This article deals with the often complex issue of personnel suspension for theatrical purposes; its scope covers supporting performers on flying scenery and in harnesses. Due to the nature of these effects, much of this will be weighty safety-related discussion.
Personnel suspension can be extremely dangerous if not done correctly and any flying effect should be carefully thought out. Case studies below describe effects that worked for a specific show, in a specific venue, with specific people involved. You should always carry out your own risk assessment and detailed method statement, taking into account the venue, the equipment available at the time and the skill level of the cast and crew involved in the effect. Due to the open, user-sourced nature of this wiki, contributors to this and related articles cannot accept any liability for the consequences of people interpreting and applying the information below. Use at your own risk.
Literature and standards
Two important references that you'll want to review are:
- Technical Standards for Places of Entertainment ("Yellow Book"), published by the District Surveyors' Association and ABTT. This provides recommended ratings for flying equipment.
- BS 7905-1, published by the British Standards Institute. This details minimum standards for suspension equipment in places of entertainment, and Part 9 of the standard deals specifically with performer suspension.
The trickiest point in BS7905-1 is the fact that equipment for performer suspension must have a safe working load of at least twice the expected load in use; you may find that (for example) stock rigging fittings in the ADC are inadequate for all but the wispiest of actors.
Note that these standards are not the same as a legal requirement; Cambridge shows in bygone days have knowingly not complied with certain aspects of the standard due to technical or artistic limitations, following thorough assessment of the risks of non-compliance. Be aware that if you violate (for example) BS7905-1 and someone gets hurt, you may have to explain to a judge why you felt it was appropriate to disregard industry standards in this case.
If you are doing your effect in the ADC Theatre, you may be able to make use of a set of four large flying wires (3.6m x 6mm diameter) which have a SWL of over 235kg (two galvanized steel wires) and 216kg (two black coated wires) with a 10:1 factor of safety. There are also a pair of bar hangers rated to 550kg with a minimum 3:1 FoS. Custom flying wires and attachment can be purchased at very reasonable rates (the wires described above were about a tenner each) from ropeassemblies.co.uk. Flying wires for personnel suspension should never be wrapped around stanchions, as this derates the wire, but should be attached using bar hangers.
When planning your effect, make a comprehensive list of every bit of lifting equipment in use for your effect - from the counterweight bar and harness to shackles and fabric slings - including safe working loads and minimum breaking strain, and write it all down. Ensure that all equipment is either under warranty or has been inspected by a certified lifting inspector. If you have ropes of wires passing over pulleys, fairleads or being loaded in a bridle, be sure to account of the increased load on the wire.
For harness suspensions, a fall arrest or work positioning harness may be appropriate. For longer suspensions, the risk of suspension trauma may require the use of a specialist flying harness. This will be very dependent on your specific effect, so have a think ahead of time in case you need more budget for a harness. For scenery flown with actors on it, the scenery should be of sound construction and if it has been custom-made, should in most cases be subjected to a non-destructive load test.
The weight issue
If you're using a counterweighted line set to suspend an actor, bear in mind that when they're not putting their weight on the system there should be an equivalent weight put on instead, to prevent the bar going out-of-weight. The ADC Theatre has concrete weights (67kg and 76kg) for this purpose; again, any custom weight should be tested to ensure it's not going to fall apart if it takes a shock load.
If the actor does not need to be flown in or out whilst attached to the system, then the weight can remain permanently attached, and will prevent the actor from being accidentally flown out because the system will become rapidly bar-heavy if the operator attempts to fly it out.
If the actor does need to be flown, then the additional weight will have to be removed after the actor is attached. This process must be reversed before the actor is removed from the system, and if the actor is removed by other cast members on stage as part of the action, this is harder to get right safely. The cast must not remove the flown actor until the weight has been re-attached, and so an appropriate signal must be given to the cast when it is safe to remove the flown actor. If a direct line-of-sight visual signal is not possible, another method is to use cue lights controlled by the Deputy Stage Manager concealed in the set, or, in the ADC, cue lights in the perches, out of sight of the audience, are also possible.
