Caution: Actors Overhead

Tania Thompson
 | Jan 23, 2017

How Moby Dick Takes Flight

Isaac Schoepp

Rigging Designer Isaac Schoepp on the Segerstrom Stage set for Moby Dick.

Sailors were among some of the first stage crews in theatre, since they knew how to safely hoist and lower objects—in this case, moving scenery. A glance at the stage for Lookingglass Theatre Company’s adaptation of Moby Dick gives a hint of both backgrounds: it’s rigged with ropes, pulleys and other devices to help the actors sail—literally—and hang, twirl, swing, swoop and more aboard the ship, the Pequod. Rigging Designer Isaac Schoepp makes all that happen.

South Coast Repertory: What is rigging?

Isaac Schoepp: In nautical terms, there are two kinds of rigging: standing rigging and running rigging. Standing rigging refers to the stationary rigging that supports the masts and bowsprit (the pointy thing at the front of the ship). It isn’t supposed to move (think about the cables of a suspension bridge). Running rigging refers to the lines that allow you to hoist and lower sails and adjust their trim. It does move (think rope running through pulleys). In the industrial world, rigging generally refers to the suspension and movement of objects or people over head.

In the theatre world, we adopted rigging with all three of these flavors. In fact, sailors were some of the first stage crews in theatres because they knew how to safely hoist and lower objects; they were hired to move scenery. There’s an old superstition against whistling in the theatre that supposedly arose from the fact that sailors used different whistle calls to cue different sail evolutions on their ships; it was often easier to distinguish the pattern and pitches of whistles on the high seas than to discern words through gale-force winds. So at one time, the legend goes, if you whistled in a theatre, you might inadvertently have been telling a stagehand to lower a sandbag on top of your head!


Lookingglass Theatre Company's production of Moby Dick.

What kind of rigging did you design for Moby Dick?

The main structure of the set is actually mostly invisible to audience—it’s a large truss-grid that is suspended at a certain height over the stage and allows actors to enter and exit over the stage floor; think of it as our ‘standing rigging.’ It’s basically a stand-in for the architecture of Lookingglass Theatre’s space, for which this show was originally designed. Most of the show-specific apparatus is then rigged to this truss: the lanterns and sail cloths that fly up and down; the block-and-tackle systems that allow the whaleboats to move; the whale ribs that the actors climb; and ropes that mimic the running rigging of a ship. Virtually all of these lines are tied-off to pin rails, which are visible to the audience—and the cast and crew members operate the rigging in plain view. When you see an actor pulling on a rope, you see what that rope does elsewhere on stage. We also use a powered performer-flying winch to fly some of the actors in the show; these sorts of motorized winches are a standard feature of industrial rigging, which is another aspect of rigging that theatre has adopted.

How do you create​ and design rigging—and in particular, for Moby Dick?

As with all technical elements in a play, rigging is there to serve the story. My role as rigging designer is to be one of the bridges between the vision of the director or choreographer and the realized operational, physical reality of the show. In a show like Moby Dick, where the cast and crew are expected to perform with the rigging in plain sight, ​I want to have a grasp not only of how to rig things, but a sense of what can safely be learned: what is reliable, repeatable and safe. That being said, it's also fun to work with a team like David (Catlin, director) and Sylvia (Hernandez DiStasi, aerial choreographer) who are skilled in helping actors expand what they thought they were capable of doing. Rather than relying solely on technology and rigging and just making a life-sized, realistic whaleboat that actors sit in and pretend to row through water, our actors actually lift themselves and their “whaleboat” ​aloft and move through the air in a way that the boat rolls and floats reminiscent of being at sea. It’s not the only way to tell the story, but it’s a very compelling thing to see humans physically exerting themselves—or solving real problems, on stage—and it creates a very dynamic experience for the audience.

Where did the idea for the whale boats come from?

Originally, David, Sylvia, and Courtney (O’Neill, the scenic designer) played with an idea to use bosun’s chairs (common on tall ships) as simple seats that are suspended from the rigging and allow a seated person to hoist themselves up and down. Think about window washers on the outside of tall buildings who seem to be suspended from just some pieces of rope; they actually use modern versions of bosun’s chairs. For the chase sequence in the show, we wanted to have more than one actor suspended above the set. I knew that we had a couple plywood platforms that were used to support ladders on the Actors Gymnasium’s sprung floor. With some extra rope, I lashed together some makeshift “boats” between two bosun’s chairs and the whaleboats were born. These allow three actors to be suspended in a visually precarious situation—not unlike whalers out on the open ocean in small boats—and put nearly all of the control of the movement in the hands of the actors themselves. It gives the sense of struggle and also danger that’s present in that part of the narrative.


