Tag Archives: accidents

Odds and Ends

For all of you hip people, I am on Twitter, @ericbhart. I share links about props and theatre, and sometimes say funny things.

In case you missed it, About.com had an article about the lack of recognition for theatrical props people, featuring some quotes from me, Eric. In a similar vein, BroadwayGirlNYC wrote this heartfelt appreciation for those who work behind the scenes of theatre after a stagehand died backstage of How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.

Here is an (unfortunately, very brief) look at how the California Shakespeare Theater releases all the blood in Titus Andronicus.

Speaking of bloody, here’s a newspaper article on Autonomous F/X, a California company that makes realistic body parts and corpses for medical dramas and police procedural on television.

This site is pretty self-explanatory: Table Saw Accidents. It takes a comprehensive look at the statistics of all reported saw injuries and explains why table saws can be dangerous. Not surprisingly, most table saw injuries occur making common cuts rather than attempting things out of the ordinary.

Recollections of Dirty Snow, 1916

The following little gem comes from Recollections of a Scene Painter, by E. T. Harvey, published in 1916:

Stage snow can now be bought by the barrel, and is made by cutting paper into small discs. In the old days it was quite a laborious task for the property man. He and his assistants would have to work for days with shears to get a supply, and it accordingly was carefully preserved. One night when the “Angel of Midnight” was being played, Barras, who watched everything pretty closely, told the property boy as he went up in the “flies” with the snow box, “to let it down in a perfect avalanche” when he gave the signal. The snowstorm in “Way Down East,” for instance, is done by pulling backward and forward a folded, perforated piece of cloth that sifts the snow down on the stage, and an electric fan dashes it mixed with coarse salt against the window pane and into the open door as “Hannah Moore” is driven out into the storm.

But in the days of fifty years ago the property boys usually just scattered it by the handful from up in the gridiron. When Barras gave the signal for the “avalanche,” Bill Sullivan, the property boy, took the hat box and turned it upside down, emptying the contents upon poor Captain Satan (Leffingwell) lying on his back on the stage, and Sallie St. Clair bending over him. In the box were nails, screws, and all the trash that had been swept up from time to time. Barras had several troubles during that engagement.

Recollections of a Scene Painter, by E. T. Harvey, pp 26-7. Princeton University, 1916.

Public Theater Fire Drill

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.

Employees of the Public Theater during a fire drill on March 25, 2011. Photograph by Jay Duckworth
Employees of the Public Theater during a fire drill on March 25, 2011. Photograph by Jay Duckworth

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.

Fire regulations do not stop fires from spreading. You need to implement these fire regulations and enforce them to actually have an effect. Hudson concludes his article with a list of basic fire safety equipment and procedures for theatres.

In a subsequent article, Backstage Jobs reminds us that “Fires happen in theatres. Really. Even now“. He shows a sampling of 14 theatres destroyed or damaged by fires in just the past 10 years. It is also just over a month since the eighth anniversary of the Station Fire in Rhode Island, in which one hundred people died because a small group of people chose to ignore basic fire regulations.

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.

Blank-Firing Guns

On October 2, 2010, David Birrell was appearing in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion at the Donmar Warehouse in London.  During a performance, one of the blank-firing guns used apparently had a problem, and Birell sustained an injury to his right eye. He may lose his sight in it. According to a spokeswoman for the theater, “It appears that during the duel scene in ‘Passion,’ David Birrell’s licensed replica stage gun misfired causing some debris to enter his eye.” Further sources claim it was actually an antique flintlock gun.

Accidents happen. Equipment malfunctions. Because blank-firing guns are so inherently dangerous, it is vital that even more attention is spent on following all the best practices of safety with them. I would go so far as to say that prop masters should not handle them: pyrotechnicians should handle the loading and handling of blank ammunition, experienced handlers should be in charge of selecting and maintaining the weapons, and skilled fight choreographs should block the scenes in which they are used. Of course, a prop master can also be a licensed pyrotechnician or be qualified to handle weapons (at the higher levels, many are); I am not saying being a prop master precludes one from using blank-firing guns, I am saying the title of “prop master” is not the sole prerequisite.

