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Playing Safe

In her quest to make the stages and scene shops of America’s theatres just a little bit safer, Abby Ward will resort to any means necessary. Even nagging.

Ward is a senior theatre and finance major from Cary who has taken on one of the least glamorous roles in theatre. She is an emerging theatre-safety expert, an authority on protecting casts and crews from the many dangers lurking backstage. She plays her part proudly.

“I will nag if I have to. It’s part of educating people about safety,” she said one recent morning in the Frick Center at Elmhurst, where she was taking a break from her summer duties as stage manager at Naperville’s Summer Place Theatre. “Even pros make mistakes. I see it all the time, people trying to do something silly, like use a saw without safety glasses. You have to tell them, ‘You really shouldn’t be doing this.’”

The theatre, it turns out, can be a dangerous place. Are those ropes really going to hold those props dangling from the rigging overhead? Whose idea was it to put that ladder on casters? And those pyrotechnics in Act II: Are they really necessary? Audiences are rarely aware of it, but inside every production a mini-drama is playing out, a suspense thriller that hinges on a single question: Can we get through this play without anybody getting hurt?

And, as Ward will tell you, the perils are especially grave in school productions, where crew members tend to come with much more enthusiasm than expertise.

“In high school, you think you’re invincible. It’s like, ‘I’ll just climb this rope and screw this in, no problem,’” she said, cringing a little at the thought. “I had no concept of what safety was in high school.”

Ward has made it her mission to do something about that. She has spent much of the past year researching the state of the art in theatre safety—from Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations to emergency planning—and she plans to share what she has learned with theater educators and their students. Ward is developing a survey of high school theatre programs that she hopes will offer clues about standard practices in high schools, and how they can be improved. How often are backstage areas cleaned? Are fire exits kept clear? Are tools inspected regularly and kept in working order? She plans to publish her findings in a trade journal for theatre professionals.

She knows that not everyone shares her passion for safety.

“It’s not the sexiest part of the business. People are sometimes a little surprised that I’m interested,” she said. “You know, safety is the kind of thing a lot of people like to ignore.”

Ward’s interest in safety grew out of a 2011 trip she made to Charlotte, North Carolina, for the annual conference of the United States Institute for Theatre Technology (USITT), a professional organization of designers, technicians and other theatre pros who work far from the spotlight. For Ward, who is interested in a career in production management (“It’s the one theatre job that lets me use my business sense”), the conference was an opportunity to network and to learn. But it was a session on emergency procedures in theatres that really sparked her curiosity.

“It got me thinking about safety, which was something I’d never thought about before,” she said. “I could see the need for someone to look at safety education for high schools.”

When she returned from the conference, she began talking with one of her professors, Rick Arnold, about expanding Elmhurst’s required safety course for theatre majors. She also applied for, and won, a $1,500 grant from the College’s Honors Program to research theater safety.

Her research has helped make her something of an authority in the field. She is happy to share her list of top 10 safety tips. (They range from investing in massive quantities of safety glasses, so there is always a pair handy when needed, to training young people in safely using power tools.) She has learned so much about safety that she is ready to move into the spotlight herself. At next year’s USITT conference, Ward will be leading the session on applying OSHA standards to theatres.

More challenges await at Elmhurst, as well. The coming attractions for the upcoming season at the College’s Mill Theatre include an adaption of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis, which includes a scene where an actor must scuttle up a wall like a cockroach. That promises to pose problems for actor, set designer and stage manager alike. Ward is ready.

“It’s another chance to educate people about the importance of safety,” she said.

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