17th May 2021
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Acrobatic Rigger: Explaining My Career

Acrobatic Rigger
By Anna Tompkins

It somehow always starts like this. I’m venturing out of my theater bubble and into the real world. I’m attempting to have real-world conversations with real-world peoples at coffee shops, or waiting in line at the grocery store. It starts off innocent, then at some point I happen to mention being abroad:

Random dude (Rando): “So, what branch are you in?” “Are you in the military” “Thank you for your service.”

Me: [replies with a mildly sheepish expression]“umm, no actually, I’m in theater, like the circus”

Rando: “Oh, you look like a military person.”

Me: [never actually knowing how to respond to that, but gonna take it as a compliment] “Thanks, I get that a lot, but nope, I just like entertainment”

Rando: “What, really? So you’re a performer? How long have you been doing that?”

Response Option 1:

Me: “Uh, no, I’m a Rigging Technician. I fly people and stuff across the stage, safely of course [she says like it’s a perfectly normal thing for someone to be saying]… I’ve been in the industry for like 17 years now.”

Rando: “Ooo, do you work for Circus o’ Lay?”

Me: “Something like that.”

Rando: “Well you look like a Marine!”

Me: “Thanks, just trying to stay strong”.

This thread of conversion hits me on a pretty regular basis and it seems like I explain it in a slightly different way each time. Either I’ll brush it off and just go with “I work backstage” or a full blown “this is the story of my life and career and the places I’m going”. That one goes like this:

Response Option 2:

Me: [inhales, proceeds to ramble] “Well, I went to art schools pretty much my whole life. Started out as a voice major, but got out of that after the first year of high school because the music director kept throwing things at people, then my mom was all like “your brothers both go to that school and I’m not gonna deal with you going to another one, so you’re gonna have to figure out something else to do” and I was all like “ok, well I know someone who works backstage, that seems cool” so I did that. It was fun. Then went to college as a Technical Direction Major and built scenery for like 7 years, then started hanging it up, then somehow it merged to people. Cruise ships, musicals, China, the Middle East. And that’s what I do!” [exhales with a smile]

Rando: [looks at me in mild confusion and surprise] “Wow, that’s really cool!”

Me: [realizing that I forgot I had a cool job] “Yeah, I’m really lucky.”

Rando: [look shifts to understanding] “So you’re a dancer!”

Me: [mental face slap]

OK, so I’m gonna go out on a limb here and presume that a decent majority of the folks on this website do have a good idea of what it is that an acrobatic rigger does.

But on the off chance that there is room for confusion I intend to clear that up a bit if only to save myself from one more of the prior dialogues. So, let’s start at the very beginning, show creation to presentation.

We all know that safety is always the first priority. We advertise it, we practice it and in the odd scenario, we execute rescues when things don’t go as Plan A stipulated. Fortunately, if Plan A fails, there’s still a whole alphanumeric system available. Thing is, I often find myself so focused on making back-ups of back-ups of contingencies during creations that I have to remind myself that our job is not only to keep people safe, but to let them explore possibilities and have fun too. Just as much as we are trusted for our profession, aerialists and acrobats need to be trusted in theirs with the understanding that they are more than ordinary humans and sometimes their job is to play. Sometimes the best way to entertain others is by being entertained.

Theater, in its many varieties, is about being able to experience a spectrum of emotions, being true to oneself in that moment so that you can share it with others (you can tell I’m an art school kid).

We as technicians, however, forget this sometimes. We are detached and proud of being something other. We are not onstage often and perhaps at times lack the same kind of connection with our audience that performers get. We go about our day-to-day flying people across the stage and shifting stupid heavy loads at high speeds like it’s a regular 9-5. We might forget that we are artists too, all working towards a single product and that we need creativity to do so as well. So in this series I will be attempting to go a bit further to depict what it is that we do so that maybe in the future I’ll have less people assuming that I in any way know how to dance and more who get that just because you’re not onstage, doesn’t mean that you’re not a performer too.

Coming is Show Creation for an Acrobatic Rigger in 3 parts:

Concept to Compromise: Where we explore the ideas of what we want a show to look like and what is actually feasible with the resources we have.

Rescue Plans to Rehearsals: Where we finalize our concepts, cover all our bases and begin to build segments of a production.

Validations to Shows: Where we confirm that everyone knows what’s up and finalize it into something that everyone can do safely, confidently and repeatedly.

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Also on TheatreArtLife:

Rigging Safety: Your Life is in Your Hands

Working At Height: What’s In Your Rigging Kit?

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