Guide to Rope in Theater and Entertainment

The Magic of Theater

Great theater draws audiences into a story and holds their attention, enthralls them even through their own willing suspension of disbelief. We agree to set aside what our senses tell us and accept as reality what we see on stage. Sets and lighting help make that possible, and rope plays a vital role behind the scenes.

It takes more than happy thoughts and fairy dust for the characters in stage productions of Peter Pan to fly off to Neverland. And imagine the rigging system it takes for the chandelier in the usual live performance of the musical Phantom of the Opera to drop 43 feet in less than four seconds, flying over the audience and “crashing” onto the stage.

Safety Above All

Clearly, such stage effects have the potential to result in serious injuries. But so do more mundane uses of rigging in theater and entertainment. Rope lines and rope-related devices are combined into a theatrical rigging system to lower and hoist, or “fly,” curtains, scenery, lights, backdrops, set pieces, and performers. In fact, theatrical rigging systems often are referred to as fly systems.

The rigging or fly space in some Broadway theatres, concert halls, and other entertainment venues can extend 60 to 670 feet above the stage. It’s regarded by production designers and backstage crew as the “stage above the stage.” Although what happens in that space is an unseen mystery to most audience members, it’s as carefully planned and choreographed as any intricate dance number. Safety is the number one consideration with riggers working at great heights and heavy objects suspended above the heads of performers below. Which is why working with companies who can supply safe, tested and trusted rigging is so important.

Theatrical Rigging System Components

Quality rigging equipment and professional rigging design and operation are essential to maintaining a safe work environment for performers and crew members. Traditional counterbalance rigging systems and modern automated systems involve many of the same basic components, such as:

  • Battens—long steel pipes from which sets, lights, and other equipment are suspended
  • Lift lines—ropes or cables that hold the batten in suspension over the stage and connect it to the rest of the rigging system
  • Operating lines (called hand lines in manual rigging systems)—ropes or cables that connect the system components, allowing operators to control the movement of scenery
  • Pulleys (also called blocks)—provide support and control of lift lines and operating lines
  • Hoists and winches—manual or motorized, winches pull lines horizontally, and hoists lift loads vertically
  • Counterweights—used to balance loads
  • Counterweight arbor—structure with steel plates at the top and bottom connected by a vertical bar and rods that hold a stack of counterweight plates of sufficient weight to balance the load
  • Line control devices—rope locks, turnbuckles, shackles, belaying pins, etc. that prevent unwanted load movement

Rigging Design and Line Selection Criteria

The first consideration must be the nature of the venue and the possibilities and constraints it presents for rigging design. The major distinction is between traditional proscenium arch theatrical spaces with substantial fly space above the stage and other theatrical spaces and entertainment venues lacking fly space hidden from the audience’s view.

Proscenium arch theaters typically have a permanent fly system that can be adapted to the needs of each new production. Rigging systems for other entertainment venues, including theaters-in-the-round, ballrooms, convention centers, arenas, and so on, generally are classified as arena or exposed rigging and typically are in full view of the audience. Both types of rigging are subject to the same principles of physics and use similar equipment to fly scenery, props, and performers.

Another key consideration is the technical demands of a particular production. A Broadway-style musical or play might require multiple scenery changes, some of them quite complex. Set pieces might need to be lowered from the fly space and raised back up or raised and lowered through the stage floor, or moved in and out from the wings. Other productions may require relatively few scenery changes or none at all.

Load weight is of paramount importance. It includes the weight of everything suspended from the batten(s)—lights, audio equipment, scenery, props, and people, plus the weight of the rigging system components themselves.

And then there are aesthetic considerations. The most important of these is hiding from the audience the means by which theatrical magic is made. It’s hard to maintain a willing suspension of disbelief if a curtain gets stuck, or a runaway load crashes to the stage floor, or a character flies in on a visible rope.

Selecting Rigging Rope

For a long time, rigging rope was nearly always made of hemp. Today, while hemp ropes still are common, there are many kinds of rope that can be used in theatrical and entertainment rigging systems. Rigging designers can choose the ropes that best suit the venue and meet the production’s technical and aesthetic criteria.

