One year ago, University of Nevada, Reno Theatre Professor Rob Gander wouldn't have dreamed of asking student actors to fly in one of his productions. Today, he's not only preparing them for takeoff, he's also levitating scenery next to them, all thanks to nearly $1 million in upgrades to the Redfield Proscenium Theatre in Church Fine Arts.
Chief among the renovations was a major update to the theater's rigging system (the equipment that technicians use to hang lights, lift and lower scenery, etc.). The old setup was 50 years old, operated completely by hand, and it presented challenges to both students and faculty.
"I think it was 17 years past its life expectancy," Gander said. "I can tell you first hand that it was not a particularly safe system."
To lift and lower set pieces with the old rigging, students had to do everything manually, using a counterweighted pulley system. Although these are common in theaters, there's always the risk that a weight could fall from the rafters onto the stage or ... even worse ... a performer. Now, the rigging is run with variable-speed electric motors that are operated by computer. This is not only safer, it assures that students will be up on cutting-edge theatre technology.
"When you go to Vegas, any of the showrooms down there, it's all automated stuff," said Michael Fernbach, design and technology specialist with the Department of Theatre and Dance.
That means students can leave the University and walk into any modern theatre with an understanding of the equipment. It also means the University's theatre productions can move to a new level, technically ... and creatively.
Audiences will see that when Nevada Repertory Company presents "The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Dr. Faustus" Oct. 19-27. The play, written by Christopher Marlowe at the turn of the 17th century, tells the story of a scholar who sells his soul to the Devil for the promise of knowledge and power. In directing the production, Gander said he wants to provide spectacle, in hopes of making it more exciting and relevant to modern audiences. Among other things, Gander is working out choreography that will have two students soaring above the audience.
"We will be flying them sort of Cirque du Soleil-like into the rafters," he said. "This system makes it safe to do that. ... I won't have any qualms about renting a little equipment and putting two students in harnesses and lifting them all the way up to the ceiling, whereas before there's no way, with that old rigging system, that I would have trusted it to work effectively."
As impressive as flying actors may be, the rigging isn't just used to help students achieve liftoff. Gander said the computerized improvements make it easier to quickly move scenic elements from place to place and, for "Faustus," some of the scenery will actually be in the air.
The new rigging system has less obvious benefits as well. Fernbach said it's now much easier for him to set lights for a show. Before, he had to hang lights slowly, constantly making sure the rigging was properly balanced. With the new, motorized system, the computer does much of the work.
"I hang my lights," Fernbach said, "and when it's ready to go, I hit the up button, and it's up."
Fernbach said the rigging upgrade cost about $750,000, and it's just the latest in an ongoing series of Redfield updates. Last semester, the school allotted about $150,000 to a sound system and electrical upgrade, which resulted in a much-improved audio system and a more versatile lighting setup, both relying on computer control. And there's more to come.
Gander and Fernbach said the university has committed to more improvements that are scheduled to start in May 2013. These include re-raking the theater so that seating is more like that found in today's stadium-style movie complexes. There is also talk of remodeling the lobby, adding scene-shop space, creating an orchestra pit and adding lifts beneath the stage. All of these things would add to the flexibility of the space and, ultimately, audience enjoyment of the shows.
Fortunately, theater fans don't have to wait until next year to reap the rewards of the already completed upgrades. They'll be on full display during Gander's production of "Faustus."
"It should be a really, really dynamic show," Gander said. "It should take advantage of the automated lighting, the automated rigging, the new fly space and breathe new life into a show that I think we would be afraid to mount without it."