Rigging Upgrade for Outdoor Theatre
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 64ft x 41ft 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.
To assist with the renovation, J.R. Clancy turned to Beck Studios, a long-standing J.R. Clancy dealer. "It's a great partnership," says Matt Mullen, vice-president of Beck Studios. In the Miller renovation, everything was ripped out except the T-bar guide tracks, says Mullen, 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 time-saver, 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.
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 customised 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.
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 300ft 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.
Of the 10 motorised sets, several are side-by-side so those battens can be married and controlled together, giving the lighting designer more options and creating some unique lighting plots. Mullen says this is very beneficial when hanging large cyc lights or a configuration where fixtures are needed on both battens.
The extreme climate in Houston is a 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 motorising 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 prevent the drives from overheating, while sealed components protect against humidity.
Mullen 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."