Putting a Face on Theatre
It’s that time of year again for many that are school teachers – school is back in session soon. For a fortunate few, this may include moving into a new or renovated performance facility. Oh yeah. It’s like Christmas. New Toys.
There is a cautionary tale to tell here – and it has to do with facilities truly being ‘finished’ or ‘complete’. Just because the building has been ‘signed-off’ or accepted for use by the School District doesn’t necessarily mean it is safe. You would think so, but you may well be [dead] wrong if you do. Why is this?
Well, to start with, your facility was built by committee, and each member of that committee had an agenda, few of which that had anything to do with theatre or safety. Hopefully, the Architect would have included a Theatre Consultant in his design team, and [again] hopefully, that person or company would be on the look-out for design elements that were not in the best interest of theatre operations or safety. More often than not, this isn’t the case.
So you may have a building that is certified for occupancy and brand new, but it still may be dangerous. Exposed sharp metal edges, low hanging beams, pipes, or air ducts along catwalks, improperly grounded stage lighting equipment, open ladder wells, improperly guarded railings, and inadequate illumination are but a few of the items I frequently see in brand-new buildings. LOOK CAREFULLY. ASSUME NOTHING.
Out with the old, in with the new . . .
The other part of new facilities that one should be cautious about is what legacy items we bring with us. This is a multifaceted issue:
Rigging: If you are upgrading from no rigging to any rigging at all, then there is a HUGE learning curve for both the instructors and the students. If you are upgrading tofrom counterweighted rigging to motorized rigging, then safety procedures need to be updated and reviewed. New tools, new maintenance requirements, new safety in operations requirements, and new hazards to recognize are all part of the mix. Has the Maintenance Department scheduled your NFPA required checks for the Fire Curtain and Smoke Vent systems?
Lighting: In the new building look for unfinished electrical items like wires hanging out of junction boxes, boxes that were not covered, improperly installed connectors, missing light fixtures (things the contractor or electrical designer forgot to put in the building – there is no reason to work in the dark just because it’s a theatre), learning where the power disconnects and circuit breaker panels are, marking-off exclusion areas in front of electrical panels to remind people to not pile crapola there, and checking to see that power disconnects on stage (aka: company switches) have padlocks. Has the Maintenance Department scheduled your NFPA required checks for the emergency lighting system? Is the houselight control system configured to prevent black-outs?
From your old building, are you bringing in old ungrounded stage lighting instruments? Asbestos cables? Homemade light fixtures?
Sound System: How does the emergency announcement over-ride function work? Where are your standardized announcement scripts for Weather, Fire, Lockdown, Earthquake, and other emergency conditions?
Shops: Where is the emergency power cut-off? Where is the Emergency Eye Wash Station? Has the Maintenance Department scheduled your disposal and service for the dust control system? Where is your First-Aid Station? CPR Kit? AED? Is there clean and sanitary storage for PPE, particularly face and head-worn devices?
Fire Safety: Are you combustible goods stored separately from non-combustible goods? Where are your Fire Extinguishers, Fire Curtain Release Stations, and Sprinkler System Shut-off Valve? You will need new training for fire evacuation processes and rehearsals to ensure that doors are not being propped open or otherwise blocked. Where are your muster points? Are you bring-in old broken ladders?
Fall Protection: If you are moving to a facility with a higher stage apron or an orchestra pit (particularly if it has a lift that drops down to a lower storage level), then a heightened awareness of the fall hazard at the front of the stage must be communicated to ANYONE that is or will be on the stage. Do you have a removable barricade to place along the front of the stage when it is not in use for shows and rehearsals? If you have balcony nose lighting positions, are there fall protection anchor points available to restrain workers?
Habits: Don’t bring bad habits with you. “The same way we’ve always done it” doesn’t hold-up well on the witness stand. Have you been ignoring NFPA requirements for applying fire retardants to scenery and costumes? Then there is no time like the present to start the process. Treat ‘em. Tag ‘em. Then use ‘em.
Crapola: Get rid of all the junk you don’t really need. More junk, more clutter, means less play space. More junk means more fuel. More junk means more smoke and toxic fumes if there is a fire. Pitch it out. Part of the process for theatre in schools is to learn how to create from scratch, not learn how to use someone-else’s old idea.
. . . . . . And don’t forget to enjoy the new place!