Rigging Credentials With Eric Porter
October 2011 Issue 146
With an impressive 34 years in the concert and touring industry under his belt, rigging trainer, assessor & consultant Eric Frederick Porter knows a thing or two about live productions. Over three decades since his first major job on Queen’s 1978 News Of The World tour, Porter tells TPi about his career so far and why teaching his trade creates a true sense of achievement.
How did you start out in the industry and what was the catalyst for moving into this career choice?
I started at TFL Electrosound workshops, building flight cases and other one-off constructions. I was happy to be workshop-based because I was playing in three different bands. However, one by one the bands fell apart. A call came for a second carpenter on the Queen Tour, for more money than warehouse work, so I took it. Halfway through the tour I bumped into Nick Pitts in Europe, who was recruiting for the iconic ELO Spaceship tour in the USA. I then had two big tours under my belt and momentum took over.
How long have you been a professional rigger?
During the Elton John Tour of 1979, where I was still doing stage-carpenter work, I would go in early with the Tour Rigger (Mike Wiesman of Huntsville Alabama) and help with the mark-out, gradually learning about ground rigging for the ‘up guys’. Mike was my first rigging tutor, and really took the trouble to teach well. My first paid work as a rigger actually in charge of something was a Richie Blackmore gig in 1980 Gothenburg.
What are some of the most memorable events that you’ve worked on?
Diana Ross’s 1981 concerts that had ‘you had to be there’ quality, many of Elton John’s shows and Freddie Mercury also really had an astonishing ability to get a huge crowd in the palm of his hand. Plus large Awards Shows – MTV, The Brits, and Eurovision etc always throw up big challenges for Rigging Chiefs.
What have been the most challenging to date?
The very first REM concert in the Cardiff Millennium Stadium put me in a very difficult position between all the major players. It would be wrong to go into the details, but anyone involved in it should remember some of the circumstances. I felt pleased with myself afterwards as I acted properly throughout, but there were many tensions for me in a pinch-point situation. Fortunately it was a great concert, which made it easier to forget all the hurdles I had to clear.
What made you decide to teach your trade to others and offer your knowledge on a wider level?
Having started teaching in the late nineties (and not being very good at it to begin with), it has grown to be something that gives me great satisfaction. There is a good feeling when you see light bulbs going on above peoples’ heads. During a two-day course, there is a limit to what one can convey; but if I can convey understanding, I’ve really achieved something. The modern instant availability of immeasurable amounts of information is all very well, but without understanding, it is bald factual stuff. With understanding you can take information, choose to practice techniques, learn new skills and turn that two-day training period into a springboard for something much bigger.
You’ve been a consultant to some of the most prestigious rigging companies in the UK, what expertise can you offer established companies rather than young individuals?
The major rigging companies all have such good resources (or access to them if not in-house) that I have little to offer, except for my services as a Crew Chief for parts of large high-profile productions where they need a mixture of rigging savvy, production management, and hierarchical diplomacy, but don’t want to employ three different folks for the job. My computer skills are modest. However, I have a wealth of experience in structures, and the big picture of how productions go together (or not).
You’ve recently conducted training courses as part of the new Backstage Academy initiative to bring practical education into the work place of the live events industry, what specific skills will people develop from attending your class?
• Work at height awareness – correct harness and lanyard usage – interpretation of WaH Regs for specific rigging tasks – fall-protection hierarchies – rescue planning – practical use of PFPS.
• History of work legislation – HaSaW 1974 through Management regs (Risk Assessment & Method Statements, RIDDOR), etc – Work Equipment Regs PUWER, LOLER – Work at Height Regs 2005.
• Knots & ropes, Basket & Choke techniques, Climbing & Rigging Chain-hoists, Hoist types & usage, Assembly & slinging of truss structures, practical assembly of bridles.
• Simple science of lifting (theory), Truss design & theory, Angled loads, Analysis of loads to structures, correct use of lifting components, factors of safety, differing standards within EU.
• De-rigging & packing of equipment... And a whole lot of anecdotal stories illustrating principles or problems encountered in rigging.
• Comprehensive course notes are provided for follow-up study.
• What I aim to deliver most of all is understanding, on the basis that there has never been such instant availability of information as there is now; but information alone without understanding can lead to bad choices.
You have been involved in the certification programme for riggers since the very beginning. How do you respond to those that question the need to prove they can do what they’ve already been doing for years?