Designing the effect
For harness suspensions, it's important to minimise the time the actor spends in the harness to reduce the risk of suspension trauma. If the actor is flown out of audience view, they should tense and release the muscles in their legs to promote good blood flow.
Make sure you have a plan to rescue the actor if they get into difficulty, if there is a fire etc. Ensure that at least one of your rescue scenarios is designed to work if the actor is unconscious.
Artistically, the most awkward parts of a flying effect are putting the actor in and out of the system, and preventing them from spinning around in mid-air. Liaise with the rest of your production team; you may be able to cover the transition in and out of the system with a flown cloth, cunning lighting or action elsewhere onstage. Spinning is most easily mitigated if the actor is flown into position behind a cloth, so that they can stabilise themselves before being revealed. Other solutions include providing them with an inconspicuous solid object to brace against, or using two flying wires in a bridle, or you may come up with a different solution entirely! Flying the actor slowly and steadily is also a good way to prevent "unexpected movements".
Case Study: Angels in America: Part 1 The Millenium Approaches (February 2013)
The brief for this effect was to have the titular Angel appear above the main character's bed in the final scene and deliver two lines of dialogue before blackout; the actor playing the Angel was doubling a role in the previous scene, so the ease of donning her costume, and concealing the harness under other costumes, was critical. The playwright's notes specify that the audience can "see the wires", so for redundancy and to prevent the Angel spinning in mid-air, the production team used a pair of bridled flying wires.
The transition into and out of the system was masked by a cyc which was flown out once the actor was at height and flown back in after the blackout, which allowed plenty of wiggle room to adjust the actor's position, check they were comfortable and dampen any swaying motion. As the actor only ever flew out a short way, a retaining wire was used on the concrete balance weight so that she couldn't be taken out too high due to operator error. The harness used was a Petzl Navaho fall arrest harness, which is quite bulky so the costume had to be designed around it. It was however comfortable enough for the actor to emote and deliver lines while in suspension.
Case Study: PARADE (June 2013)
In the climactic scene, the central character is led onstage onto a stool, a noose is placed around his neck and the stool pulled away so that the character is lynched. The audience must believe that the noose and actor are suspended from a large tree branch that is part of the set, and the actual flying wire must not be seen. To achieve this effect, the actor's weight is supported by a harness and counterweight lineset, the flying wire is disguised among tree branches and a trick noose is used.
Here, the main safety risk was not from the flying (the actor was at most 3ft off the floor) but from the danger of him falling into the noose. The trick noose had three key safety features:
- Only one "end" of a noose will tighten when pulled; the noose was tied so that the long end was the non-tightening end, and the short end was sufficiently short that it couldn't get caught on anything. This produced a visually convincing noose that wouldn't tighten
- The loop was cut near the knot, the cut ends were strengthened with whipping twine and rejoined using a couple of loops of cotton thread. This meant that if significant force was applied to the loop, it would break open. Some trial and error was required to establish how weak the link could be without it falling apart when the actors were handling it.
- The long end of the rope wasn't tied off but was lightly held taut offstage, so even if the weak link failed, the noose would simply slide down rather than taking any load.
The flying wire was flown in under cover of darkness during a dimly-lit scene on a different part of the stage. At the same time, an actor placed the noose over the tree branch. The noose and flying wire were held together by the actor duing the scene until they were needed, so the noose hid the bottom half of the flying wire. The top half of the wire was disguised by taping some leaves to it so that it looked like part of the tree, and ensuring that a number of other small twigs came off the branch in the same area as the flying wire, which broke up the straight vertical line that the wire appeared as to the audience.
To disguise the harness being clipped on, the scene was blocked so that there were several actors putting the noose and a blindfold on the "victim". The "victim" then bent his knees slightly to put his weight on the wire before the stool is kicked away. When the actor "dropped", the stretch in the wire meant that the noose needed to be loose, so that he didn't snap the weak link. The actor was allowed to spin slightly, but was prevented from turning right round and revealing the effect by kicking off from the deck behind him. The lighting went to a blackout within a couple of seconds of the effect, and so we relied on the audience being so shocked from the effect itself that they would not notice the actor using the deck to stop himself spinning. The actor was then lifted up, the noose removed, and unclipped in blackout.