Putting a Face on Theatre
Tomorrow we begin tech rehearsals for Purdue's production of Medea. This show is exciting for a number of reasons: it's the first directing graduate student terminal project in a decade; conceptually, it is interesting because the director has worked with a composer to turn much of the choral parts into music, played by a band onstage and by the actors; the sound engineering student has had the opportunity to bring in a significant rental package to supplement our in-house PA, including line arrays, two dual 18" subs, and more. Most exciting for me, however, is the lift effect at the end of the play.
When we moved into our (now not-so-) new building in 2005, we purchased two RibbonLifts. These are a version of telescoping mast-lifts with very compact bases. They have sat unused in our storage since that time. When Mike, the director, indicated he was looking for a way to create the effect of Medea "rising to heaven in a chariot," our scene shop manager suggested we look at using one of these for the effect.
The RibbonLift mast is topped with an 18"x18" plate. Nothing else. Obviously, there is nothing safe about having an actor stand on top of this plate and be lifted 15 feet in the air. My MFA technical direction student working on the project did a lot of research into fall arrest systems, and quickly determined that there was no foolproof way to keep the actress safe using such systems, given the fact that she would be at varying heights, all below 18'. So I had her do some research into how other people accomplished similar effects.
She found an awesome video interview with the actress who played Elphelba in a production of Wicked, in which she showed off the lift effect where the witch is lifted high in the air. For this effect, the actress stands on a tiny platform attached to what is essentially a cherry picker. Attached to the platform is a short post and two arms that grip her waist; if these arms aren't engaged, the system won't lift her up.
We decided this was something we could accomplish, and so began discussing designs with our University safety people. The final design incorporates a number of safety systems. First, and most importantly, is the e-stop system. We are using a 24vdc signal distributed in series through three normally-closed mushroom e-stop buttons (one at the operator station, one on the other side of the stage, and one in the booth) that control a relay which kills power to the lift. This is completely independent of the control system; however, the control system reverts to an idle state when it senses a loss of power to the lift.
In addition to hard lower and upper limits that kill power to the lift when safe extremes of travel are reached (also independent of the control system), additional limits switches have been incorporated to trip at less extreme limits which effect only the control system. Also, the actress must be belted into the left platform, and the system will not operate if it does not sense that the belt is latched. Additionally, a momentary-contact switch is installed on the mast at the base of the actor's back; if this switch is not depressed, the lift cannot move in the up direction.
The operator controls include velocity settings for both up and down movement and the ability to set a travel-to position . Additionally, the operator station includes jog controls that allow for the operator to move the lift manually. (The up jog control requires the seatbelt and deadman to be engaged; the down control does not require either, on the assumption that if either fails, it is important to be able to get the actor down.)
We have been discussing "what if" scenarios with the director and stage manager, and will be rehearsing what to do of there's a fault in the system, or the actress doesn't feel safe, or she can't be belted in correctly, or whatever. We will be going over preshow and postshow checklists, and training the actor who gives visual confirmation that the actor is belted in to the lift (additional confirmation beyond the automation system). Later in the week, we will--unannounced--decide that "something" has gone wrong, and give the performers and crew a chance to practice what to do within the context of a love performance.
I'm really proud of the work our students have done on this project; it's very complicated and they've designed a robust system that both accomplishes the design requirements and is incredibly safe, which is what we should always aspire to.