Fly systems must be able to support loads weighing as much as 90,000 pounds or even more—both static loads and loads in motion. Strength and durability are essential. So is abrasion resistance because of the friction created when ropes move through pulleys and winches. Flexibility makes it easier to tie knots in rigging ropes, but elasticity can result in undesirable stretching. A smooth finish makes gripping and manually manipulating lines easier on the hands.

Types of Rigging Rope

SEACO offers several types of rope appropriate for use as trick lines, tie lines, hand lines, vertical lifelines, and so on. Some are made from natural fibers, and others from synthetic materials. SEACO offers its rope products in a range of diameters, lengths, and colors. Here are a few examples from our catalog.

Sash cord is named for its use in windows but can serve many purposes. It’s the go-to rope product for tie-down use in the entertainment industry. It’s made of a premium high-grade cotton cover with a synthetic core for added strength and durability. Our Titanium Blutrace Sash Cord is economical yet boasts extreme break strength, abrasion resistance, and high-end shock absorption with minimal elongation. Titanium Blutrace™ has outstanding shape retention and is fully balanced and torque-free.

[Sash Cord]

Double Braid Polyester Rope comes with or without eyes on each end. It’s a high-tenacity polyester rope used when strength is required. High abrasion resistance and comfort make this synthetic rope, available in white and black, a favorite in the entertainment industry nationwide.

[Double Braid Polyester Rope]

Derby Multifilament Polypropylene Rope is soft, flexible, and lightweight. Highly resistant to rot, mildew, oil, and other abrasions, this multifilament polypropylene rope feels good on hands and knots easily. More economical than nylon and polyester, and more durable than natural fiber, derby rope has multiple uses in theatrical rigging.

[Derby Rope]

Ultrex 12-Strand–UHMWPE is a 12-strand single braid of Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene (UHMWPE) fiber enhanced with Yale’s Maxijacket High Performance coating, which provides superior abrasion resistance. Its braid angles and twist level of Ultrex are designed to optimize break strength and to keep low stretch, holding zero water absorption and maintaining flexibility. 

[UHMWPE Ultrex 12-Strand]

Static Repelling Kernmaster Rope is a static-repelling line constructed with a traditional “mantle” sleeve consisting of 48 strands of polyester. The inside, or “kern,” is a braided core of energy-absorbing nylon. The core is fully steam-stabilized to enhance the rope’s flexibility and prevent hardening in service. The braid also bends more easily with less core fatigue when cycled over sheaves or dropped over a parapet. We offer a variety of Static Repelling & Safety Ropes, including New England Rope & Teufelberger products.

[Static Repelling Kernmaster Rope Page 13]

Aramid Fire Rope is designed to withstand intense heat without burning. This synthetic rope offers exceptional strength, and riggers rely on it for protection.

[Aramid Fire Rope]

Trick Line, also known as “tie line,” is a cotton cord with a synthetic center and braided construction for added strength. Available in both black and white, as well as glazed and unglazed, this rope is typically used in the entertainment industry and in awning applications. Note: glazed trick line is intentionally a much stiffer cord than non-glazed trick line. Trick line is thin enough—only 1/8’’—to be virtually invisible to the audience while strong enough to hold and secure items.

[Trick Line]

Buy Rope in Theater and Entertainment with SEACO Today

As with any rope purchase, the most important thing is to match the purpose of the rope to the constraints of the venue and technical and aesthetic criteria. Leading rope maker SEACO Industries offers a broad selection of premium rope, twine, and cordage products. From sash cord to HMPE ropes, nylon to manila, mason line to safety rope, we offer a comprehensive choice of cordage goods with same-day dispatch from strategically placed warehouses across the United States and Canada.

Additionally, our products are sold in shops all throughout the nation. We are dedicated to building enduring relationships with our wholesaler and distributor clients by offering top-notch goods and top-notch customer support. Visit our large online inventory and get in touch with us right away for further details or to make a purchase. As well as ordering in bulk directly from us, you can also do so through our dealer network.

[See Our Catalog]