Just down the road from me, Playmakers Rep is doing Enemy of the People. The costume shop needed to age one of their suits, but they didn’t want to ruin it for future use. So they turned to Schmere, which makes a line of products that stain and distress fabrics, but disappear when you wash or dry clean them. I bet you can find uses for this for soft goods and fabric props, or you can just tell your costume shop manager for some brownie points.
This week (October 6-October 12, 2013) is Fire Prevention Week. It is a good time to remind ourselves to check that we are following all the proper fire prevention procedures, whether we work in theatre, an independent shop, or at home.
Fires happen. We should not pretend that they are a thing of the past, or that our laws and technology protect us. Every year, Patrick Hudson of OffstageJobs.com reminds us how many fires (that we hear of) happen in the entertainment industry; in 2012, there were at least 14. His posts do a good job of reminding us what the proper procedures are. And in case you think they can’t happen to you, he reminds us that the Iroquois Theatre thought the same (go read those articles now; I’ll wait). Despite its boast of being “fireproof” in a city with one of the strictest fire codes in the world, it caught fire in 1903 and killed 602 people. This was not the result of some grand failure, but rather a whole lot of little things that could have been avoided: exit doors were unmarked or blocked, lighting fixtures were in the path of the fire curtain, the scenery was not adequately flame-proofed, etc. Most of these were violations of existing fire code, rather than the lack of knowledge of how to prevent fires.
So while props people are typically not in charge of maintaining many of these things, as a member of the production team, we can still monitor them. If management or producers are pushing for unsafe practices (like covering the exit signs, or disabling the fire curtain), we can stand with the rest of the technicians so they do not need to fight the battle alone. We can keep our props out of stairwells and maintain clear egress paths through our storage areas. If we have prop fire extinguishers, keep them labelled well and far away from real fire extinguishers. Leave flammables in the flammables cabinet. If you are not aware of all the regulations and procedures to follow, Fire Prevention Week is a good time to brush up.
And if you work in your rental home or apartment (and even if you don’t), get renter’s insurance. My wife and I lived through a fire that destroyed our whole apartment building. It’s traumatizing enough without having to worry about all your stuff and where you’re going to live. You may not think you have enough stuff to make it worthwhile, but the value of all your little odds and ends adds up quick. Renter’s insurance is much more than just replacing your stuff; ours also sent movers to salvage and clean what they could while housing us in a temporary apartment. I only had to miss one day of work, which was important because I was freelancing at the time, and paid hourly. Anyone in the building without insurance had to scramble to find a place to sleep that same day, as well as take time off work to haul all their belongings out before they were damaged further or looted.
So take this week to double-check that you are doing all you can to prevent fires and are prepared to deal with one should it occur, both at work and at home. You’ll be glad you did.
The following article originally appeared in “The New York Times” in 1885.
How nature is imitated on the stage.
An old stage manager imparts some instruction—how to counterfeit the change from day to night.
“Nothing,” said an old stage manager, “is more easy to produce on the stage than a moonlight scene, and nothing is ore effective after it is produced. The work begins, of course, with the painting of the scene. The artist has to take into consideration the fact that moonlight must be represented with a different light from the brilliant yellow glare of gaslight which is used for day effects. The great mass of color in a moonlight scene is laid in by the artist in cold grays and greens. The grays must have no warmth in them, nothing of a purplish tinge, for moonlight is cold and hard. The greens are low-toned combinations, chiefly of burnt umber and Prussian blue. The half lights in the painting are put in with the lighter tones of this green, while the high lights are toned up with white tinted with emerald green. Sometimes when a metallic glitter is needed on some point a bit of green foil paper is stuck on. Now such a scene as this, as you can easily see, would look very sombre and unpleasant in strong gaslight.”
“What do they do with it?”
“They put artificial moonlight on it.”
“Well, suppose the scene to be a woody glade with a large opening in the trees showing a distant landscape. The drop scene at the rear of all is painted to represent the sky and landscape. In front of the drop, about three feet away, a low piece of what is known as profile work runs across the stage. This is painted to represent rocks, grass, &c., and is called a ground piece. Behind it and hidden from the audience runs across the stage a row of green ‘mediums.’ These are argand burners with green chimneys. Of course, they throw a soft greenish light upon the lower part of the scene. Another row runs across in front of the upper part of the drop, and is ‘masked in’ from the audience by a sky border. To this light is added that of a calcium thrown through a green glass upon the stage from the flies. And there you have your moonlight effects.”
Here are some whimsical tales to tickle your funny bone on this Friday.
When Macready opened in “Lear” at the Nottingham Theatre the “property man” received his plot for the play in the unsual manner, a map being required among the many articles–(map highly necessary for Lear to divide his Kingdom.) The property-man, being illiterate, read mop for map. At night the tragedy commences; Macready, in full stage on his throne, calls for his map; a supernumerary “noble,” kneeling, presents the aged King a white curly mop. The astounded actor rushed off the stage, dragging the unfortunate nobleman and his mop with him, actors and audience wild with delight.
-The New York Times. February 6, 1881
Imagine King Lear being handed a mop! Priceless! This next chestnut is quite a gem as well.
