Stop Breaking Your Actors: Here’s How
Once again, social media has been bombarded with tales of St Kentigern College in the suburbs of Auckland and its horrific production of Sweeney Todd, Jr., where two students were severely injured by a real straight razor during the show. The rehash of the news is due to the publication of the New Zealand WorkSafe incident report on the April 2016 event.
For those in the United States, it’s worth noting that the word College doesn’t mean University outside of the United States. Saint Kentigern College is a private prep school, and the students performing in the production of Sweeney Todd are in years 12 and 13 (16-18 years old).
The WorkSafe report was quite revealing, intimating some gruesome details of the onstage injury, including:
- On opening night, two 16-year old students received lacerations to their necks that were over 3 inches long and roughly 1.5 inches deep, live in front of an audience. Staff members at the hospital reported that both the trachea and cartilage were visible through the wound.
- After the first student came offstage with a serious injury, crew expressed their concerns that the next student to be “killed” could be in danger, but the teachers didn’t receive word in time to prevent the students’ entrance and were scared to intervene once the boy was on stage.
- Almost incredulous to their gross negligence, the musical was not stopped and continued on to the end, even as an ambulance arrived to take the two boys to Auckland City Hospital.
- While rehearsals began in January, the razors did not arrive on set until March 31 – leaving students only six days to practice using the props.
Further investigation of the matter has revealed some truly telling aspects of this story:
- The prop supplier, who wishes to remain unnamed, told the teacher that it wasn’t normal practice to use real razors on stage, particularly in a school setting, and suggested to them that they use cardboard or rubber knives, not real ones. The prop supplier is on record as saying, “You could use a painted piece of wood or something like that, that’s what people do.” The teacher then obtained a real straight razor elsewhere.
- One of the four teachers behind the production “used his own initiative” in making the blades safe – covering them in duct tape, tin foil and clear tape, with the person telling investigators they knew they posed a risk so only allowed teachers or actors to use them. Four razors were recovered and later tested, with two cutting cleanly through paper and considered “sharp,” while the other two were not.
- Students were told that the blades had been dulled and were safe to use.
- The school district and the school’s administration were not made aware that real razors were being used in the show until the day after the incident.
- And, perhaps most astoundingly, WorkSafe discovered that the students wielding the razor blades were not instructed on how to do so, and believed that the blades were safe. When questioned by WorkSafe, the show’s director said that he had not given the student playing Sweeney Todd any specific directions around the action of slitting the throats. In a direct quote, the director, Dave Sheehan said, “This was not a discussion we ever had.”
While the topic is fresh on our minds, let’s ask the question that needs to be answered:
What does it take to prevent injuries like this from happening on any stage and, more specifically — on YOUR stage? Surely, you have no interest in being the next WorkSafe or OSHA investigation. Yet we constantly undermine our own success by allowing actions that are questionable or shortcuts simply because someone (a Technical Director, Director, Producer, Actor) suggests that we could. As the saying goes, just because you could, doesn’t mean that you should. Theatre companies (both amateur and professional) face constant pressure, but it can be easy to overlook what’s important.
The “show must go on” mentality can cause people to get carried away in a way that brings disaster right to your stage door, all in the name of producing affordable quality entertainment.
Gun Rules Rule
In 2004, I produced and directed the Las Vegas premiere of Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins, a show that is almost a gun-loving propmaster’s dream come true. Almost. Again, the issue is that you’re putting the guns into the hands of untrained actors and asking them to handle them competently. That’s asking a lot. Assassins involves eight firing and non-firing guns, multiple types of blanks, a hangman’s noose and even a Carcano rifle that fires on stage in the culmination of a story about those who have attempted to kill a president of the United States. Gun safety was paramount. And teaching actors to competently handle weapons on stage is a fantastic group experience.
These days, I have a large collection of firing replica weapons (aka blank guns). These are not real guns, modified for the stage. These are replicas manufactured specifically to fire a blank cartridge. They have the look of the gun and 1/10th the danger. They don’t even have barrels, that part is just a solid piece of metal. You will note that I called it 1/10th the danger — blank guns are still dangerous! I will hire my blank-firing guns out to theatre companies upon request, but only if a proper gun safety briefing is held by myself ahead of time. Why do I insist on teaching real gun safety to actors using blank-firing replicas? I care about their safety, and you should too.
