Rigging Upgrade for Outdoor Theatre 

Wenger CorporationSeveral years ago, J.R. Clancy inspected the rigging at the Miller Outdoor Theatre in Houston, Texas, and found it was near the end of its useful life after 48 years. Not surprising, considering the length of operation, the venue’s busy schedule and extreme environmental conditions. The Miller’s older rigging equipment was also having difficulty handling some very heavy sets. The fact that J.R. Clancy components lasted nearly a half-century is a testament to their quality and regular maintenance.

The Miller is a unique venue – a free, outdoor, full-proscenium theatre; the original facility was built in 1923. Rebuilt in 1968, the Miller now includes a 64’ x 41’ stage, 54 line sets, orchestra lift and a 100-ton air conditioning system to cool the performance area. Seating is provided for approximately 1,700 patrons, with a sloping lawn that accommodates roughly 4,500 more.

Great Partnership

To assist with the renovation, J.R. Clancy turned to Beck Studios; the two firms have partnered for more than 20 years and together have nearly 300 years of combined experience. Beck Studios is a J.R. Clancy dealer, also helping with rigging installations and project management. “It’s a great partnership,” says Matt Mullen, vice president of Beck Studios. Mullen first joined Beck Studios over 30 years ago; several years ago he left to work at J.R. Clancy for two years in domestic sales.

In the Miller renovation, Mullen says basically everything was ripped out – except the T-bar guide tracks – and replaced with new equipment, including new loft blocks, head blocks, arbors and floor blocks, new locking rail and SceneControl® controller. Of the 50+ counterweight sets, 10 lighting battens were changed to motor-assist. Mullen says this is a big timesaver, enabling the Miller’s crew to hang or take off lights without going up and loading/unloading weights. The theatre consultant on the project was Tom Folsom with KTRP, Inc.

Chain Reaction

Before the rigging renovation, it took two or three crew members to move the most heavily loaded line sets. Now one person can do it easily.

The difference? J.R. Clancy developed a compensating chain system that was customized to the existing guide system. “The benefits are tremendous,” says Mullen. Normally a compensating chain system will occupy a considerable amount of space offstage of the guide system.  In the past, retrofitting a compensating chain meant that the guide system had to be totally dismantled and often the fly galleries needed to be relocated further onstage.

“This was the first compensating chain system I’ve seen that was adaptable to an existing set,” explains Mullen. “This retrofit really worked well.” In operation, the compensating chain system offsets the shifting lift line weight at any position. This maintains the set’s balance and keeps the set moving with the same effort throughout its travel.

Simple, Safe and Speedy

The Miller’s #1 set is the main curtain that flies in and out. Before the renovation, it took three staff members to move this curtain and clear the proscenium fast enough – about 300’ per minute – to satisfy the directors. Getting three people up on rails was not very cost-efficient. In the renovation, a Titan® hoist was installed; it travels up to one-third faster, at 400 feet per minute.

“This gives them a different look and more options right from the control station,” says Mullen. “They can fly the curtain out faster or even slow it down.”

Along with increased speed, the new rigging system has also improved flexibility, ease of operation and safety. “Previously, staff members were climbing up to the loading bridge and taking off weights just to remove a couple of lights or tie off a set, making lighting changes to out-of-balance sets,” Mullen explains. “With motorized rigging, it now comes down the touch of a button, so they can add or remove a light easily and safely.”

Of the 10 motorized sets, several are side-by-side so those battens can be married and controlled together, creating some real unique lighting plots. Mullen says this is very beneficial when hanging large Cyc lights or a configuration where fixtures are needed on both battens. These married battens give the lighting designer more options.

Keeping Cool

The extreme heat and subtropical climate in Houston is a large challenge that was considered in the renovation. Mullen says the building gets very hot in the grid and loading bridge; limiting the number of times staff needed to go up to load and unload weights was a big motivating factor in motorizing the electrics. To withstand the heat, since the Titan hoist is positioned on the grid, an internal air conditioner was added to the master control cabinet panel to help keep all the components cool and prevent the drives from overheating. Sealed components protect against humidity.

Bending Over Backward

Mullen, who has been in the business 32 years, says he rarely works with a venue as accommodating as the Miller Outdoor Theatre. “Their entire staff pitched in wherever needed, bending over backwards to make it all happen,” he recalls. “They wanted a better rigging system that would last a long time, without any shortcuts taken, and I totally respect that.”

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