Though I had no interest in being a performer on stage, working backstage was a different story. From my early teen years, I have worked many stage productions with lights, sounds, or as a stage hand.
The coolest of those jobs? Flyman.
Moving objects through the air creates much of the magic on a stage, though, as this story shows, can also be a part of some of the bigger mishaps.
Various objects – drops, legs, flats, and specials – are flown in or out of a stage by flymen.
Drops are the large painted fabric covering an entire stage. Since they take up little space on a stage, scenes can be easily and quickly changed by flying drops out, revealing a hidden drop, or flying drops in to cover a drop.
To create both depth for the scene and entrances and exits for actors, legs often accompany drops. These are also fabric pieces, but cover a small portion on either side of a stage.
Flats are similar to drops, but are more complex scenery built with wood frames giving the ability to create working doors and windows.
And, finally, specials cover a range of other items that are flown in and out of stage. Flymen can move smaller objects on or off a stage, assist in special effects, and even fly humans.
How do we do it?
When looking at a theater from the outside, the large space above the stage is the fly tower. The tower is at least as tall as the stage so any drop can disappear from the audience’s view.
Objects are attached to a batten – a long metal pipe that stretches from one side of the stage to the other. That batten is lifted off of the stage by several metal cables that support the weight and keep the batten level. Those metal cables go through pulleys at the top of the fly tower, over to pulleys at one side of the stage and down to an arbor – a flat metal contraption that supports weights. The heavier the item attached to the batten, the more weights you put on, counter balancing the system. That arbor is attached to a hemp rope that runs through another pulley system on the side of the stage. The “flyman” pulls on that hemp rope to fly objects “out” (off stage) or “in” (on stage).
Some battens are just a few inches apart, designed for those fabric drops. Other battens have more space between them for flying objects with depth. For example, electrical battens have enough space to accomdate stage lights.
The smallest theaters have dozens of battens; the biggest theaters have over a hundred. The fly crew is responsible for the operation and safety of all of them. No one else can touch them.
Like most stage crew jobs, the hard work is before or after shows. In addition to attaching drops, legs, flats and flown props, the flycrew also assists the light crew in attaching their equipment.
As objects are added or removed from a batten, counterbalance weights are adjusted. An unbalanced rail can accidentally run in or out and injure someone. In addition to the weights, safety brakes are applied and the hemp rope is tied off creating a three-tier safety layer to prevent unexpected movements.
Safety cables prevent objects from falling from a batten.
Throughout the setup and takedown, the fly crew alerts everyone of moving battens to prevent accidents.
All of this hard work pays off during a show with magical transitions and effects, the audience oblivious to the flycrew.
Well, they should be oblivious. Except when things go wrong.
The problem with theaters – and what makes it so fun – is that everything is live. I have never had the pleasure of working in television or movies, mediums where you have the luxury to do the scene over if a mistake is made.
On a stage, an actor may flub his line or miss her cue. A technical stunt may go awry. The job of everyone else on the stage is to cover the mistake so it is invisible to the audience. One of our great errors was during the most difficult stunt – flying a human being. The actor covered the mistake so well that the audience thought it was a part of show and cheered.
Our actor is a comical character caught up in a violent storm during the middle of a May Day Celebration. Lights flashed to simulate lightning. Thunder crashed. Wind blew. The villagers abandon the Maypole they had been dancing around to seek shelter. The comical character stumbles to the center of the stage and opens his umbrella. The umbrella fills with wind from a giant gust, lifting the character off of his feet. He flies in a giant circle around the stage and then soars off stage high in the air. Curtain closes on the act as the audience cheers.
Except for one performance.
Unlike solid objects, humans shift their weight because of the uncomfortable rigging they wear to create the illusion of flight. Plus, this stunt required a three dimensional pattern (up in the air, up and downstage, and side to side), a complex flight pattern requiring the coordination of two flymen.
And sometimes things go wrong.
Lightning flashed. Thundered roared. Wind blew. Villagers scattered.
Our character stumbles to the center of the stage, the harness and cables hidden from the audience’s view. He opens his umbrella, leans with the wind, and lifts off his feet. The audience gasps in surprise.
He rises higher, shifting to Stage Left. Twisting his umbrella, he flies to Stage Right. His acting skills produce a surprised look as he flies upstage (away from the audience), and then back downstage (toward the audience). And then he begins a wide circle of the stage.
