Think of stage rigging and you're likely to think of Bill Sapsis. Known familiarly as Uncle Bill, Sapsis is the president of Sapsis Rigging, Inc., a company based in Lands-downe, PA, that specializes in the manufacture, installation, rental, and safety inspection of stage rigging systems. Recent projects include the moving of two 200 million year old dinosaurs for the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia, PA., and the renovation of myriad theatres around the country, including the Greenville High School in Maine, the Grand Theatre in Carter, GA, the Masters School in Dobbs Ferry, NY, and the University of Central Florida. The company has opened a new office in St. Louis to better serve the Midwest. Sapsis himself is active in ESTA's rigging standards efforts and teaches rigging safety seminars around the country. The production arm of his company produces fashion shows for Victoria's Secret. He was recently elected, with Rocky Paulson and Baer Long, to co-chair ESTA's Rigging Certification Group. Ellen Lampert-Gréaux recently spoke to Uncle Bill about the rigging industry, his career in it, and the upcoming cross-country fundraiser he's organizing for next year's USITT.
Ellen Lampert-Gréaux: What led you to the rigging business?
Bill Sapsis: I got started in the theatre business by dating a girl in the theatre department at Temple University. I don't know what happened to the girl but I only lasted two years in college. I quit and went freelance around the country for about ten years. By 1981, I had worked at so many different jobs in so many different places that I knew two things: rigging was fun; and I didn't want to work for someone else.
ELG: When did you start Sapsis Rigging?
BS: In 1981, on a Friday the 13th, and in the middle of a recession. The only direction to go was up, so to speak.
ELG: On a day to day basis what do you do? you personally?
BS: When my son was in kindergarten, he was asked that question. He said I talk on the phone all day. That's not a complete picture, but it's relatively accurate. I spend most of my day-to-day time in the office running the business. I do manage to get out in the field a fair amount running seminars and conducting inspections. I have other people who also do inspections, but I get to do the ones I think are fun or are in cool places.
ELG: What size staff do you have?
BS: There is a staff of 10, with a full-time bookkeeper, a receptionist and an IT person. Mike Sapsis is my operations manager. I have an inspection team, CAD person, shipping clerk and shop folks. I rely pretty heavily on freelance labor, especially in the busy seasons.
ELG: Is most of your work in the Philadelphia area? East Coast? National? International?
BS: Our installation, inspection and seminar work ranges all over the country, but not too much in the Philadelphia area. We get overseas occasionally, maybe two to three times a year. Right now we have a project in Quito, Ecuador. I'm off to South Africa in November for some seminars.
ELG: How has the rigging business changed over the years?
BS: The ‘business’ end of things hasn't changed much. The economy has caused a certain amount of tightening up, lately, but for the most part it's the same players out there.
ELG: Have the techniques changed? What about the technology?
BS: In basic stage rigging it's the materials that have changed. There's more aluminum and UHMW plastic in systems. Where the technology has changed is in the motorized systems. There are more chain hoists in theatrical applications and much more sophisticated control systems. The movements we can create onstage these days were almost unthinkable 10 years ago.
ELG: What is the ESTA standards committee working on?
BS: The rigging standards committee has a number of projects in the works: wire rope ladders, manual and powered rigging, boom bases, truss. Some are out for public revue and some are still in development. We're a very prolific group.
ELG: What are the most important issues facing the rigging industry today?
BS: Safety, safety, safety. Did I mention safety? This past summer has shown how vulnerable our industry can be. As the rigging systems get larger and more complex, the skills and knowledge needed to run these systems must keep pace. More training and certification are two ways to address this issue.
ELG: What is the most fun you've ever had on a job?
BS: Boy, that's a tough one. One would have to be working at the White House. What a very cool place. The other was a production of Peter Pan I did in 1975. It was a volunteer project put together by a student at the University of Pennsylvania. No money, of course, and I didn't know who Peter Foy was at the time. The space was a large classroom, and flying was done by tying ropes to scaffolding and putting foot loops in the bottoms. When Wendy or the boys wanted to fly, they put their feet in the loops and swung. Peter Pan was special and had a tire swing. We performed for underprivileged kids on a few weekends. They ate it up. It left a mark on me.
ELG: And the most challenging job?
BS: The Palladium nightclub in New York City. It's gone now, but it was something back in the mid-80s. Just getting the equipment into the building was a challenge. Clearances were minuscule. It sometimes felt like we were building the pyramids. I had about 15 tons of gear that moved all night long. The video walls could raise and lower, turn on their vertical axis and do somersaults. There was nothing like it in those days.
ELG: What about the cross-country motorcycle ride you are organizing from North Carolina to California? What gave you the idea?
BS: I was looking for something new for my booth at USITT in Long Beach in 2004. I wanted something that would be fun and, frankly, not too expensive. In talking with my friend Greg Williams we came up with the idea of getting a group together and riding out. We'd put the bikes in the booth and I'd charge a small ‘parking’ fee. Then Eric MacAfee from J R. Clancy suggested doing it as a fund raiser. Once we heard that, the deal was done.
ELG: Who will it benefit?
BS: The primary recipient will be Broad-way Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. These people do a tremendous job of raising money and awareness, and we wanted to do our part. We would also like to give some money to the Tech Olympics that they run at USITT each year.
ELG: How did the group of riders get together?
BS: It started with Greg Williams, Alice Neff, and myself at last year's USITT conference. Michael Banvard, who heads up my St. Louis office, was working my booth. He had just gotten a new bike and came on board as well. Moe Conn and Wayne Rasmussen were recruited from the Stagecraft Mailing List. Cris Dopher and Pat Barnes picked up on it by word of mouth and joined in a bit later.
ELG : What makes it all interesting for you?
BS : Every day is different; a new challenge. It might be something as small as figuring out how to hang banners on a flag pole or as large as a 150-hoist show at the Armory to having people dance down the outside of a building for a fashion show. It's sometimes crazy, but it's never boring.
THREE THINGS YOU MIGHT NOT KNOW ABOUT BILL SAPSIS:
- He listens to classical music and loves to ski.
- He has an identical twin brother, Mike.
- His email signature includes the quote, “Unexpected invitations to travel are dancing lessons from heaven,” by Kurt Vonnegut.