When Proctors needed a few people to "push boxes" back in 1989, Marty Petersen remembers, he was lucky enough to land a part-time gig.
The position became full-time in 1993, and ever since Petersen has been an important member of the stage crew. These days his role is a particularly vital one, especially when a national touring production with plenty of special effects comes to town, such as "Finding Neverland," opening Tuesday for a six-day run.
"I'm the flyman, the person that does the ropes overhead," said Petersen, a Schenectady native. "I do all the overhead lifting kind of thing."
Sometimes, if Peterson and his co-workers aren't alert, it can be dangerous.
"We have to maintain our safety practices and protocols," said Petersen. "When we're lifting many 1,500 pound items, or part of the crew, during scene changes, there's a lot going on. We can't just hope things are going to work. We have to be positive."
Petersen has faced and met successfully a lot of challenges in his more than two decades of work at Proctors. Here's just a few, including "Finding Neverland," which hadn't shown up in town yet when Petersen spoke to the Gazette.
There's a flying scene in 'Finding Neverland,' so that can turn into a complicated situation. You have to get the riggings and the extension points throughout the audience chamber in order to support Peter Pan flying out over the audience. Sometimes they have to drill holes in the Proctors' ceiling, in the dome, find a connection point above everything that they can attach to. Our standards for attachment points have to be capable of supporting 5,000 pounds if you're going to hang a person out there. Now a person is ever going to weigh 5,000 pounds, but they're moving body can impart a lot more kinetic energy to the system, so when you're falling, even if you only weigh 200 pounds, you can impart quite a few more pounds of force.
That was a large endeavor. There's a flying scene, at the end of Act 1, where the witch flies into the bubble in front of the audience. The actress has to get into the apparatus and if she doesn't buckle in it's not safe. You can't fly her. You have to make the call in a split second that she's not going to make it so there might be someone on stage saying, 'she's not going to make it,' so you have to go to plan B. The whole crew has to then change direction. "Wicked" has been here quite a few times now, and I've probably done that show at least 50 times myself. I've only seen it fail twice.
'The Phantom of the Opera'
For the original tour when it came through in 2005, the chandelier actually swung down from the center of the audience chamber to the edge of the stage, so it didn't come straight down, it kind of swooped forward about 20 or 30 feet, and there were stage hands that had to catch it like a tackle dummy. Just as the curtain is swooping shut and the chandelier comes down, they have to run out and get ready and throw themselves against the bumper and stop it from swinging through the curtain. If they did it right, they're not visible to the audience. You have to time it pretty well and be a sturdy person to withstand the impact.
In the recent tour, instead of having a horizontal component, it came straight down, which had the effect of terrifying the audience members sitting directly underneath it. People were very scared by the 1,500 pounds of glass coming straight at them, but it's never quite free fall. There's a cable system that lets it fall at 70 or 80 percent of acceleration, and that leads to a rapid transition from movement to not, but not a jerking stop because they don't want to put a strain on the system.
When 'Ghost' was here, one of the major elements of that show was a LED wall. They had a flying LED screen that had panels which would open up to allow actors to go through. The center portion of the square would go up stage and then split apart left and right. It was a pretty complicated and heavy machine, with electronic winches that moved it up and down. They set the depth of it wrong on the computer by an inch one time, letting it come in too far at full speed, so it didn't begin to stop until it had already made contact with the ground, at which point It started to tip over, a huge problem caused by wrong numbers on the computer. Sometimes flying it by hand isn't practical, but one of the reasons we do a lot of the scenery by hand is that you have a person in control at all times. If the system works within limits that's great, but if something fails, a machine breaks, or something goes wrong with the numbers, there's no failsafe to it, whereas if there's a person doing it you're OK.
'The Lion King'
The Pride Rock from "The Lion King" is like a giant car with remote control. It has grooves so you can move it across the stage and keep it guided, but the progress across the stage is done by someone with a remote control. Also, the stampede scene where Simba is in the gorge and all the wildebeests are charging down on him, that's a scroller piece that weighs about 1,500 pounds. It's a canvas sheet that run on rollers so it makes it look like the animals are moving over the ground. Certainly, for operating that show, we have a lot of different, specialized pieces that have to be moved in a certain way. And when the cue light comes on, that's your warning you're gonna be doing the move. The road person will tell you, 'OK you're moving the canyon,' or you're moving some piece, maybe Mufasa falls off the canyon wall, or something has to be moved in some direction, and he tells you how fast you should move it. 'Stand bye, here it comes,' the light blinks and you start pulling the rope, and then you have to stop it by hand.