"Office Space: The Flyman"

Office Space: The Flyman

At the Walnut Street Theater in Philadelphia, Tyler Shipley’s office space isn’t too far from the spotlight itself. Backstage, in what’s known as the hemp house, the 2011 Ursinus graduate— who simply goes by his last name—is the head flyman, which means he’s responsible for all of the “flying” scenery moving above actors’ heads during stage productions.

“I always wanted to be in theater in some aspect,” says Shipley, who earned his wings working on Ursinus productions before doing freelance production work and then working for a production company. His backstage résumé also includes haunted houses, rock and roll concerts, and television and movie sets, and he credits his International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE local 8) with the work.

Hemp houses get their name from the manila hemp once most commonly used to make the ropes that, along with pulleys and sandbags, are used to fly theatrical scenery in and out of scenes on stage. His job is quite literally a heavy lift—Shipley says one giant gate used during a recent production of Roald Dahl’s Matilda the Musical weighed about 600 pounds—and can sometimes take him high in the air.

“I worked on the NFL draft [held on Philadelphia’s Benjamin Franklin Parkway in 2017], building and climbing steel, 80 to 90 feet in the air above everyone else,” Shipley says. “I was most known for being a steel climber. I’ve gotten that reputation. I really enjoy that kind of work. I’m a climber, I’m a rigger, an audio-visual technician, a lighting technician, a carpenter, a grip. There are many, many descriptions for what I do.”

Shipley says he remembers the first time he walked backstage at Ursinus with the intent on working behind the scenes on productions. “Ursinus set me up with an advantage,” he says. “It gave me a much more diverse set of skills that I wouldn’t have had if I went somewhere else. Ursinus gave me that overarching experience and being a theater major set me up to diversify myself in the industry.”

Tyler Shipley