The other night the critical scene in “Iris,” in which Oscar Asche “breaks up housekeeping,” was almost spoiled by a property man. To avenge a fancied wrong the man glued down the vases on the mantle which Mr. Asche breaks first. When that trying scene came Mr. Asche turned Iris into the streets as usual, and turned to the vases. With a sweep of his hand he struck them. They were so firmly glued, however, that only the tops were broken by the blow–and Mr. Asche’s hand incidentally bruised. A property man is now looking for a new job.
-The New York Times. November 2, 1902
Oh that wacky property man! This final anecdote takes place at one of the first theatres I worked at professionally.
Another story which has to do with edibles on the stage used to be told by Joseph Jefferson, who described the incident as happening in the early days of the Walnut Street Theatre in Philadelphia. “Camille” was the piece that was being played and all was going beautifully. Then came a scene between Camille and Armand, in the course of which a a servant was to enter with lights. “In those days,” said Mr. Jefferson, “Sea Island cotton was stage ice cream, just as molasses and water was stage wine.”
Armand and Camille were seated at the table and the crowded house was rapturuously following their scene. Then in came the maidservant with the wobbliest sort of a candelabrum, but the scene was so tense that nobody seemed to notice her. However, as she set down her burden between the lovers one of the candles toppled over and set fire to the ice cream. That was more than the audience could stand and the curtain was rung down.
-The New York Times. June 5, 1910
Sounds like that show was “on fire” that night! I hope these quirky little tales leave you smiling for the weekend.
On March 25, 1911, 146 workers perished in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire, one of the deadliest industrial accidents in US history. One hundred years later to the day, and only three blocks over, me and my fellow coworkers at the Public Theater found ourselves evacuating our building during a fire alarm.
I’m not sure whether this was a fire drill, an alarm tripped because of construction or an actual fire situation. Whatever the reason, it stood as a good reminder of the necessity for fire drills as part of any theatre’s fire safety plan. The next time the alarm’ go off, everyone who was part of this evacuation will remember what to do and respond more quickly. As long as these drills happen regularly, enough people will know what to do and be able to guide any new employees and visiting artists to safety.
The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire was such a horrible accident due to gross negligence and mistreatment of the workers on the part of the owners. I try not to inject politics into this blog, but the following statement is more fact than opinion: unions have had a large part in improving workplace safety for all workers, both union and non, so that such incidents are less likely to happen today. Nancy Goldstein does a good job of summarizing the lessons learned from the Triangle Factory fire.
This is not an article about unions though; it is about fire safety. Fire drills such as the one we experienced are just one part of a complete fire safety plan in a theatre.
Some directors and producers seem downright offended when they feel they must compromise their production to facilitate fire regulations. “Why can’t we cover these exit signs?” “Why can’t we place this scenery in front of these doors?” “Why can’t these doors remain propped open?”
Yes, it may seem silly to have to follow all these often inconvenient regulations even though the building is not currently on fire. That’s the point; you can’t suddenly uncover the exit signs, clear the paths and tell your employees where to go once a fire starts. It’s like skydiving; for the majority of the trip, you’ll be fine without a parachute. But if you don’t wear one on the way out the plane, that last little bit at the end is going to hurt a lot.
The reporters at Backstage Jobs have already done a fine job of covering theatre fire safety in the past few months. Last December was the anniversary of one of the worst theatre fires in American history; the Iroquois Theatre fire in Chicago claimed 602 lives. In “Lest we forget…“, Patrick Hudson writes:
Some exit doors were covered by drapes; some opened inward; some were “decorative” and not actually exits; some opened onto incomplete fire escapes (patrons fell or jumped to their deaths on the brick paved alley below, piling up to the point where their bodies created enough of a cushion to allow others to survive the fall) some were simply locked…
[W]hen stagehands and performers opened the stage door to escape, fresh air was supplied to the fire, which flashed over into the house (as there was no fire curtain to stop it, or open loft to chimney it) toward the open exit doors at the top of the balcony. Those that were not killed outright (some decapitated by the force) understandably panicked and joined in the push for the doors. Many were crushed or trampled, most were then killed by the smoke and fumes. When firefighters entered the theatre, an estimated 15 minutes after the fire had started, bodies of those who died at some of the exits were piled seven deep. Over 200 of those killed were young children. In some cases, entire families were killed.
What is particularly striking in all of these examples is how the disregard of fire safety rules and practices is the key factor. Hudson writes, “While some new laws were enacted in the aftermath, most of the problems were the result of violations of the existing laws.” You can say “new buildings are safer than old ones” or “we have better laws now” or “we’re smarter than people back then” or any number of commonly-heard excuses, but they do not hold up to the reality of the situation. The Iroquois Theater fire happened in a building that was brand new. Many of the factors which amplified the fire were due not to lack of knowledge or old technology, but by the fact that the current rules, regulations and technology were not being used. In other words, the fire could have been kept under control or even avoided even with the weaker laws and technology of the time.
I hope you read all of this and take it to heart. The next time a director asks you to cover an exit sign, imagine telling a parent whose child was decapitated and burned alive that it was worth it because the lighting looked so much better.
Making and finding props for theatre, film, and hobbies