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TWU’s Margo Jones Performance Hall adds curtain, set movement controls

Texas Woman’s University’s Margo Jones Performance Hall, a staple of the college for nearly a century, has firmly arrived in 2017.

The performance hall, on the first floor of the university’s Music Building, got some new technology.

And if it works the way installers intend, audiences probably won’t notice.

It’s about the curtain. Rather, the mechanism that lifts and lowers it. With the addition of a theater rigging system, the grand drape — the enormous, dark curtain that both rises and falls behind the stage’s apron — now will be regulated by a computer rather than the traditional counterweight system.

And any special effects, such as changing backgrounds — like the growing Christmas tree in the local production of The Nutcracker — or moving set pieces? Those are available at the touch of a button.

“This is cutting edge,” said Facilities Project Manager Tim Wentrcek. “This is going to take care of the university for a long time.”

The image that likely comes to mind when one thinks of the rigging system at a theater is that of large sandbags moving up and down in a counterweight system to drop the curtain at the conclusion of a performance, said Jerry Dawson, the manager of TWU performance facilities.

“[The counterweight system] really could be a safety hazard if you weren’t careful,” Dawson said. “The brakes on the old [fall arrest] system were giving out. But we expect this to last for a long time.”

In cartoons, the villain might drop a sandbag over the side of a ledge, and just before the hero jumps out of the way, it crashes through the floor. According to Perry Langenstein, representative of Live Pipe, a company owned by the manufacturer of the system, Hoffend and Sons, this is an image of the past.

“This new system has a failsafe,” he said. “If it were to fall, the brakes would engage automatically and stop the rotor. But it won’t break because it’s secured by two 3/16th of an inch wires at each crossing. It’s solid.”

In addition to initiating the installation a few weeks ago, Langenstein also oversaw the installation of the old rigging system more than 35 years ago. When asked how the technology for rigging systems, relatively unknown to those outside the industry, has progressed in the time since his last installation, Langenstein said it was more about what hasn’t changed than what has.

“Like pretty much everything else, it has been ‘computerized,’” he said. “You’ll find basically the same [system] at Margo Jones that are at NBA arenas. [It is] touch screen, easy to install, and safer than any other options out there. Batts AVL, the [company] that installed the system, did a solid job.”

Langenstein said his company’s mission statement could be divided into three parts: safety, efficiency and economics.

“Making sure no one gets hurt, making sure the system actually works and delivering it at an effective cost,” he said.

Dawson said he expects the new system to attract more performances in the years to come, “Not that the university was struggling before, though.

“We have The Nutcracker every year,” he said. “In years past, we’d have someone in the back trying to estimate how far down to let the curtain at certain points [in the performance], and it would take a lot of crisis [management] to get it right. This new system is quiet and automated.”

“It is accurate to within a millimeter,” Langenstein said. “And it’s repeatable — you can have it come back to that spot time and time again.”

“It has a preset function, so you can set where you want the system to come down to, and it will go there every time,” Dawson said. “Now bringing the curtain down happens with the touch of a button, rather than by hand where you can hear the applause start, stop and then start again.”

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