Fly Wire

Katie Pontsler
Theater History

The Illusion of Flying: Fly Wires
By: Katie Pontsler

The Phantom of the Opera has been seen by innumerable people around the globe. Although the most noted for the music, the chandelier in the opening scene is dramatic and sets the tone for the entire play. The moment the chandelier crashes against the stage, the chaos is released and the pieces are glued together. This incredible sight is only possible due to the fly system. This system allows an illusion which is essential to many different plays in theater, performances, and movies. Not only can a fly system send people and objects up into the air, it also is important for hanging scenery, lighting, or other equipment. These items combined make beautiful displays and amazing sights to behold. Fly systems add an extra dimension to a show and a whole new world for playwrights and producers.

There are three types of fly systems: The hemp rigging system, the counterweight rigging system, and the automated rigging system. The hemp rigging system, also known as a manual or rope system, is the oldest and the simplest of the fly systems and was once very common in theater. In this system, a rope, which is attached to a clamp, holding the object is hoisted up by the hand line and is then tied down by sandbags. If the sandbag was too heavy, the Jack line was used to lift up the bag. Between the hand line and the jack line, the object could be balanced where needed. Although these systems are cheaper and easier to install than a counterweight system, they are more difficult to operate and are not generally the first choice of fly system.

The counterweight rigging system was developed in the first half of the 20th century and is the most popular system used today. The arbor (two horizontal steel plates, a top plate and bottom plate, tied together by two vertical steel connecting rods) is used to balance the batten, linear members that loads can be attached to for flying, and allows objects to be flown above a stage. Tracks are used to guide the wires and to travel around the theater. The arbor is controlled by an operating line, which is typically a rope. The weight of the arbor and counterweights matches the battens so it is motionless. “Some theaters, such as the Metropolitan Opera House, have more than 100 independent, parallel counter line set, while smaller venues may only have a few line sets for the most frequently adjusted loads, such as electrics.” (

The automated rigging system has electrical hoists to move objects when needed. They are motor-assisted, which is like a counterweight system, but has a drum winch mounted behind and pulls the steel line, and dead-haul, which work without a counterweight, automated systems. These systems are very different, but they all lead to the same result, which is an object being put in the air and not dropped on the ground.
The some objects lifted with the fly system are backdrops, people, carpets, chandeliers, lanterns, furniture, and almost anything you can imagine. It can be a little dangerous flying objects around, especially people. Safety contingency planning is essential for when having a performer fly. There must be a way to rescue them if the power is out, the equipment fails, a fire occurs, etc. In any of the cases, the performer would be stranded. This plan is to help rescue and avoid the risk of suspension trauma. It is rehearsed several times so the crew and performers know what to do and must include the scenario of the performer being injured or unconscious, not being able to assist. Without safety, nothing else matters.
Human Castle - Speculum - Barcelona, Spain

Fly systems are a major aspect to the spectacle of theater. Many great productions use fly systems such as The Wizard of Oz, Beauty and the Beast, Willy Wonka, Aladdin, and The Amazing Spiderman. Even shows for entertainment, such as Cirque du Soleil, use fly systems to create spectacular sights and unbelievable ideas. Most people don’t realize the use of the fly system unless it is people being flown in the air, though most productions today use the system for scenery and background. It is even used to lift up the curtains so people can be able to watch the play. Without fly systems, theater would not be the production that it is today.

Fly systems are essential to theater as we know it. There are many different types used and more often than not, people don’t realize they are being used. Fly systems may seem like a dangerous idea, but they are tested safe and the crew always has a safety plan in case of an emergency. Some productions involve flying people and objects around. They are a major aspect to theater and for entertainment performances. Fly systems add an extra dimension to a show and a whole new world for playwrights and producers.

Play Used: The Phantom of the Opera (picture) (picture) (picture)


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