Too wide. Much, much too wide. A shift of the actor’s weight. An overcompensation by the flycrew. The arc too wide, too fast. The actor is flying on a collision route directly toward the twenty-foot May Pole. He still has a surprised look on his face, but he is no longer acting.
We can’t fly him above the pole. He would disappear behind the border (the curtain running across the top of the stage that hides lights and other equipment) and collide with the lights.
And we can’t move him fast enough around the pole.
He collides with the pole. Thinking quickly (or protecting himself), he grabs the May Pole, wraps his arms and legs around it, and drags it offstage with him.
The poor crew members who were prepared to help the actor safely land offstage and disconnect his harness now have to contend with a twenty-foot May Pole coming at them. Through some quick thinking, they saved the May Pole and the actor.
Despite the chaos backstage, the audience laughed and cheered as the curtain closed on the act. They thought it was a perfectly executed stunt.
The Burning Witch
At other times, the crew handles any mishaps and the talent onstage can ignore it while the audience is oblivious.
A haggard old witch shuffles out of the dark shadows of stage right. Just as she is about to emerge into the light, she casts a spell. An explosion of fire and smoke transforms her into a beautiful, fairy godmother. The audience has no idea how the transition happened and cheers.
The actress who portrays the haggard old witch and the stunning fairy godmother is the same. She enters the stage hunched over, a dingy cape covering her body, shuffling her feet. Hidden by the smoke effect, she removes the cape to expose her sparkling fairy godmother costume and stands tall.
To enhance the effect, the lights go from dim to bright. The sound transitions from ominous to bright music.
And where did that dingy shawl go? Can’t leave it on stage in a rumpled heap. And the actress can’t throw it because the audience will see that. The cape is flown out following the rising smoke – up and off stage high in the air well above the audience’s focal point. A dirty, grey piece of cloth just disappears in the smoke and shadows high above the action.
And how does a stage crew do that?
If an object flies, the fly crew is responsible, even when it is not attached to a batten. In this case, we went old school and used a fishing rod. Several pieces of fishing line were attached strategically around the shawl – actually just a large piece of cloth. Those strands of line went to a single point and were attached to a single line going to the fishing pole. At the exact moment of the flash on stage, the actress stood and raised her arms, the shawl dropping off her back. I pulled the fishing rod, yanking the cloth high in the air and off stage. A creative and simple solution.
The key part to this story is the Pyrotechnics expert who created the explosion and smoke.
Pyros are an interesting breed, a very close cousin to their crazy pyromaniac brethren who burn buildings. They became good at their skill because they like to blow things up. The more smoke, the more fire, the more bang – the better.
Not once, in my time working with pyros did I hear one utter the phrase, “Next time, let’s go with less bang.”
Every single one of them seems to be a fan of that famous scene in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. During a train robbery, Butch decides to use some explosives to crack open the safe they were planning to rob. Because it is a fancy, new safe, he decides to make sure he uses an adequate amount of dynamite. The camera cuts to the next scene where the box car is reduced to toothpicks, smoke fills the sky, and money rains down. Sundance looks at Butch and utters the famous phrase, “Think you used enough dynamite there, Butch?”
I lost count of the number of pyros who mumbled that line to themselves with great pleasure after an effect.
So here is what happened.
Haggard old witch enters the stage and shuffles out of the shadows. Explosion. Smoke. Lights brighten. Music crescendoes. I cast the rod, look up, and see a flaming meteor over my head.
The audience thought it was the most magical effect ever.
The pyrotechnician thought the explosion in previous performances had been insufficient, so he added to the effect. The result was a wee bit more bang than any of us expected. So much so that the flash pot lit the cape on fire.
Fortunately, the actress flipped the cape off just as it ignited, allowing me to fling a comet over our heads, trailing flames. The actress, oblivious to what had happened, magically appeared through the dense smoke, transitioned to a fairy god mother – a bolt of reverse lightning over her head.
The audience cheered.
The crew gasped.
The flaming cape flew over my head and offstage, crashing to the floor in a smoldering heap.
Safety rules call for fire extinguishers to be on hand for any pyrotechnical effect. Something about “if” things go wrong.
The pyro and I each grabbed fire extinguishers and fired them. Another crew member raced over and stamped out the embers.
The haze, smoke and fire extinguisher powder hung in the air. The stage manager became visible through the cloud. He shook his head and calmly spoke in to his headset, “Everything went well. We are under control.”