On International Women’s Day, Access spoke to NEC Group senior rigger Lucy Gardner, one of just two female Level 3 riggers in the UK.

With almost 10 years’ experience working on some of the biggest shows at NEC’s Utilita Arena Birmingham and Resorts World Arena, Gardner has established herself as a key member of its in-house rigging team. She’s achieved this after joining the company in 2014 as a trainee rigger without any industry knowledge.

Gardner’s main responsibilities include placing kit into the roof of the arenas, providing drapes and truss for events and liaising with production teams to ensure requirements for each show are met. She also manages the arenas’ maintenance program each year by repairing hundreds of metres of drapes as well as testing equipment and handling compliance checks.

“We need to remove the stereotype that rigging is just about how strong you are or how many motor chains you can pull to the roof.”

 How did you become involved in rigging and what inspired you to take that career path?

 Ever since I was a child, I can remember being super hands-on and practical – never turning down an opportunity to get my hands dirty. Helping my dad around the house with certain DIY projects, for example, are some of the fondest memories I have. So it was in my nature as a young girl to ‘go against the grain’ and opt for a more practical line of work rather than any type of desk-based, 9-5 role. That’s what ultimately led me to become involved in rigging, but it wasn’t as straightforward as it sounds.

After studying theatre performance and event design at university, I landed my first full-time job at the Birmingham Rep doing scenic carpentry. After almost a years’ experience making all the pieces of staging and sets for the theatre, I managed to get a more exciting job at Alton Towers Resort. During my four-to-five-year stint there, working as a construction assistant in its entertainment department, I became part of the rescue team responsible for Skyride – Alton Towers’ cable car system – where I got involved in tasks such as rope access work. It was only from this point did I start to become more curious and think to myself ‘wait, what could I do with this experience?’ The lightbulb moment came to me one day as I was walking through the resort. In the corner of my eye I saw people who were up on the ropes doing something which looked interesting, so I asked, ‘what job is it you do?’, ‘rigging’ they replied. The rest, as they say, is history.

 Are you surprised that so few women are riggers?

The reality is that rigging isn’t going to be for everybody – male or female – as it’s a dirty job with unsociable hours. There’s a lack of female representation, no doubt about that, but I think the real challenge currently facing the industry is attracting new, young talent.

I was reasonably lucky in my quest to find a job opening thanks to the NEC Group’s live event rigging training programme. I say lucky because I, along with many others I know working across the industry, found it extremely difficult to find any career advice or information online – there’s just not enough awareness out there. Even today, searching for anything to do with live event rigging is tricky. So, if we’re to solve the acute staffing shortages and massive skills gap, the awareness piece is something that certainly needs to be addressed.

How challenging was the training and how supportive has the NEC Group been in supporting your career development?

As with any new job or career, there was a lot of information to take in and so much to learn during my training. Looking back, it was definitely a challenge, but also fun at the same time.

What’s key for any new starter or trainee rigger, in my opinion, is their attitude and willingness to learn and ask questions. If you’re able to demonstrate these qualities, more often than not you’ll get the help you need. In my experience, the NEC Group was extremely supportive, attentive, and offered plenty of knowledge and advice to help with my career development.

What aspect of your job do you most enjoy?

I love being a rigger for so many different reasons, but the ones which stand out to me include the flexibility of the job; being part of a dynamic team with a family culture; meeting new and old faces at all the different shows across our two arenas; and our competitive spirit to be the quickest arena team across the UK at load-ins and load-outs – something which never gets old.

As a woman, I also value working for a company with a wide range of benefits such as maternity leave, rather than working freelance which many people go on to do in our line of work.

Have there been any particularly challenging or rewarding moments or projects over the years?

I particularly love working on the big shows. For me, it’s all about the hard work we put in as a team pre-show to ensure the venue is staged and ready before watching the lights go down and the show come to life. At the NEC Group, it’s all about working together to create unforgettable live experiences for our customers, and it makes me proud to say I play a key role in that.

The more challenging, and certainly most recent moment we’ve had to contend with, is Covid-19. Thankfully, it’s now starting to feel reminiscent of pre-pandemic times with live events coming back on the calendar but returning to work after the long break – as you can imagine – was a real challenge. If that wasn’t enough, one of our first shows back at Utilita Arena Birmingham was three sold-out nights for Genesis’ massive UK tour.

What do you think needs to be done to inspire more woman to take on jobs like yours?

First and foremost, we need to remove the stereotype that rigging is just about how strong you are or how many motor chains you can pull to the roof. Guess what, the need for clear thinking and multi-tasking are just as important.

The industry needs to provide more information about rigging to ensure it’s perceived as an accessible, realistic and rewarding career, regardless of gender. If you asked 100 people on the street what a rigger was, for example, most wouldn’t have a clue. So, not only is it important to attract more female workers, but it’s also about doing more to support, champion and empower young people from all backgrounds into the sector.

Whilst the industry has a clear responsibility to attract a younger, more diverse workforce, I also think that young people themselves could be more strategic when considering their career path. After having reflected on my own journey, I believe that young people in education have the unique ability to steer themselves towards a particular craft. For example, if I was to have my time again and go through school and university, I would opt for more STEM-based subjects which provide a strong platform and skill foundation for a career in rigging. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, though.

Rather than relying on people to know someone in rigging or to move sideways from another role in the events industry – both common routes for people starting out as a rigger – the industry needs to lead from the front. Education is the answer – let’s shout from the ‘rooftop’ (excuse the pun!) about how great a career rigging can be.