Kinky Boots (2015) with book by Harvey Fierstein and music and lyrics by Cyndi Lauper produced by David Mirvish. Directed and choreographed by Jerry Mitchell. Cast: AJ Bridel, Graham Scott Fleming, Kyle Taylor Parker and members of the company. Production managed by Scot Whitham assisted by Erin Fitzgerald.
Health and Safety is both a right and a responsibility for artists working in live performance.
"You have the right to be protected - but you also have the responsibility to participate in making your workplace safe," says health and safety expert Janet Sellery.
A former stage manager, Sellery pioneered a health and safety program for the Stratford Festival before becoming a consultant. She says that while there are safety regulations that all engagers are obliged to follow, live performance is full of unique situations - like flying effects and rigging, use of a firearm, and working onstage with fog or pyrotechnics.
Here is a list of things you can do to stay safe on stage.
1. Ask what activities your role involves
"You need to find out what your specific role entails and understand what precautions have been put in place," says Sellery. This includes having unguarded edges, such as elevated platforms without a railing and orchestra pits, clearly marked with contrast- ing tape, glow tape or LEDs to help you move safely in low lighting, as well as backstage spotters or safety sensors to make sure you are out of the way before scenery is moved. "You need to be protected even if you make a mistake."
It even applies to understanding basic safety precautions like what to do when the fire alarm rings and knowing where to find the first aid kit.
"Always take the initiative to find out about the venue you are working in," says Sellery.
2. Tell your engager anything they need to know
It's also important to volunteer any personal information that might affect your health in the production - such as allergies and sensitivities. There could be nuts or dairy in a banquet scene, a costume made of wool, or scented laundry products used to wash your costumes.
Or maybe you have a previous injury that makes it difficult to lift something heavy, or kneel for a long time.
"Make sure the stage manager is aware in advance so they can anticipate the situation and find a solution," she says. "They can give you knee pads or make sure you don't have to kneel for two hours."
4. Speak up if you don't feel safe
The most important thing you can do is speak up if you have questions or don't feel safe. "Trust your spidey sense and follow your gut," says Sellery.
"Figure out who is your point of contact for safety concerns. It could be the stage manager, fight director, choreographer or Equity Deputy," says Sellery. "It's the job of these people to anticipate safety concerns - but no one knows how it will feel except you.
"If you feel unsafe in the moment you have to say - 'stop' - even if it is inconvenient. There will never be a better time to solve the problem than right then."
5. Support your fellow performers
It's often the case that younger performers are reluctant to speak out. "Seasoned performers can support inexperienced performers and make those conversations comfortable," says Sellery. "Make them feel it is okay to say - 'Hey, I noticed this. Does it bother you?'" Don't let the time pressures of the theatre deter you from feeling safe either.
"I love complicated shows - but the company must make sure to allow enough time and have the appropriate expertise and resources to make everyone safe," says Sellery. "Bottom line - if the company can't afford to do it safely, they can't afford to do it at all."
Sellery believes everyone wants to create a safe place where artists can do their best work. "They want you to concentrate on playing Hamlet, not worried about being clobbered on the head. But if you raise an issue and don't get a satisfactory response, talk it over with your Equity Deputy and contact your Business Representative," she says. "Recognize when a creative risk crosses the line and becomes a safety risk. Then make sure it's worked out before you try it."
De-stigmatizing asking about safety
Don Parman, performing arts advisor for B.C.'s Actsafe, agrees with the importance of speaking up.
Actsafe, a safety association for people working in the entertainment industry, sends Parman across
the province to visit theatre companies and venues to advise on safety issues. "A big part of what I do is de-stigmatize asking about safety," says Parman. "You should never be scared to ask a question."
Funded by a payroll levy applied to employers in B.C.'s live event, special event, film and television production industries, Actsafe is governed by both employer and worker representatives to help keep live performance and film and television artists and crew safe. [For Equity members, employers should be considered engagers and producers.]
The focus is on prevention, and Actsafe provides information and training on everything from fall protection training to firearm safety.
In Canada, workplace safety regulations are under provincial jurisdiction, so regulations vary across the country. Producers and engagers are obligated to follow the legislated health and safety regulations in their province, just like any employer, says Geoff Teoli, Actsafe's executive director.
Personal Safety Checklist
What activities does this role involve that could cause an injury or health issue? What precautions are being taken to protect me? What do I do if the fire alarm sounds or I need first aid?
What does the engager need to know about me to keep me healthy and safe?
What can I do to be ready for this role? Am I in physical condition to deliver what I need to do?
Who do I go to if I have a health or safety concern during this production?
How can I encourage my fellow performers to speak up and work together to find solutions?
The performing arts and motion picture industry in B.C. is large, so the province is fortunate to have distinct policies and guidelines developed specifically for it, says Teoli.
While Actsafe does not directly lobby the provincial government on issues, it does work with the government to explain why certain overarching legislation may be challenging for the entertainment industry.
"For example, the regulations for fall protection work well for typical hazards in the construction industry, but might be harder to apply to a performer flying across the stage in a custom built harness," he says. "This is where we can work with the regulator and industry to collaborate on developing policies, guidelines and variances that put things more in context."
Another aspect that makes the live performance industry different is the fact that one theatre or venue can be home to many different companies and used in completely different ways. For example - it could be a performance venue for a theatre production but also a dance studio and a rehearsal space.
So while the venue must have regulated requirements like washrooms and fire exits, it is up to the dance or theatre company to ensure it meets all the safety needs for its artists, like having a well-supported sprung dance floor.
The employer also needs to make sure it has all the required licences and a well functioning health and safety program to keep people safe. "They are required by law to ensure everyone has the orientation, training and supervision they need. Performers have a right to know what they are getting into," says Teoli.
While we often think of safety issues affecting performers, the stage crew is often put in the most precarious positions. Parman says the most common safety concern he hears about is working at heights, usually hanging and focusing lights. "If you take care of the crew, the safety precautions you put in place will also help keep the performers safe."
Actsafe's mandate is to help protect people working in the entertainment industry in B.C., but its resources are free to anyone to access. This valuable resource is one more tool for Equity members to use to stay safe.