There are only four rules of firing a gun. As Penn Jillette once pointed out on a Las Vegas stage, if everyone in the world obeyed these four rules, there would never be accidental gun deaths again:
- Treat every gun as if it is loaded. Always.
- Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
- Be sure of your target. Not only your target, but ahead of, behind, and to the sides of your target.
- Never point a gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
Without even demonstrating proper gun use, just introducing these rules to actors is eye-opening. Add to that a good demonstration of proper handling, checking the target area for safety, and where to point a gun when “pointing it at another performer” (hint: it’s not actually pointing at the performer), and your actors are on their way to a great, realistic and (most importantly) safe performance with bullets flying (or so it seems).
The Need for New Rules
Back to Sweeney Todd — or any show, for that matter — can we all agree that the safety of our performers and our crew members is paramount? It seems a simple question, but if you heard some of the crew war stories I come across, I can assure you that it isn’t a given. Let’s presume that you’re sane and you’re with me. SAFETY IS NUMBER ONE. We don’t mean that as a slogan to hang on the wall — we mean it.
I propose to you all the Four Rules of Theatre Safety – a play on those rules of gun safety. If every theatre, amateur or professional, would obey these four rules, there would never be accidental Sweeney Todd throat-slittings again.
Here are your new rules:
- Treat every safety decision as if it is a loaded gun, because really, it is, right? When you’re thinking about cutting that corner and using a real gun or real knife or real hand grenade, you are treating that “loaded gun” very poorly. Someone is going to get hurt. If you’re too naive to believe it can happen to you, may I suggest checking out this run-down of people who made the same poor decisions? Don’t let your show be added to this list of stage combat gone wrong.
- There is no safe handling of a dangerous object. This may seem like semantics, but there’s a deeper truth. There is only a safer or safest handling of a knife, blank-firing gun, harpoon, flamethrower, hammer, straight razor, a teenage girl, etc. “Here, hold this fire — safely.” It’s FIRE. You can handle it as safely as possible, and something could still go wrong (and they do). Keep in mind that no matter what method you undertake, there is still danger in play. Always.
- It’s called an “effect” for a reason. Audiences accept a replica Model T in Ragtime and the use of wires and winches when Peter Pan flies So why is it that we insist on realism for such dangerous things? Part of the fun of the performance is making something look like something it isn’t. And certainly, that realistic looking cardboard razor could still give a mean paper cut, but better than risking a slice to someone’s jugular vein. It’s called an effect because it looks like the real thing. It should almost never be the real thing.
- Train your team like you care about their safety because you do, remember? Insist that your cast and crew members are trained in the proper transport, preparation, storage, handling, and usage of any prop or stage effect that has any possibility of affecting the safety of your cast and crew. If this is above your ability, raise your hand and ask for help. There are plenty of people in your community that can advise the safe use of almost anything you can think of — and most will gladly do so upon request. If you’re asking your cast member to take risks, ask yourself if you would want to take those risks and respond accordingly until you are certain that you would.
When I read the Sweeney Todd story, the first thing I see is that no one wanted to be accountable for what happened. Lots of excuses were strewn about; excuses like “he only got scraped during rehearsal” and “we wanted it to look real.”
Hey Mr Director — who cares what you want?! You have a company to protect and they are depending on you to make decisions that are in their best interest.
Remember when your parents asked if Jimmy jumped off a bridge, would you? Well, the reality is that everyone else is already jumping off the bridge. Everyone else is cutting corners — “we haven’t enough time to be safe, or enough money to be safe, or enough knowledge to be safe — and hey, that company or school around the corner did it this way, so surely it’s good enough for us, too!”
If we were accountable, we’d realize that the safety of our performers is more than just a catchphrase mentioned to parents after their kids are sent to the hospital. If we were accountable, we’d stop the show when students are injured, not continue bowling along for the sake of a die-hard adage in an educational environment, and certainly, if we were accountable, we’d become even safer by learning from the issues that others have faced.
But in the meantime…