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TBA Online: News & Features: June 2016

When Safety Comes Second

Tuesday, June 14, 2016   (0 Comments)
Posted by: Sal Mattos
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By Lily Janiak

2016 has not been a good year for theatre safety. In April, a New Zealand high school theatre department used a razor that was insufficiently dulled for a production of Sweeney Todd, resulting in moderate-to-severe neck cuts for two teen actors. (They were both hospitalized but discharged the next day.) This comes after an Italian actor got killed in a bungled hanging scene in January and a Japanese actor was killed by a prop sword at a rehearsal in February.

From bottom left: Allen McKelvey, Megan Trout, Madeleine H.D. Brown and Alexander Crowther in
Aurora Theatre Company's
Metamorphosis, directed by Mark Jackson. Photo: David Allen


While these are the stories that made headlines, ghastly but preventable accidents in theatre are common enough to be banal; almost every seasoned theatre artist can recount his, her or their share of horror stories. Interviewing local theatre artists and technicians for this article brought up tales of “a bouquet of knives” (an actual stage direction) which, though dulled, sliced deep into an actor’s hand; an entire cast suffering from mold exposure due to a scene with rain falling from the ceiling (the resin in the floor failed to absorb the water)—sending one asthmatic actor to the emergency room to get a shot of steroids to his lungs; and a director whose first instinct was to ask his cast to get tetanus shots rather than find them props free of rust. As an industry, it’s our duty to use these gruesome incidents to ask not only how props, sets, weapons and fights can be designed with more care, but also how a rehearsal room’s or theatre company’s culture, broadly speaking, can be conducive to unsafe conditions—and what specific steps we can take to change those cultures.

 Actor Carole Swann. Photo: Jeff Singer

In some companies’ cultures, danger is extreme and overt. Local actor Carole Swann, whose arm was broken by her scene partner during a rehearsal in 2011 (he was also the show’s director and that company’s artistic director), recognizes now that the dynamics of that company were “cultish”: “The atmosphere that he created,” Swann says, “was: ‘We are the special ones that are doing the real work.’ He obviously refused to use fight directors. I think his attitude about that was, ‘We’re above that sort of thing because we handle everything ourselves, and we do the real thing. I know better than anybody.’” (Just last week, Chicago Reader published a very thorough and sobering account of a similar power structure in that city’s Profiles Theatre.)

While that kind of cult of personality sounds easy to recognize and demonize, especially in retrospect, the practice of making regular and even dangerous sacrifices for the good of one’s team is hardly unique to fanatical theatre companies. One former Actors’ Equity Association stage manager who’s worked locally, regionally and on tour (whom I’ll call “Carly”) says that because “we all love theatre and it’s such a brotherhood and fraternity,” there’s a “shake it off” mentality that says, “‘We’re a small, scrappy show or company or theatre, and we’re all 100% in it for the art, and we’re all in it for each other, and we’re passionate about the work.’ That breeds such good relationships and thought and art and conversation,” she says, “but it also breeds blindness.” Things like safety “fly under the radar because they’re not relevant to the art of the show right now; they’re relevant to the effect on your body six months from now.”

 Actor and stage manager Marie Shell.
Photo: Angela Lang

However, theatre artists’ fear of reprisal for speaking out about unsafe conditions has a basis in reality—as evidenced by the fact that many of my interviewees wished to remain anonymous. As actors, says AEA actor and Dueling Arts International-certified fight director Carla Pantoja, “we’re told to say yes. We’re never told to say no—because there’s a dozen other people lined up behind us to take our job if we say no.” AEA member Marie Shell, who works as both actor and stage manager, concurs. “As actors we give up our power a little too easily,” she says. “We don’t want to ruffle feathers and make demands. Knowing that I have that side of myself as an actor, I know to look out for my actors. Sometimes the actor doesn’t even know how to articulate their needs.”

Of course, there’s a flip side, as AEA stage manager Kevin Johnson attests. “I'm deeply committed to safety and take every actor's concerns seriously,” he says, “but I also have witnessed actors (as well as producers) make unreasonable demands. So each situation needs to be evaluated carefully and fairly—not every objection is valid." (Johnson is the official AEA liaison for the Bay Area, but emphasized that everything he said in his interview reflected his own opinion, not Equity’s position.) This captures much of the disagreement about safety in theatre: a single objection could make you a courageous watchdog in one collaborator’s eyes but a diva in another’s. Absent a way to make us all share the same boundaries about what’s safe and what’s not, we must instead have open discussions about those boundaries. 

Director, playwright and actor Mark Jackson says it all starts with physical training—and with advocating for more and better physical training. (He wrote his own article about safety in theatre, which digs more into this topic, for Theatre Bay Area in 2011.) “In the American theatre, physical training is still quite a secondary concern,” he says. “It’s not nearly as extensive as it could be, and as it is in other acting training cultures.” Americans emphasize text and emotion, he says, to the extent that “there’s a habitual fear around unusual physical activity—meaning something more than walking, sitting, standing and maybe some running.” Jackson says, “If you’re a professional actor, and you’re scared of walking up a staircase, you should question your teachers and your conservatory training. [If] you’re scared to jump on a chair, you’re not going to be able to do much, physically, as an actor.”

While no one expects an actor to be expert in every possible kind of training, “there are some things that should be basic, and they’re not basic,” Jackson says, such as walking on a raked stage. Equity, in some of its agreements (including its LORT and BAT contracts), requires that whenever a company uses a raked stage whose incline is greater than a certain dimension, a “qualified instructor,” such as a physical therapist or sports therapist, must teach the cast “how to perform on the inclined playing surface in order to minimize the risk of injury.”