Raymond Fox, Micah Figueroa, Javen Ulambayer, Kareem Bandealy, Jamie Abelson and Anthony Fleming III in Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of Moby Dick.

How does your work rigging work dovetail into the aerial choreography?

Sylvia and I have worked together for several years. She’ll tell me what she’s thinking and sometimes it’s really simple and super easy. Sometimes, it’s something I’ve never seen before, so I answer her questions with more questions. We have a dialogue and look for solutions. Sylvia has an incredible amount of experience and also is not dead-set on only one way of doing things; she’s willing to give-and-take and to think creatively about how to achieve what she wants. In the end, my work involves making her vision possible in practical terms, such as actually rigging or building equipment, and iterating that until we land on the thing that works the best.

What’s challenging about your work?

Very often, the show I’m working on demands that we suspend or fly a person in the most inconvenient location in the building’s architecture. That can mean that the ceiling is lower than is ideal or the overhead beams are not in a direct line with the load or scenic elements have to exist in the same location. It is rarely as simple as, “Hang this aerial silk from the beam. Period.” The key is to a successful design is communication—early and often—with the other designers and the technical staff. The best experiences I’ve had—and the best work that I’ve done—always have resulted from collaboration, rather than competition.

What’s fun about your work?

Usually it’s the same thing that challenges me: figuring out how a performer can safely load through the middle of a bunch of lighting instruments and pipes, perform a beautiful aerial routine, and then safely disappear again is incredibly satisfying. Of course, it would be easier if there were enough room for everything to exist without bumping. But, bumps lead to creative problem-solving and often we end up with a more elegant, and even simpler, solution for a challenging design situation.

What do you love most about this production of Moby Dick, in general?

As strange as it may sound, I actually love sitting in tech for this show (final week before performances start). I really enjoy assembling all of the technical and creative elements, being in a new space, with a new crew, and learning and teaching the show each time. This production has been able to play in three venues so far and, in all three, the show has been shaped by its local setting. David Catlin is a genius and never rests on his laurels. He’s always looking for the best version of the show and that means something different each place it plays.


Kelley Abell, Javen Ulambayer, ​Cordelia Dewdney and Kasey Foster in Lookingglass Theatre Company’s production of Moby Dick.

What do you hope audiences will come away with after they see the show?

I think one of the clearest truths that is present in the show is the importance of community. Isolation is terrible for the soul. And, like Ahab, if you isolate yourself you lose not only the support of your community, but its counsel when you are on the verge of a dangerous decision.

What drew you to theatre, rigging and all things Moby Dick?

My interest in things of the circus started pretty early. As a young child, I spent time in Oregon, Washington and Nebraska. When my family lived in Nebraska, my father (who always had an interest in juggling and clowning) taught me and my siblings how to juggle. Long story short, my parents decided to drop everything (no pun intended!) and take their family on the road as a juggling troupe. My older sister, my two younger brothers and I spent several years touring the country and performing. That experience heavily influenced my decision to go into theatre in college.

A formative event for my general theatre aesthetic was the production of The Comedy of Errors put on by the Flying Karamazov Brothers, a juggling troupe, broadcast in the late ‘80s on the PBS series, “Live from Lincoln Center.” In addition to performing Shakespeare, the cast could juggle or perform acrobatics or play an instrument; many of them did all three. This was the first play I ever saw (either live or recorded) and it normalized for me the idea of marrying rich theatrical text with circus arts.

I got my general theatre and humanities degree from Valparaiso University and upon graduating, to satisfy an itch, I participated in a semester-long sailing program, Sea Education Association, based in Woods Hole, Mass. That isn’t far from Nantucket and New Bedford, where Moby Dick’s Ishmael begins his voyage.

What do you do for fun?

Honestly, I tend to lose myself in my work a bit more than I should! My wife periodically reminds me of the importance of work-life balance, but I like solving problems and it’s a bit of a compulsion. Oh, and I do enjoy reading a great deal.

Schoepp is an instructor at Actors Gymnasium in Chicago—which is a frequently collaborator with Lookingglas Theatre.

Learn more and buy tickets.

Top photo by Danielle Bliss. Production photos by Liz Lauren. © Lookingglass Theatre Company and Liz Lauren.