Strange and Unusual- Rigging for "Stranger Things" On Stage

February 13, 2024

UK – Unusual Rigging has dealt with a fair few strange and, well, unusual requests over the years. So, when Gary Beestone was brought on board as technical director for Netflix and Sonia Friedman Productions’ Stranger Things: The First Shadow, Unusual was the obvious choice for the production’s complex rigging.

“Bringing Stranger Things to the stage is incredibly ambitious and challenging,” explained Gary. “The Unusual team and I are old friends, having worked on some pretty major events and productions over the years. I knew they were really the only sensible choice for this show and so engaged them to design, engineer, fabricate and install all rigging including specialist custom rigging for the production.”

With the original story by the Duffer Brothers, Jack Thorne and Kate Trefry, this new production based on the Netflix Series, has been created by the Duffer Brothers, written by Kate Trefry, directed by Stephen Daldry and co-director Justin Martin, It has been brought to life by a multi-award-winning creative team who take theatrical storytelling and stagecraft to a whole new dimension, taking audiences right back to the beginning of the Stranger Things story, and may hold the key to the end.

Before the rigging work could commence, some temporary remedial works were needed to the venue first. Leading the project for Unusual, Jeremy Featherstone, senior design engineer commented: “We got into the Phoenix Theatre on the August bank holiday and had our work cut out from day one. If this show with all its tricky rigging requirements can fit into the Phoenix, it can fit in anywhere. To say that some pieces of rigging were kissing the grid is no exaggeration. There is a cluster of grid-works, fly floors on either side and a massive ground support structure, all within a few inches of each other.”

He continued: “The theatre’s structure is plenty strong enough for the show but the first thing we had to do was to alter the structure for the production – remove and replace parts of the bottom end of the flying system to get more travel on some pieces – after all, nothing ever comes in lighter than it should be.”

Even getting the equipment and kit into the Phoenix has its challenges. The access for loading in is via a back alley that also serves as a fire escape for a nearby nightclub, therefore nothing could be blocking access at night. Additionally, the two metre drop to stage level from entry level meant a heavy-duty runway beam was necessary to facilitate the load in. Unusual employed a team of eight riggers, working on site for seven weeks to get everything in place in time for the show’s previews just before Christmas.

Following these initial works, the team required a ten tonne lift to get everything in and built, with the kit going up on multiple chain hoists to get it all to within a metre of the grid. One of the major scenic elements that requires the Unusual touch is the front end of a ship. The vessel appears to come over the edge of the stage, before turning around and disappearing, never to be seen again.

It took ten counterweight sets, which the team then single purchased to ensure this impressive piece of scenery was perfectly balanced. The other significant item to be hung was the 3.5 tonne LED screen which sits at the back of the stage. Supplied by STS, the screen direct flies on a winch. To enable this to work, Unusual supplied the steel work, diverts and drops, thereby spreading the weight evenly across the grid.

Chief rigger Harrison Snelling said: “We actually had to take out a part of the grid and make a hatch before we could even get in to make these changes. Then after that was closed up, it was time to put the metal work back in place and put our own kit in. The screen is hung off three steel wire ropes, each three-quarter inch diameter.”

This epic amount of rigging was a tight squeeze for the Phoenix; the theatre is only eight metres from the proscenium wall to the back wall (for comparison, Theatre Royal Drury Lane in comparison comes in at 25m). But with a little Unusual magic and an inside out knowledge of the venue, everything fit snugly into place.

Gary said: “Unusual was key to solving the many challenges of fitting this complex show in the small stage space at the Phoenix. At concept and design stage Unusual’s designers and engineers were key to working out how to make the show work in the space. During the load-in we hit a number of challenges which need quick thinking and fabrication to overcome and the Unusual team was critical to getting the show working and open on time.”

He concluded: “I couldn’t have been more pleased to work with Unusual on this project from the initial conversations through until opening night it was an excellent working relationship and I’m incredibly grateful to Jeremy Featherstone, Harrison Snelling, Simon Stone and everyone at Unusual for all their support throughout.”

photo: Manuel Harlan