Thursday, December 17, 2009

Saga part 4, The Stage Build

So I went over and found Mark and introduced myself. He was immediately friendly, and the first thing we did was walk over and take a look at Sugar, exchanging a few words about the ride up. I found out that he's heavily into bicycling, as I would soon learn lots of folks are Up North.

He also went ahead and gave me a couple hundred bucks, just like he'd said he would.

We kept the pleasantries to a minimum at that point, however. There was lots of work to get done. I asked him, "so where can I be most useful right now?" and he brought me over and introduced me to the Light Tech, Dan. I shook his hand and told him, "I've got my C-wrench and I'm ready to work." (Probably 90% of the tool work on lights, which is mostly installing and focusing them, is done with a Crescent wrench. The roof and truss that you see above the stage is built using only one size of wrench, and the particular stage that this company uses goes together with nothing but hammers and humans. The First Rule of Engineering is "don't make it any more complicated than it needs to be.")

He said we wouldn't be needing C-wrenches yet.

The rest of the crew was assembling the rectangular grid of truss which would be the roof, which was about finished at that point, and getting started building and raising the towers that would lift the whole thing. I was going to help Dan run cables through that truss to the lights and the motors.

The cables that run all those lights you see at a concert are usually what's called "Socapex." They're thick, heavy cables that are basically a whole bunch of extension cords in one. We call them "soco" or "mult" for short, and they save us the trouble of running 150 extension cords -one to each light. Each one usually powers six to eight lights (or anything else up there that needs power). They all get run through the truss to a single location, where they then drop down together neatly into "Lighting World." Lighting World is basically where all the power for lights, and everything else onstage that isn't sound, is routed and controlled. The majority of the power use of a concert is used there, and that's a lot of electricity. (It's more than enough to kill someone, which does happen occasionally when someone slips up. All of this is dangerous work, not like "incredibly" dangerous like some things, but enough so that all it takes is a "slip-up" for someone to get killed or permanently injured. Read further, oh interested one, for there is danger in this very tale.)

We got those run and connected and by that time the rest of the crew had the towers erected.

The roof, in brief:
10' lengths of truss are bolted together and to special corner blocks. A corner block has adjustable feet (screwjacks) for leveling the whole structure, and the base of a tower in its center. The outer portion that the rest of the truss bolts to has wheels pointing inward that grip the tower.
The towers are assembled laying down along the truss and then one side is attached to the base by a hinge. Ropes and muscles then heave the tower upward, and the base is bolted together. Once each tower is up and bolted, someone climbs up it to remove the ropes that were used to pull it up, and send one of them over pulleys on top of the tower so that chains can be pulled up and over.
Another length of truss, the same as the front and back, is then lifted on top of the existing rectangle which winds up creating the peak of the roof. Once the roof itself is attached, things called "chain motors" pull the whole thing up the towers.
A chain motor is a device that pulls chain through itself, gripping it tightly. It's useful for lifting very heavy loads such as stage roofs, or all the lighting and scenery truss you see over the stage at an indoor show.*

Once the roof was up, Dan and I were both freed to help build the stage itself.

The particular stage this company uses is really top-notch. It's both versatile and it goes together fairly easily. Mostly. Though it can be a real hassle if you don't get it really straight/square.

It begins with upright steel "ringers," which go on top of screwjacks for leveling. Ringers are stackable pieces that have a circular rings with holes in them. Long bars, called "ledgers" span between the rings, with a slot in their ends to wrap around them and then a pin that drops down through the holes... a few good whacks on those pins with a hammer and you have a good, solid structure. Longer pieces, which we called "diags" span diagonally in numerous places to help add strength to the overall structure. All of this can be built in almost any shape or configuration, for building fancier stages with risers, ramps, etc. These same parts also build the towers on the sides of the stage, called "wings."

The wings get wrapped with waterproofing, and they're where things like Lighting world and Monitor world go (on opposite sides of the stage), as well as where the main speaker stacks are hung. They're also, to me, quite fun to build. Climbing and working is hardly working to me, although obviously work is getting done.

