A Weekly DIGEST for teachers and staff who want to level-up support and funding for MANAGEMENT OF their SCHOOL theatre. 

Issue 37, 2023


Come backstage, and you'll see:

  • Techie Tip of the Week (editorial)
  • Leveling-Up (essential online courses)
  • Dear Techie (advice column)
  • Techie Travesties (funnies)

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Techie Tip of the Week


Part 7 of an 8-part series on the COUNTERWEIGHT SYSTEM, which will be posted every other week.

(Tip:  Even if you don’t have a counterweight system in your theatre, your vocational students will probably work with them in college or in the real world, so a ‘theory’ lesson is always a good idea!)

Most high schools these days have a counterweight system where the weight of the scenery or lights is counter-weighted with weights, which are moved by pulling on ropes.  As you have read if this is not done correctly this can cause a very unsafe condition.  For this reason some districts are persuaded by their insurance companies to install electric winch systems instead.  Electric winch systems allow the user to move the pipes with the scenery and lights on up and down with the push of a button.  They winch system is strong enough to hold huge amounts of weight, thereby eliminating the need to re-weight every time you add or take off another light or piece of scenery (although the winch can be “taught” what weight it is moving). More sophisticated systems come with a computer, whereby you can program “cues”. For instance, if you need to prep for a show, you enter a cue number and all of the legs and the cyc come down in place at once. If you are doing a scene change, you enter a cue number and three pieces of scenery fly out and two fly in. Presto change-o.

On the surface, this may sound far preferable in the high school theatre setting.  But I haven’t met a high school theatre technician yet who thinks so.  There are several negatives about an automated winch system.  They include:

To program in, and execute, a cue needs only one person.  In a high school setting where there are usually several students wanting to work backstage, this denies jobs to too many students.

Career and Technical Educational value is lost. The high school students haven’t been taught and therefore don’t learn about counterweighting protocol and rigging procedures and if they go on to work in another theatre – community, college or professional, most of which have counterweight systems - they could be put themselves and others in danger with a presumed level of training that they don’t have.

Most older winch systems have a button that you must actively hold down in order for the pipe to move, however because it’s so ‘simple’ to use, safety training is not adhered to.

In the newer winch systems with computers there is an auto stop built into the system, so that if a drape or pipe hits an object it automatically stops moving.  The trouble is, it has to hit the object first.  That object could be a student’s head.

Electric winches don’t know to stop when someone yells “Stop!”.   When a student is actively lowering a piece of scenery with a counterweighted rope system and a student on stage sees that it is about to hit something that was not meant to be there, the student on stage can yell “Stop!” and the student on the fly system can stop lowering the ropes in order to avoid an accident, or worse.  If a student pushes a button on the computer screen of an electric winch system that student knows that the system will do what it’s programmed to do. So even if that student has been trained to stand by the screen, they are not actively doing anything, or do not appear to be doing anything to other students.  If that student is distracted (say by another student – like that would happen!), when the student on stage yells “Stop!” the student operating the screen may not be able to get to the control in time to avert the disaster. 

One perceived positive feature about an automated winch system is the ability to create “cues”, where several pieces of scenery and/or drapery can fly in and/or out at the push of the button. However, consider a situation where a show is in progress and a crew member leaves a piece of scenery, say a desk, in the wrong place during the previous set change.  The next set change comes along.  The operator pushes the button and several pieces of scenery fly out while a some fly in.  Suddenly a crew member realizes that a wall that is flying in is going to hit the desk.  He yells “Stop!” over his headset to the winch operator.  The winch operator quickly pushes the stop button.  In a situation where a counterweight system is in use, the crew member flying in that particular wall can stop, while the remaining crew members can keep flying their set pieces and drapes.  The desk is moved, and that wall continues to fly in.  The audience notices nothing amiss.  The show goes on.  In the same scenario using an automated winch system, when the stop button is pushed all pieces of scenery stop flying in and out.  The whole set change is put at a halt.  This disrupts the flow of the play. A crew member manages to move the desk and the winch operator can continue the set change cue, but by this time the audience is now drawn into the situation and drawn away from the ‘magic’ of theatre. 

System failure.  One high school I’m associated with had a full winch system installed in their new theatre.  Within the first two years of its operation the computer system failed several times requiring service.  A well maintained counterweight system can last decades.

Again, even though the counterweight system may be perceived as more dangerous to an insurance company, I’ve never met a theatre technician who is in agreement with that perception.  Occasionally more convenient, perhaps.  But safer?  No.

The system I like the best is a combination, where the light pipes are on a winch system and the scenery pipes are on a counterweight system.  One theatre I worked in had a combination system like this and it seemed to work very well.  It allows the lighting technicians and student crew to move instruments around quickly without having to close the stage in order to re-weight every single time.  Also, during a show, it’s very rare that a light pipe has to be brought down to the stage deck.  Hanging scenery usually takes up the whole stage during the process regardless, and scenery is being moved in and out during the course of a show. So the counterweight system employs more students and, with a properly trained crew, is actually safer than a winch system. 

Again, a student crew member actively working the ropes on a counterweight system can see a hazard about to happen – say an actor walks under a piece of scenery that is being flown in – the student crew member operating a counterweight system would see the actor moving and stop the scenery before it hit the actor on the head.  A winch system would only stop itself once it sensed it had already hit something.

This editorial is the express opinion of Beth Rand, and is not intended for substitution for professional advice regarding your specific situation or circumstances.


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Dear Techie

Dear Techie,

My school is looking at taking an extra-curricular position of “play sponsor” and turning it into a “theatre program director” position. The county office has asked for a job description for the new title. We’re also wondering what to pay them?  Any thoughts?

Expanding in WV

Dear Expanding,

Sounds like you are looking for someone to act as a Producer for your productions?  This is a person who does all the ‘management’ of your Drama department productions (as opposed to a Theatre Manager, who manages ALL of the events that come into a theatre, but is not involved in any of them).

At one high school, where I worked as a Resident Lighting Designer, the Drama department had such a person.  She was a parent who happened to have a professional background in producing plays (we lucked out!).  We were extra lucky, because after her daughter graduated, she stayed on as producer for a few years after that.  

I would suggest using the job description of a Theatre Manager, and tweaking it so that it applies specifically to your productions.  If you contact me – through the PRESETT website form – I can send you a TM job description/duties list.  As for what to pay them, look at what the school pays your sports coaches each season.  For an editorial about “theatre coaches”, check out the PRESETT Resource Library at: 

Submit your Dear Techie questions to [email protected].  


Techie Travesties

You know you're a Techie when... are more concerned about the location of your crescent wrench than you are about your car keys.

Submit your Bad Theatre Joke or Funnies to [email protected].

And finally, always remember....

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Why the name Cue3Go?  Because often times (not always, of course) in a show, Cue 1 is house-to-half, Cue 2 is blackout, and Cue 3 is lights up!  We hope this newsletter will light you up each week with ideas and actions for managing your high school theatre.

It is PRESETT's mission to provide information to assist in endeavors for safe and functional operations of school theatres. However, PRESETT is not a safety consultant or professional, and any information provided or advocated is not intended to supplement, not supersede, industry safety training. Always consult a theatre safety specialist about your specific situation or circumstances.

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