'Iconic' is an often overused and sometimes devalued term but in Roy Bickel's case it is difficult to find a more fitting description. From the very beginnings of rigging becoming a recognised and identifiable industry, Roy has been one of the key proponents of the rigging community. His presence as our Keynote Speaker lends a certain gravitas to the opening of the 3rd Annual Rigging Conference.
A keen supporter of the professionalization of the rigging industry through the ETCP Certification programme, Roy has seen techniques, equipment and practices develop over the last fifty years and can pinpoint the moment when it all began: "In 1969, 'Disney on Parade' was the largest touring show at the time. Unlike the circus shows I had worked on for the previous six years, Disney couldn't change their ground plan at every venue as the complexities of the choreography of 120 performers would have been compromised. There were very few climbing riggers around back then so I put together a crew of circus performers and riggers and we became known as the 'Disney Riggers'. There were over 100 points using different lifting mechanisms and remember, this was all in the pre-chain hoist era. We climbed and hung almost all the points ourselves because like I said, there were few climbers at the time. After playing around the USA, I brought the first Disney tour to Europe in 1973 and played Wembley Pool - you will know it now as Wembley Arena - in London for a six day run. I still see that production as a blueprint for all the big arena spectacles that have followed since."
The early 1970's certainly saw the birth of the big arena and stadium shows that the public are now so used to. Innovations from pioneers like Roy have allowed such live events to become incrementally bigger, more spectacular and so, inevitably, more complex for the rigging crew. Has the development of materials and equipment over the last 50 years made rigging a safer industry to work in or has it simply allowed for more ambitious ideas to be executed? Roy is ambivalent in his reply, "I suppose you could say that, as a profession, we have managed to do both at the same time. There's no doubt that this is a far safer environment to work in now and, at the same time, some of the designs you see on paper that can be fully realised these days are quite breath-taking."
'People often assume that working on major projects such as the 1980 Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in New York State must rate as the most difficult in my CV but actually, I feel that it's the huge rock shows and massive corporate events that present us, as riggers, with the biggest challenge. Equipment weight and probably, more importantly, the tight time schedules on a touring rock show create a pretty pressured environment to work in. Very little else can happen until the points are in so you have this continual feeling that everyone is waiting for you - which they are of course! When I rigged at Lake Placid I was on site for six months in total so the whole job can be approached in a more measured and timely fashion."
Working across such a broad canvas of events must have given Roy a very particular insight into what can be judged as rigging's most important developments over the years, "If I had to pick three things that have advanced rigging since my Disney days, I would have to go for chain hoists first, then deck or STAC chain - the special theatrical alloy chain makes it so much easier and safer to hit points within an inch. The third choice is GACFLEX because of the wire rope core that is an automatic safety - catching a load in the event of webbing sheath failure."
Roy's choices reveal the advances in safety being high on his agenda and he, like the rest of the rigging fraternity, is all too aware that, in rigging, safety has to remain the paramount priority: "To a degree, as an industry, we have learnt through our mistakes. Certainly the tragic events at recent outdoor ground supported shows are accidents that we must learn from. However, equally important is the continuous development of skills based training and professional recognition of standardised working practices.'
'This is a great profession to be part of; making it safer, more professional and more standardised doesn't make it less exciting. I have every intention of continuing doing convention and corporate work for as long as I'm healthy and fit enough to do it. At my advanced years, I am often asked if I still get a buzz from the job. I only have one answer: ABSOF-N-LUTELY!"
Roy Bickel will open the 3rd Annual Rigging Conference at the Earls Court Conference Centre in London on Monday 10 September 2012.