Once the frame of the stage is built, the floor goes on. The top pieces that hold the flooring decks are the same as ledgers, except they have an extra, rectangular bar of steel welded to them. Most are flat, but the ones that go at the front and back of the stage have an extra piece of metal that sticks up to hold the decks in place. The whole thing is decked with sturdy, 4'x8' decks, and then they're all clamped together underneath with standard "C" clamps.

And... you have a completed stage.

We then raised the roof to a comfortable working height, and Dan and his other helper start getting lights hung from it and connected properly.

The rest of us weren't finished though. Since this company does "big shows," we then also build a loading dock for trucks and equipment off the back of the stage. Sometimes it's attached to the stage, sometimes not. Sometimes it's built exactly the same as the stage, only using all the less-desirable (less pretty, older) decks since the audience and most of the performers won't see it, sometimes it's built with standard scaffolding (and the same decks). This time we built a fairly large one out of scaffolding, not attached, long enough to back 4 trucks up to and connected to the stage by 2 long ramps.

During the course of the festival, the artists' equipment will be loaded off the trucks and "staged" on this dock until such a time as it's needed. (To avoid confusion... "stage" vs. "stage": Many kinds of work have a "staging area." This is where equipment, tools, personel, etc. are kept until they're needed.)

When it came lunchtime, I learned that we got a fairly strict 30 minutes. It takes time to warm up my bike and get all my protective gear on. Since I was also obviously interested in getting to know my co-workers, instead of messing with my bike and gear I just shouted, "who can I ride to lunch with today?" I kind of kept that as a theme most of the summer (when there were lots of us around, anyway), going with someone different most of the time.

This company, on normal days (pre and post festival/show) almost never works past 3 pm. Frankly, I enjoyed that a lot. It's nice to have the afternoon to do other things, especially in a situation such as mine. On this day we finished building the dock right at about 3, so we were done for the day after that.

Everyone went their separate ways and I set about finding a campground, with no plan or idea.


* Interested in an addendum? Hanging things overhead is an enormous responsibility. I'm sure if you've been to a concert you've noticed the enormous amount of metal stuff that's hanging over the stage and sometimes the audience. These things are not permanently attached, they are hung for the show. If they were to fall, and on rare occasions they do**, obviously someone or lots of someones can be hurt badly or killed.

The person who's responsible for hanging all that is called the Rigger (or the Head Rigger... often most of the people working under him... pun intended... are riggers too). If the rig comes down, he gets 100% of the blame. This is often, but not always, very technical work. There are lots of calculations involved. Even if one is working a big enough tour that they're carrying their own rigging, the "grid" (the internal roof structure of the venue) is always going to be different. Your rig is always the same, but how it attaches will be different in every venue.

**Don't let this make you afraid of going to concerts. Most of the time when a rig fails, it does so when it first goes up, long before the audience starts showing up. Also, even then people don't always get hurt: Usually when the rig is ready to go up the Rigger, or whoever's at the controls, will shout something along the lines of, "THE RIG'S FLYING!" and everyone will get clear of it until it's safely at "trim height" (simply meaning the height it's going to be). As it's going up all trained eyes (usually us techs have some basic rigging knowledge as well) will be on it, at least one pair watching each motor, and keeping watch for trouble. The person with the motor controls can't possibly watch ALL the motors, and sometimes there are minor problems... one might not be moving, or could be going the wrong way. None of us wants to get hurt or see a catastrophic failure, so we all watch the rig go up and will shout, "STOP" if we see any kind of problem or potential for one.

Usually a prudent Rigger will stop the rig at a comfortable working height and have someone (just one, that way there's no, "I thought HE got that one") go around and double-check every bolt, hook and shackle in the whole rig. Something simple like a shackle turned sidways against its load can cause a small failure, and once one point goes... well... The clanging and screeching of twisting metal ensues... lawyers are contacted... jobs are lost.

Usually lots of the experienced members of a stage crew will have at least some very basic knowledge of rigging, so that more eyes are capable of hopefully recognizing potential problems before they occur. Pretty much everything has to be "perfect" for the show to be its best, but mistakes in rigging don't just ruin the show. This would include things like how a shackle should be loaded properly, or noticing when something's bolted incorrectly.

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