Accidental Lessons Learned On Stage

This past weekend the Saint Louis theatre community lost a good friend, gifted educator, and exceptional technician.  When initial reports labeled his death the result of a “freak accident,” many in the theatre community began imagining all the awful things that might have gone wrong backstage.  Though it does little to assuage the pain of losing a friend and colleague, and we send our deepest sympathy to the family he has left behind, there was some small consolation in the fact that our memories of him in the acting space will be untarnished.

In those moments before any details were available, while our collective imaginations were running amok, we could not help but reflect on how much we take for granted. The memorials on Facebook from past students and fellow technicians served in part as a reminder that, though the stage is a safe place for expression, the work that goes on behind the scenes can be anything but.

There are, of course, famous examples in both theatre and film of technical failures that turned into tragic accidents. Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark is generally near the top of the list, as is the prop misfire that killed Brandon Lee.  Occasionally Idina Menzel’s fall through a malfunctioning trap door will come up, though since she survived with only a broken rib it didn’t quite reach legendary status. The numerous actors that have died when hanging scenes go horribly awry also tend to come to mind, though many of these accidents seem obscured by urban legend status. Within the last month an up-and-coming theatre company in Minneapolis caused an enormous scandal when they cancelled an entire run due to unsafe acting conditions. (It has since been revealed that there were more issues at play than just horrible judgement about electricity and water, but that is a story in its own right.)

There are also the accidents that haunt around the back of every technician’s brain.  Most, thankfully, are examples of things that were almost tragic: problems that were corrected in the nick of time, or that resulted in a minor injury rather than a death.  A near amputation of a finger on an improperly-guarded table saw, or a short fall off a rickety scaffold will cause a flurry of first aid activity in the moment, but, to technicians, they generally end up as battle scars to be compared later over drinks and laughter. In fact, there are several Facebook groups that routinely post pictures of stupid mistakes and near misses for people to like and comment with similar stories.

While there is one less technician in Saint Louis to share stories with around a bonfire (one that, no doubt, would have been surrounded by magnificent sound and lighting effects) perhaps his memory will make us all pause to take one extra look at our rigging, or double check our C-Clamps and safety cables one extra time.  Maybe that one additional thought about the safety of our environment will be one less horror story.

Mark would’ve liked that.

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