Carl Holvick and Carla Pantoja in San Francisco Shakespeare Festival’s 2015 production of Romeo and Juliet.
Photo: John Western

Pantoja has also witnessed this phenomenon in her work as a fight director. “I’ve had actors who’ve never held a weapon before,” she says. Investing in physical training and stage combat classes makes you both safer and more likely to be cast, she says: “The more tools you have, the better ability you have to get work. It’s just like anything else.”

It’s also important to be honest about what’s possible in a fight, due to advances in how fights are depicted in film. “Film is very pervasive,” says Pantoja. “It’s changed the way we look at fights. It’s changed the way we look at acting. I’ve had students ask me how to do x, y or z, and I’m like, ‘I can’t, because it’s all CGI. It’s magic.’” But it’s not just CGI that’s changed our expectations, Pantoja says; it’s also film’s ability to speed things up, to use extensive wire works to make people fly and to hire stunt people specifically trained to realize a certain kind of fight.

If theatre lacks some of the capabilities of film, it’s worth remembering that we go to the theatre to see different kinds of magic than when we see a movie. In theatre, Carly says, “I don’t need to see someone get stabbed. I’m going to theatre because movies won’t be able to do what theatre can do in terms of a non-naturalistic take on something. You can’t have a movie of The Wild Bride.” Johnson concurs. If the whole play comes down to one unsafe moment, he says, “then there are bigger issues with the play. The fate of a production should never hinge on one cool effect, and definitely not on somebody’s safety.” 

Of course, we’ve all seen lame stage fights. As Jackson puts it, “Sometimes you go to a show, and you’re watching safety, not a swordfight.” Yet if lameness can take you out of the moment, so can its opposite, as Swann says: When it’s evident that actors are out of control, “it takes you out of the story. You start worrying about whether the actor is unsafe.”

Pantoja says that most directors she works with “get it” regarding fight choreographers, that she doesn’t have to constantly make a case for her value when the directors themselves don’t have the training; rather, the biggest obstacle in her work is time. “More and more theatre companies are cutting rehearsal [time] down with a machete because of money,” she says. “It’s very common to go into an Equity house and almost have to be off book. When you’re looking at that small amount of time, that’s when everybody gets stressed out about having to teach somebody how to fight.” Even if it feels impossible to squeeze time in with a fight choreographer, she says, building it into the schedule from the beginning frames that coaching in a much more positive way. “That way it doesn’t feel like it’s taking time away from rehearsal process; it’s adding to it.”

The theatre artists I interviewed also offered other creative yet concrete practices for making the industry safer. Jackson’s 2011 production of Metamorphosis at Aurora Theatre Company featured a set with a steep staircase and very raked surfaces, so he called Alexander Crowther, who played man-turned-vermin Gregor, for rehearsal all the time—even for scenes when he didn’t have any lines. Jackson’s goal was to give Crowther as much time as possible to become at home on the unusual set, since he had to spend the bulk of the show crawling all over it. And Shell wishes that the producers would “initiate safety discussions with the entire company, and not leave that to the stage manager.” These discussions, she emphasizes, should not exist to frighten but to show how primary a concern safety is. Swann points out that she’s attended movement workshops “where the director of the workshop will say, ‘If you have any injuries, if there’s anything you don’t feel physically safe doing, then please don’t do it.’” “That’s certainly important,” Swann says, “but what I’d like to hear more often would be something along the lines of: ‘Please be aware of being physically safe with the people that you’re working with. Be conscious of how you’re moving and how it’s going to affect other people. Don’t assume someone else is going to have the same limitations or capabilities that you have.’”

Kate Mattson, who for years served as production manager at UC Berkeley’s Department of Theater, Dance and Performance Studies and who now stage manages for Joe Goode Performance Group, says that producers can do their part to cultivate trust by crafting policies and procedures in such a way that “invites people to have common sense” and “makes safety something [in which] they have a vested interest.” She remembers a production in which Cal actors handled rifles; Mattson had campus police train the students in how to handle the weapons. Because of that care, she says, “students felt taken seriously. We presented, without a lot of drama, how to handle a legitimately dangerous activity, and they took it seriously because they felt respected and included in the process.”

Everyone I spoke to also talked about the importance of cultivating trust. If, as an actor, you feel unsafe but are scared to speak up, Pantoja advises that you phrase your misgivings in terms of the trust you need to build with your scene partner. “Actors always want to protect our scene buddy onstage,” she says, so you could say something like: “If I accidentally hurt you, I don’t know if I would ever forgive myself. I don’t feel safe, and I want to keep you safe. I want to have good trust between us.” 

As a director, Jackson says, “you have to demonstrate that you’re trustworthy.” He likes to achieve this by first doing himself anything unusual that he’s going to ask his actors to do, provided it's in his skill set, so that it’s obvious he knows what he’s talking about. He adds that one should approach those conversations from an “atmosphere of practicality”—as in, How are we going to solve this interesting physical problem?—as opposed to an atmosphere of fear. Finally, he also says that it’s important to be candid when you don’t know the answer to a question about physicality, so that actors trust you at other times, when you do.

What’s really needed to make our industry safer, Carly says, “is a shift in the culture of ‘if it’s more safe, then it’s less real.’ That’s something we have an honest conversation about.” In theatre, famously, the show must go on—but, Carly says, “There also comes a point where your body must go on.”

Lily Janiak
is the theater critic for the San Francisco Chronicle.