Wednesday, 11 July 2001

Theatre Safety in Australia, July 11, 2001

Theatre Safety in Australia
By Kate Herbert
July 11, 2001

Accidents will happen anywhere, any time. Theatre may be all artifice but the accidents that happen on and off-stage are all too real. Julie Nihill cut her hand on broken crockery n a  Playbox show. Dan Spielman cut his had on a broken beer bottle just last week in KTTP 's The Share. Anni Davey fell from circus rigging during a Circus Oz show in Perth ten years ago and Heather Tetu circus performer broke both ankles at Jupiter casino some years ago.

there are candles cigarettes, electrical cables and lamps, pyrotechnics, guns, knives, high stages, scaffolding,  ladders, ropes, stage fights, choreography, acrobatics, concrete floors , unconventional venues, movable seating, stairs to climb, dark backstage space, furniture to negotiate, tricky props to manipulate, flammable costumes, and the list goes on and on and on...

Actors are dropped down trap doors (Ross Williams in Man the Balloon), work with knives (Julia Blake and Victoria Eagger in Salt Playbox) they climb up stacks of chairs (Julie Forsyth and Paul Blackman in the chairs MTC) or perform on very steeply raked stages wearing corsets and high heels (Trelawney of the wells MTC) or hang from harnesses above the stage (Margaret Mills in Angels in America)
No wonder the MTC has a consultant physiotherapist on call to advise on health and safety issues for actors.

If the actors do not do the warm up advised for them when working on a raked stage, then the production manager cannot control the damage to their backs, says Louise McRoberts.

The Melbourne Theatre Company has a rigorous safety procedures which were developed over the last few years by Ian Cooksley with Mc Roberts. it is clear that much of this material is now part of the new Safety Guidelines for the Entertainment Industry produced in draft plan by the MEAA (Media and Entertainment Arts Alliance).

Risk assessment, says McRoberts, is the first step in protecting actors against injury. When working in the Arts centre, when any hazardous activity is proposed the VCA requires a risk assessment.

When NYID performed in a city car park this year, an occupancy permit was requited. Jackson says that the City of Melbourne is particularly rigorous about safety unlike some other councils. "They require a detailed evacuation plan. They give a provisional permit until they check whether the plan complies with their regulations.

"We traded off on safety lights by providing five trained fire wardens for each show"

In theatre, there is says Production Manager of NYID, Paul Jackson, there can often be a split between the production workers and the creative team in relation to safety procedures. The creative workers may think the production people obstructionist when they raise safety issues. The production team may think the creative personnel don't know how to realise their vision.

Louise McRoberts, lecturer in production and stage management at VCA and former Stage Manager at Melbourne Theatre Company, says that the practical solutions need to be provided by the production manager in order to meet the needs of the director or other creative personnel.
In the draft plan, almost every contingency is covered although I could not find anything specifically related to use of glass on stage. McRoberts says that sugar glass can be obtained in Melbourne bout hat it is very expensive. Small companies on smaller budgets cannot afford to sue it. In A Little Night Music a sugar glass champagne glass was smashed every night.
Jackson says that budget is often the constraint for small companies. It compromises safety al the time.

Venues such as La Mama and the Carlton Courthouse are death traps, says Jackson. He believes that profit margins compromise safety.

"In the end the concern about safety has to be balanced by the fact hat very little does go wrong." " You cannot legislate on every possibility in the theatre because theatre is about pushing the boundaries. "  "We all have horror stories in the theatre but more accidents happen on building sites and that is the most heavily regulated industry."
"The most I can do is bring in a specialist," which is what he did with Front (Melbourne Workers Theatre) The scaffolding was signed off by a certified rigger. However, Jackson says, he checked every bolt himself every night of the season just to be sure.

Says Jackson, "The reality in the theater is time line versus budget versus creative drive."

Jackson believes that the major impact of the safety guidelines will be on the major organisations and venues. What we need is qualified production managers working in each company.

MEAA's representation of production workers in theater is appalling he says.

In Canada all production crew wear hard hats. The rules are different not only in different councils but in each state. Hopefully this plan will regulate to some degree the variables between companies, states and ...

By Kate Herbert

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