Rapid Technical Advances Give Productions More Options Than Ever Before

Staging and portable platforms have been around since the invention of the wheel. In Hellenistic times, a raised stage was known as a “proskeniontogeion,” and was made of wood or stone. Today, it is typically constructed of extruded aluminum or steel with a composite or high-quality plywood deck.

As recently as 50 years ago, staging was built of steel ledgers and sheets of plywood. While the basic 4'×8' format has remained the same in the United States in modern times, the packaging, flexibility, and manageability of the product have improved tremendously, leading to today's strong and frequently lightweight staging systems.

It was not uncommon for a large staging system to be made of steel scaffold until the late 1980s. Progress in steel alloys, galvanization, steel trussing (a particularly suitable material for large roof structures), steel tower systems, and flexible “all-round” steel staging has allowed for more diversified structures based on simple standards.

Portable Solutions

In the middle market in the United States, labor costs and time restrictions in recent years have driven us to develop stronger structures and faster deployment systems that are made of lighter, more pliant materials. Also in that same middle market is the mobile stage — a product that has found a niche on certain types of productions.

The portable system typically consists of the following elements in stage construction:

  • The main stage, with a soft or hard border along the front, several access steps, and a ramp or handicap elevator.

  • The PA wings. These may stand alone, but the wings are usually enjoined to the stage. If the PA is a large system that is not flying from a grid (off the roof), it may hang off trussing supported between two towers, or even off a full ground-supported roof. Alternatively, the PA wing may support a large PA stack, as well as provide a space for the monitor mix position.

  • An out-front (FOH) sound-mix position comprised of risers or a fully covered platform, with a sunshade or rain roof. This often is set up later than the main stage, since the priority is to install the lighting and sound system as soon as the main stage is in position.

  • There may also be spot towers and video platforms, all with their unique requirements. Spot towers are high and must be stable so that the punter can't jog the operator's aim. (The towers often have barricades protecting them.) Camera platforms are even more critical, although they usually sit closer to the ground. One might position the operator on one platform and the camera on an adjoining platform, to ensure camera stability.

Solution Evolution

In order to facilitate the assembly of the main stage, many ingenious solutions have arisen. Velcro will often be inset into the state-of-the-art extruded aluminum frame of the staging deck for ease of deployment of duvetyn or hard borders. The platform will also have ‘T’ slots for attaching OSHA-approved handrails and receiver cups as an alternative method of mounting low-rise platforms. The decks will also include locating tongues to align all of them on the same plane with fast deployment locks to hold the decks uniformly and securely together.

The substructure, which formerly was constructed of steel ledgers, is now typically made from scissoring aluminum frames or stackable aluminum walls with built-in ladders, which will also double as climbing frames for high stages and spot towers. The legs may have built-in screw jacks or adjustable feet to accommodate differences in the floor leveling. The option of putting heavy-duty rolling and locking wheels on the stage will allow the structure to be built in the FOH position in the auditorium, while the lighting and sound systems are flown from the grid, and then rolled into position once these items are in the air.

PA wings, formerly built of steel ledgers, may now be made from massive, high-tech steel towers and trusses, or on a smaller scale, out of aluminum trusses and towers. These structures may or may not be part of an integral roofing system. Whatever the application, the foremost consideration of safety will dictate the engineering and ballast (concrete or water weights) requirements.

Mix positions will generally have the same staging decks as the main stage, and depending on height requirements, they may have pipe-leg feet or variations thereof. In a stadium situation, they may even have multiple levels with elevated spot operators and a barricade system all-around.

Mobile trailer stage systems have been around for several years, providing fast assembly and deployment of platforms, occasionally with roofs. The advantages of these systems are obvious, but so are the disadvantages: Although they are ideal for parking lots, fields, and stadiums, they don't work well in the average venue.

Electricity provided another step in theatrical effects by motorizing all the bells and whistles, including turntables, elevators, conveyors, etc. After this motorization of systems, digital control and fast assembly systems came along. A state-of-the-art turntable now takes 45 minutes to assemble and has rotating power hookups with options of rotating rings, for example. One caveat, though: These structures must be placed on a solid surface or stage.

Lifts come in all shapes and sizes, with many system choices, from hydraulic to pneumatic, chain drive, belt drive, and friction. The choices are virtually endless.

One thing is for sure, though — creativity knows no bounds, and if it can be imagined and drawn, then it is only a matter of time before it becomes a reality. Accordion roofs and stages, master grids with computerized sub grids, monster roof systems that look like giant vertical pillars, rolling stages that raise and lower, artistically beautiful sculptured stages, and feather-light systems that hold heavy vehicles are now all standard off-the-shelf products.

These examples are only a small sampling of the products and advances available today. Great thought and care has gone into every portable stage system on the market, and man's ingenuity ensures that we have many surprises still awaiting us.

Clive Forrester has worked in the industry for 28 years, starting as an electronic service engineer for Showlites, Ltd., in Europe in the 1970s, before working on major rock tours and other large events in the U.S. in both a technical production and sales capacity. In 1991, Forrester formed All Access Staging and Productions, along with partner Erik Eastland, formerly of Showstaging, Inc. All Access is currently one of the leading companies in the U.S. in staging and set rentals and sales. Email him at clivef@allaccessinc.com