some things happen that are just bothersome, or might be the first step in a chain of events that could become dangerous. I’m no saint; I have free climbed. I have hung from weird anchors. I did things in stunts that I look back at now, and know I could make better or reduce risk. I think most of the things that end up dangerous for us (or you), is our of lack of knowledge. I find it’s only those who refuse to accept that there may be a better way to reduce the risk to themselves or others to be “dangerous”.
SA: What’s been your favorite show/setting to work on thus far? Traditional tents? Big theaters? Unique site specific locations? Churches?
BC: I come from theatre, so rigging in theatres can be fun for me. There are challenges that come with each venue. I’ve rigged in circus tents, and those can be awesome too. Mostly the challenge with circus tents,
is access to the hang points to set up. Truss structures tend to be the easiest for access and versatility. Those are really the easiest.
Want to know about the 3 pillars of rigging? The concept of the “edge of the cliff?” And most importantly, what you need to know to rig safely? Stay tuned as Sarah and Brett geek out in the next part of the series: The safety/mechanics of rigging.