The National Rigging Certificate has set out some basic levels of rigging knowledge and practical competence, understanding and use of fall-protection systems, awareness of relevant safety legislation and how responsibility and liability are viewed by legislators, insurers and the judiciary. It has been developed by the rigging industry, not by outsiders, in conjunction with PLASA who have subsidised the set-up process generously.
It continues to run via three assessment centres that have all needed investment from companies who have not seen a return on that investment for the four years that the scheme has been running. The cost for a rigger to go through the process of demonstrating competence is a fraction of that for CORGI registration, HGV & PSV licenses or any similar professional ticket. For four years the scheme has run with the generous support of the involved parties, and the prices will have to rise next year.
The NRC Card is now a recognised skills certificate in the eyes of Olympic Delivery Authority, National Arenas Association etc etc. Why do people have a problem with the industry setting up a Scheme of Competence for workers in Life-Critical operations? Why are so many people reluctant to be involved?
In my opinion, the ‘old-school’ riggers who hesitate to sign up are actually fearful of revealing just how much they don’t know. Let me say that I am very happy to work underneath these guys, because I know and trust their capabilities - but times have moved on.
The industry has grown enormously since the 1970’s. The modern environment of blame and responsibility-avoidance demands that we respond with a scheme that proves competence. In setting up the scheme, everyone involved in it learned a lot. People should not be scared to admit they need to learn some things. The NRC is not perfect. The alternatives are ghastly.
You used AC, Prolyte and the Back Stage / LS live facilities for your recent training course, what makes these ingredients the best combination to teach with?
The combination of resources offered by this team does make my job very much easier, and makes the trainee’s experience that much better. The classroom space and resources are second to none, future printing and collation of course notes is of a very high standard and BSA has Petzl and Yale PFPS for trainees. To be able to use the enormous LS-Live rehearsal studio for practical tuition is a huge benefit (although I do not have inexperienced people working at great heights). AC’s rigging division provides brand new rigging equipment and a range of safety/rescue equipment to supplement my own resources. Backstage Academy provide a brand new Prolyte truss structure, and importantly Marc Hendricks of Prolyte is frequently on hand to deliver an entire day on truss theory and use. This of course allows me to spend less time on trussing in my course, freeing up extra time for interactive debate and questions from students specific to their own experiences. This is a very good recipe that we will repeat in future. Backstage Academy is developing Foundation Degree Modules in Rigging with input from myself and others.
Is there a single tool you’ve used on almost every job – a piece of trusty equipment that you couldn’t work without?
There is no single piece I could name. Every time you get a decent new gadget, you wonder how you managed without it previously. Over the years this could be a Klein-tool (Haven or Chicago grip), a chain grab-hook, a Bee Bee (chain-pull / lift), a laser positioner, a disto-laser, a ratchet-pulley – nevertheless, it’s surprising what you can do with just a length of rope and the right knot.
For any younger readers looking at this issue of TPi, what advice would you take the opportunity to instill in them if they want to become a rigger for the production of live events?
Pay attention to how things are done and be keen to learn – always ask if unsure – but don’t believe everything you are told. Know your limits (physically and intellectually) – turn up and be ready at least 15 minutes before the call-time – as you do progress, and start to shoulder some responsibility, be ready to say no to powerful people; they’ll respect you for it in the long term even if you’re in an awkward position at the time. You are always in the front line when something goes wrong, even if you’ve done all your tasks properly; so you do have a responsibility if you see other departments doing questionable work below your own installation. Tact and diplomacy are valuable tools here, but sometimes you must be firm too.
Following various recent stage collapses, what do you personally believe is lacking from the formula to ensure structures are as safe as possible?
Almost invariably, disasters are a product of negligence or poor management. They seldom come from ignorance alone. If you build an outdoor structure the weather is your main challenge, but there will have been guidance prepared for how to cope with incoming storms – it should be followed. There will have been guidance on ballast and bracing. Weather may delay the actual build but was there enough allowance in the schedule to anticipate problems, or were you given only the amount of time needed to do the job in ideal conditions? If not, why not?
Would you like to see any new H&S regulations brought in?
Absolutely not; we struggle under a mountain of Regulations, Standards etc, which differ in each EU member, state, despite them all coming from the same EU directives. What is missing from higher authorities is intelligent enforcement of the existing controls, and what is missing within the industry is enough planning time to carry out complex builds safely. It’s no use just trotting out the same line that we are really good at quick response times. From top to bottom, there is never enough notice given.