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Why Studio Theaters Need Catwalks

By Robert Davis, ASTC
Robert Davis Inc.

The key to a successful working theater is access. Every department has a wide diversity of jobs to accomplish in a hurry all over the stage and house. Many of the jobs are on the ceiling.

Ladder Image

This photograph shows a large percentage of the staff and students of the drama department at West Chester University, in West Chester, Pennsylvania, providing their bodies as ballast for one person on an A-frame ladder, who is adjusting one light. This activity has no educational value, except to teach us that ladders are inadequate in studio theaters. The reason so much ballast is needed is that the ladder is set on a raked deck that has been built for a production that takes place in a small boat in the ocean during a storm. It's a rather nice set.

Soon after this photograph was taken the university installed a walking wire mesh grid in this studio theater. The wire mesh grid does not eliminate ladders, but it transfers most ladder work to the grid. The grid is vastly safer and vastly more convenient than the ladder.

We prefer catwalks in studio theaters. Catwalks allow equal access. Catwalks also allow scenery to be raised above the elevation of the lighting fixtures, which is highly desirable and is impossible with a wire mesh grid. We also prefer to avoid the colored ovals of light that appear on a wire mesh grid as light projects through the wires.

But whatever the preference -- grids or catwalks -- studio theaters require continuous access to the ceiling that ladders do not provide.

Catwalks and wire mesh grids cost about the same, which is about $40 per square foot of theater below, speaking in very rough terms. Some are much cheaper and some are much more expensive.

It is not necessary to imagine a situation as difficult as the one in the photograph to justify the need for catwalks. Every time the props have been set and the clock is ticking a catwalk would be justified. Imagine the nuisance of moving the tables, chairs, and perhaps quirky things -- like artificial snow that has just been artfully placed around the stage -- in order to set a ladder just to replace one crucial light bulb at half hour.


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