Shining light on stage safety

Shining a light on stage safety

BY PAT WHITE AND ANITA MARTIN MANDERFIELD

IF YOU'RE LIKE many high school technical directors, you may be charged with instructing and supervising nearly every technical aspect of a production. Perhaps you’ve had to quickly learn — and teach — the basics of theatrical lighting design and direction. You’re a theatre education pro and, therefore, a quick study and jack-of-all-trades. You’ve got this. However, in the flurry of designs, checklists, rehearsals, and cues, be sure never to overlook matters of lighting safety.

As Alan Rowe, a technical safety education professional at the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, a labor union representing more than 130,000 technicians and artisans in the entertainment industry, points out, “Lighting is about more than pulling cable and focusing instruments. It is not just about great-looking scenes or special effects. Theatrical lighting teaches science, formulas, and math. Like any theatrical enterprise, it promotes teamwork, creativity, and responsibility.”

“I have been lighting since I was 16, and back then I wish I had a better sense of my mortality. I was very cavalier with getting the job done,” Rowe says. “Actually, almost all of us can be cavalier when it comes to electricity, because we use it every day.” For example, he points out that people sometimes underestimate the risks of electrical fires and take shortcuts, trying to bypass safety equipment to make things work. He emphasizes that lighting, however, also involves electricity and fire risks, hanging heavy instruments over the heads of audience members (as well as actors and crews), and sending students and colleagues high up on ladders and grids. In this field, he argues, proper safety is the most important job skill to model and teach.

Rowe suggests having students join your walkthrough of the theatre space and storage areas to examine the general condition of the equipment. Figure out what each individual piece does, what works, and what can be fixed. Read the manufacturer’s guides — usually available online. Discard questionable equipment and buy more. If you have little to no lighting budget, just use what’s safe and functional to maximum advantage and encourage creative problem-solving. It’s better to have very modest lighting and show your students that their safety is more important than taking risks, he says.

In addition to chairing the IATSE safety committee, Rowe is the safety and training director for Local 728. He previously worked extensively as a gaffer, programmer, lighting designer, master electrician, and production manager. Now he serves as a national trainer and speaker on issues related to lighting and electrical safety for theatre, film, and television productions. He also co-chairs the Entertainment Technician Certification Program’s Electrical Certifications and sits on the National Electrical Code Panel 15.

The following pages illustrate some lighting safety essentials that, according to Rowe, every lighting supervisor should know.


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Read more Teaching Theatre.