As a stage manager I try to be prepared for everything. You need a bandaid? I’ve got you covered. Hole in your costume? I have a needle and thread standing by. Blew a bulb mid show? I can change it after and try to cover using the magic sheet. But in the last year and a bit I discovered that there were some things I didn’t even know I wasn’t prepared for because they hadn’t crossed my mind.
In the face of an emergency the stage manager, FOH manager, and other members of the staff have to make snap judgements in the name of safety, all while adrenaline is pumping and sometimes there isn’t a clear road map.
During the tour of Ride the Cyclone I noticed a lot of footsteps in the upper lobby outside the booth. I heard rushing and whispering and thought I heard the word ambulance, so I sent a standby technician to find out what was going on. When the FOH manager got on comm to talk to me, she said,“Someone in the audience is sick. It’s up to you if you want to stop the show.”
In my mind I’m asking myself, “Okay, how sick is sick?” Because let’s face it, if it’s up to me I never want to stop the show. I needed more information. So I asked,”How sick is the patron? Can they make their way to the lobby?”
The response I got: “Well he’s having a seizure and vomiting. We’ve called an ambulance.”
I’m super official when I have a headset on.
That’s a different story than just plain sick. We need to stop. So on Comm I say, “We are going to have to stop the show. Can I please get the house lights up and God mic turned on? [ASM] can you clear the actors from the stage please?”And I’m not panicking, but I’ve never had to do this before. I’m breathing deeply and in my mind I’m thinking, “Okay, what did I learn about emergencies, ever? Not much. Don’t incite panic among the sick patron or the rest of the audience. Ok. Here it goes.”
I jump on the God mic: “Ladies and Gentlemen, we are experiencing some technical difficulties. The performance will resume in a few moments.” I know I’m lying. The people near the vomiting patron know I’m lying. The cast has no idea that I’m lying and are looking at me like I’m crazy. But the patron hasn’t been embarrassed and we’ve made it safe for the FOH team to do their job. By the time the fire department arrived to carry the elderly gentleman out of the theatre on a stretcher, everyone knew that it wasn’t technical difficulties that we had stopped for. The firemen left to applause. And moments later we resumed.
When I asked after the show about venue protocols I was told that there were none for instances such as these.
Fast forward a few months and I’m Front of House managing Theatre Passe Muraille for the Toronto Fringe when stormmaggedon hit- that infamous Toronto summer storm that flooded subway tunnels, stranded trains, drowned cars, and knocked out power to much of the city – including my venue. Thankfully we were not in the middle of the show, but rather the bows were in progress when the sudden darkness hit. Thankfully their emergency lights worked (I’m told some of the other venues did not have working emergency lights).
My volunteers, desperately trying to stay dry.
I had never been briefed on evacuating the building, and although the rain was pounding down outside, I had a recollection that evacuation was what I was supposed to do and so I took my flashlight and made the announcement, directing the patrons out into the rain. They weren’t happy with the turn of events, but when the festival production manager stopped by he reassured me that I’d done the right thing and helped me move the last few patrons out of the building.
Penelope had a flaming BBQ. It didn’t just need to be lit, it needed to start flaming from the base of the frame and it needed to spread up to the grill. We tested it many times and talked about out plans. I met with the FOH manager and we went over fire evacuation for the building just in case (and reiterated it nightly to the volunteer ushers). I spoke with the actors about keeping a safe proximity and stated that their personal safety was my highest concern, meaning that if something was wrong or even if I just perceived something to be wrong, I would not trigger the effect.
The flaming barbecue from Rumble Theatre’s production of Penelope
On the night of our preview, we approached the part of the show where the effect was supposed to occur, but during our routine “three people look at the BBQ and see if they notice any issues” check, we noticed two issues. We saw a knife on the grill, which had never ended up there before. And we saw something that looked a lot like a couple of potato chips on the initial flame surface. While I thought about what to do, my technicians got excited. They really wanted to set off the fire effect in front of the audience. One stood up and started waving. The other waved a sign. A cast member cleared the knife and seemed quite pleased with himself. But that was it: no one was clearing the chips. (I understand that chips seem like a little thing, but if a chip sends ash up to the smoke alarms, we’d definitely set them off as well as the sprinkler system and every conversation with all the PMs and TDs and fire marshalls and inspectors involved stated that the fire should not be triggered if anything was in the way). When the big moment came, I did not trigger the effect. Everyone was frustrated and some people were a little upset, but it was the safety call that needed to be made and I was glad that I’d been advised by so many smart people. Thankfully, opening night the fire went off without a hitch, and although it didn’t always work perfectly, I never again had to decide that we wouldn’t at least try to light it up.
Emergencies happen. They don’t happen every production, but they happen far more frequently than anyone wants to admit. Every emergency will have a unique set of circumstances and snap judgements to be made, but having a conversation with your team or even hearing about how others have dealt with similar issues give you the most facts to help you make the best decisions while the adrenaline races.
Do you have emergency plans in place? What happens if you lose power in the middle of the show? Do you have a plan for medical emergencies among the cast, crew, or audience? What about an earthquake, flood or even high winds for an outdoor show? Share your emergency protocols in the comments below.