Story of a… Rigger

John Neal rises to the challenges of “one of the last professions that is physically and cerebrally demanding.”

An early love of heights. “When I was 5 or 6, I took a bunch of bedsheets and wrapped them like a parachute and jumped off a two-story house. I landed in the grass. There was a nail in the grass. Other than that, no injuries.”

He started as a carpenter. Neal became “a little nomadic” after high school, working in the entertainment industry. “In entertainment and theater, you can be a carpenter, a rigger or a lighting person. Carpentry was where I started.” Neal connected with a colleague who was a fellow rock climber. “He said, ‘If you enjoy [climbing], you should get into rigging.’ They gave me a rope and a harness and sent me out.”

The importance of safety checks. Riggers use ropes, pulleys and motors to move heavy equipment into place at construction sites and entertainment venues. They wear full-body harnesses and hard hats to work hundreds of feet in the air on beams or ropes. It’s important to have “people you work with double-check your gear. You can’t see the connections behind you. Complacency leads to accidents.”

Math matters. Neal describes rigging as extremely physically demanding and mentally challenging. Riggers must ensure that heavy loads are hung safely and weight is distributed properly. “You have to be good at math. It’s mostly geometry, some trigonometry and a little bit of algebra.”

Watch the hands. “We [communicate using] a combination of radio, hand signals and telepathy. When you work with someone long enough, you understand each other’s body language. If you’re 100 feet away, there’s a lot of noise. Radios can fail. So we rely mostly on hand signals.” When someone high up on a rope does jazz hands, “that means their hands are clear. So when you pull, you’re not going to pinch their hands.”

Barry White to the rescue. Sometimes Neal has to go up on ropes to rescue people in precarious situations. One rescue was at a high-profile location that required discretion to avoid attention from the hundreds of people nearby. Neal calmed the victim “with my best Barry White impression and executed the rescue with the public being none the wiser.”

No room for egos. Ego can lead a rigger to make foolish and potentially deadly decisions, Neal warns. “You’re not the most important person on the job site, but you should want to be the most responsible person on the job site.”

Life and death. “I’ve lost a few people I knew due to accidents. Safety becomes personal. I think most people in this industry have either [lost] a friend or they know someone who has passed. Ninety-nine percent of the time, it’s preventable.”

His favorite gig. Neal’s job has allowed him to travel the world. “My hands-down favorite gig is in the Keys at a small theater with Broadway shows and professional, good people. The Conch Republic is like another country without all the travel. I get to cook the fish I catch at home. I am a true Florida man at heart, after all.”

Categories: People