Flys, not flies, refer to the permanent weighted batten systems in theatrical venues that are used to raise and lower scenery and electrics on stage. To fly something in or out is to raise or lower an object on deck via this system. Many theaters have made the conversion to automated flys that use motors or chain hoists, but manual structures are still the most prevalently used. The technicians responsible for the operation of flys during live performances are known as flymen, or fly persons.
A fly system, also called a flying rig, is comprised of six essential components: Battens, lines, blocks, counterweights, arbors, and hoists. Together, the mechanism is a vast pulley system that uses balanced counterweights and gravity to easily lift heavy stage flats in and out for scene changes during a performance and to fly lighting rigs above the stage. During the show, flymen stand by at the rail to pull the battens in and out, according to specifically timed cues called by the stage manager. These technicians must be attentive and aware of the other technicians and cast members on deck, as injury is a constant risk where sets weighing hundreds of pounds are moving overhead. For both the sake of injury and timing in the show, flymen must rehearse their cues repeatedly to ensure that the set pieces come in, hit a precise height as marked by spike tape on the rope, and come to a smooth stop.
In preparation for a live production, fly operators are also tasked with performing rigging and safety checks to ensure that the system is properly weighted and functioning normally. Stage weights are loaded into the arbors to balance the weight and allow the pulley ropes to easily glide up and down. Atmospheric conditions inside the theater can alter the total weight of set pieces through the absorption of moisture due to humidity, as well as the tension in the lines. Accordingly, weight may need to be added or subtracted from the arbor to account for the changes.
To load weight, fly persons climb to the top of a catwalk grid called the fly loft. Technicians on the deck raise the arbors to the fly loft where flymen can insert the metal weights. Tests are performed to ensure proper balance of the batten, as the pipe and arbor should be able to maintain a stationary position, at mid distance above the deck, to prove that the fly is precisely balanced. It is the same principle as having two people of equal weight suspended in the air on a seesaw. Other safety checks include inspecting the ropes for frays or other signs of damage, as well as inspecting the rigging hardware that fastens set pieces to the batten.
Skills & Education
A particular degree is not required for this career, though an education in theatrical design or show production is recommended. Fly operators must understand the proper use and maintenance of each component of the fly system, in addition to being experienced in the theatrical production process. On the job, knowledge of basic concepts of physics and mathematics is not only useful but also necessary. Every batten system has a rating that determines the total weight capacity. Knowing that capacity and how to properly distribute the load both vertically and horizontally is crucial to ensuring safe operation. This job demands an individual that is attentive, meticulous, and cautious.
What to Expect
The physical demands of working as a flyman are some of the most challenging on any theatrical crew. Even though a properly weighted batten should be able to travel with minimal effort by pulling on the rope, the operator must have the brute strength to halt a poorly weighted fly and to lift the heavy stage weights. This does not mean that only big, burly men may do the job. Anyone who is capable of lifting at least 50 pounds comfortably and that exceeds 100 pounds in body weight can perform the task if properly trained. Fly operators must also be at ease working at heights, as a fly loft can be in excess of 75 feet above the deck.
Not all fly persons are riggers, but training in basic rigging skills is useful in this career, as is experience in carpentry. Employment opportunities exist on a full-time basis with resident theatrical venues, and freelance work can be obtained on theatrical tours or with production companies. Concert tours that occupy arenas or outdoor stages usually do not have a need for a manual fly operator, as these productions typically use motorized chain hoists triggered by remote. Those interested in pursuing work as flymen should first gain experience as stagehands and members of the running crew, gathering as much production and technical knowledge as possible by learning from others.
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