We've had an explosion of student-driven workshops over the past year at Purdue. It has been truly amazing to see so many young theatre artists exploring their craft, trying out new things, and generally being excited about our art, and I'm proud to say we've been fairly successful at making room for these projects that are not part of our main production season.

However, as one might imagine, these workshops create inevitable tensions; the greatest of these center around supervision, safety and security in workshop spaces. Consequently, I've spent a lot of time thinking about students "flying solo."

It's trite to say it, but when I was in school--when many of you were in school, too, I imagine--it was a different time. My instructors didn't think anything about putting a saw in my hand and saying, "go to it." Of course, I received some initial training on tools I was using, but the over-arching mentality was, "you only learn it by doing it." We climbed straight ladders without cages forty feet to loading galleries. We'd never heard of fall-arrest harnesses. We simply did our business--all of 18 years old--and had fun doing it.

It is a different time, however. I was listening to a recent NPR report about "grain walkers" or "silo walkers"--high school students hired to climb into silos and "walk down the corn" inside. Apparently, corn kernels get stuck together and stick to the sides of the silo; this corn needs to be scraped off the sides and pushed down to the bottom. Unfortunately, if someone's not careful, it's relatively easy to sink into the corn and get crushed to death. There are a greater number of deaths from this kind of work--deaths of teenagers--than you might imagine. And these are mostly because of bad training and improper use of safety equipment (if any is used at all).

Deaths from "walking down the corn" are horrible--as are any workplace deaths. But these kinds of incidents also have an impact on other industries: over time, OSHA regulations become more strict, oversight becomes tighter, lawsuits and litigation begin to loom more prominently. And so we find ourselves having to think about how safe is it to let a 20-year-old student use a table saw unsupervised (and recognize the collision of that question with the fact that I *routinely* used the table saw unsupervised at that age).

My teachers were correct: the only good way to learn to use the table saw is to use it. Students only become comfortable--and, frankly, safe--in a scene shop by working in a scene shop. And sometimes, the only route they have to doing so is through student-driven workshops. A student that I couldn't drag into the shop in their first year of school, could easily find themselves wanting to build scenery for this exciting workshop production of Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) they are working on during their senior year. So, for me, it's important to find a way to make sure they can follow that passion and become comfortable and safe in the shop.

But wanting to work in the shop--having passion--doesn't make you safe. It doesn't protect you from yourself, or from making dangerous mistakes with equipment that is, frankly, very dangerous. Sometimes I think we forget that you can, indeed, lose your hand on the bandsaw; you can go blind from the welder; you can cause serious damage to skin and lungs using some of the chemicals we use in the shop. So, obviously, there needs to be some training, some oversight, to keep students safe--to teach proper practices, to step in with timely advice and guidance.

To address this--to make our shops both more accessible and keep them "safe" at the same time--we're trying something new at Purdue: we're going to open the shop for a limited number of evening hours during the week. One of our graduate assistants in the shop will work in the evenings on the show currently in production with a work study student. (No one will be in the shop alone.) Students working on workshop productions can use these evening hours to work in the shop while there is someone with more experience available and "around." Students will still only be permitted to use tools on which they have been trained, and we'll be keeping a log indicating which students have been trained on what tools. While comprehensive training will be available through specific courses we teach, we are leaving room for some students to be trained on a more a la carte basis--trained on specific tools as they need them.

I don't expect this to be a silver bullet solution--it won't solve everything, and, of course, it will have ramifications on our regular season build process, some of which we won't discover until we're in the moment--but I think it's a good start.

How do you resolve the issue of providing a "safe space" for early-career technicians to fly solo? What happens at your school, university, training center?

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Comment by Joseph Donovan on April 19, 2013 at 7:05am

We do basically the same thing.  Our shop is open one day a week for extra hours.  Sometimes it is an evening shift (Monday this semester) sometimes it is a weekend day (Saturday 9-12 for example) depending on what my supervisor wants to work.  We also do not allow anyone to work alone or on tools they are not trained on.  I keep an excel spreadsheet "Training Matrix" of what students are trained on and print it as a poster size sheet and hang it on the wall so supervisors can check.  I re-print it after the beginning of the semester trainings are done.  

I find the biggest ramification is my volunteers.  Those that used to come work on my main stage shows are using the shop time to work on other projects.  My work study students, classes, etc that are the main builders for my show stay the same but those volunteers are not as consistent as they once were.  

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