Posted: January 12, 2007
The good-luck stage phrase "break a leg" has always brought to mind actors tripping over misplaced scenery and getting rushed to the hospital. But a recent interview with John Laprade, the director of student programs who also oversees the management of Blanchard Campus Center and Chapin Auditorium, revealed that the phrase has nothing to do with fractured limbs. Rather, it refers to appearing on stage from behind the "leg," one of several vertical black curtains that hang along the edge of the stage and block the audience's view of behind-the-scenes activity.
Laprade knows all about legs, pinrails, headblocks, hemphouses, and other bits of functional theatre arcana. He is a theatre "flyman" or "rigger," skilled in the art of operating the rope linesets that raise the lighting instruments and stage curtains and "fly" the scenery in and out of view. Chapin, completed in 1916, is one of the few remaining theatres in the country that still use sandbags to counterbalance the flown load, which is then tied to a pinrail. Northampton's Academy of Music, built in 1890, is another "hemphouse" (so called because it was originally rigged with hemp rope) that continues to use the sandbag system. But as Laprade explained, most theatres have replaced sandbags and pinrails with a counterweight system that uses iron weights loaded onto an "arbor" that runs on a track or guide wires. The most modern stages use computers and motorized winches. While Chapin remains a "hemphouse" in spirit and function, the ropes themselves are now made of modern synthetic materials for safety and ease of operation.
Operating the sandbag-hung rigging "is getting to be a bit of a lost art," Laprade said. He has trained several students to work the rigging since he came to the College in 1995, but he said it's not a job for just anyone. "You have to have considerable physical strength and a lot of commitment to learning the skill."
Laprade learned the art of rigging while a student at University of Massachusetts in the 1980s, working at the Academy of Music under the tutelage of experienced flymen. "It takes a lot of nuance and experience to know how to 'work the load,' " he said. "Computerized systems are just not the same as the hand-operated systems. When you're doing it by hand you can feel if you're hooked on something. A motorized winch doesn't give you the same hands-on sensitivity." He explained that "there's a whole ethos of safety" to working the rigging. "You are responsible for everything that moves in the 'flies.' You need to be completely aware of everything around you, and the location of actors, technicians, and scenic elements. Safety is foremost, even if it means you miss a cue because an actor is in the way of a drop coming in."
Chapin is used frequently by the MHC community as well as visiting artists. With its wraparound loge and balcony, it seats over 1,100 people. "It's a gem of a theater," Laprade said. "There's not a bad seat in the house."