On April 15, 2010, Darrell D’Silva, an actor with the Royal Shakespeare Company was rehearsing a scene with a prop gun. He accidentally shot himself in the hand. It was during tech rehearsals for Antony and Cleopatra. He underwent surgery and returned to rehearsals with his arm in a sling. Apparently when it was handed to him, he thought it was unloaded. It took a big chunk off of his finger and blood spurted everywhere. Here is an incident where the accident came not from bad or malfunctioning equipment, but from bad communication. The actor was not told the gun was loaded, but more importantly, he disobeyed the cardinal rule of stage guns: treat every gun like it is a loaded weapon. An actor should never pull a trigger on a gun until the fight director commands him to.

November 15, 2008. Tucker Thayler, a 15 year old student at Desert Hills High School kills himself with a gun intended to be used as a sound effect for their production of Oklahoma. Apparently it was a real pistol with blanks. Apparently it was allowed as long as a parent was there to fire the gun. And I’m not sure how some schools still allow actual working firearms to be brought on campus. In most municipalities, you need a pyrotechnics license to fire blank ammunition for theatrical purposes; it is different than a standard gun license. After all, there are any number of firecracker and fireworks that average folk can use in their backyards legally in certain parts of the country, but once you want to fire them off inside a crowded theatre, the rules become much more stringent; the same is true of blank-firing guns.

Having a license means you have used blank ammunition before, the government trusts you to use blank ammunition in accordance with all safety standards and laws, and you are held liable for any accidents that may occur because of your negligence. If your area does not require licensing, you should still act as though it does and follow the same guidelines. Anyone handling or discharging blank ammunition should be familiar with it and know all the standard practices. Just because you can run out and buy it and “see what it does” does not mean that is in any way safe.

On March 31, 1993, Brandon Lee was filming a scene in The Crow. One of the thugs had a gun loaded with blanks to shoot at him. Because the blanks used were not correct and the gun was tampered with (stories are mixed), the gun had enough primer to push the cartridge out. Lee was hit in the abdomen and the bullet lodged in his spine. Several hours later, he died at the age of 28. A lot of the analysis of this tragedy points out that the thug should not have been aiming his gun directly at Lee. This goes back to the need for a qualified fight director; it’s not enough to know how to acquire and setup blank ammunition. Once also needs to know how to choreograph the scenes in a way to maximize safety.

On October 12, 1984, Jon-Eric Hexum was filming a scene in “Cover Up”, his first big role. He had a prop .44 Magnum loaded with blanks, and apparently was unaware that it could still expel paper wadding. Bored during a delayed scene, he began playing with his gun. It was loaded with 2 blanks and 3 empty cartridges. He held it to his head, quipped, “Let’s see if I’ve got one for me”, and pulled the trigger. The paper wadding hit hard enough to dislodge a quarter-size piece of his skull and push it into his brain. Six days later he was pronounced dead from the massive bleeding in his brain. This event is just screaming with its lack of safety protocols. Why was an actor left with a loaded pistol for such a long time when it was not needed? Why was he unaware that it was loaded, or that blank ammunition at point-blank range can be just as lethal? And whether it was loaded or not, he should not have pointed it at his head; he broke the cardinal rule where one treats every gun like it is a loaded weapon.

I, for one, find it absurd that one would want to put so many people in potential danger (by using blank-firing ammunition) for, essentially, a sound effect. I mean, do we drop stage weights from the grid to the stage where actors are because we like the sound it makes? Why is that ridiculous, but igniting gun powder is acceptable? Regardless of your beliefs, you will probably face the situation of dealing with blank-firing guns at some point in your career as a prop master. When one is faced with the situation of having to use them, all the appropriate safety precautions should be followed to the letter.