By JONATHAN MANDELL
Even before Christopher Tierney plummeted some 30 feet off a platform to become the fourth cast member with serious injuries in Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark, the musical's string of accidents was getting national attention: In December, a character identified as the fourth understudy of Spider-Man appeared on Saturday Night Live, hanging upside down from the ceiling. "The first one broke his wrist, the next guy shattered his leg, the next guy just exploded," he said. "It's a musical; it happens.You know how many people die every year doing Jersey Boys?"
Nobody has actually died doing Jersey Boys of course, but talk to people in the theatre community, and you'll hear that the problems in Spider-Man are an extreme---and far more publicized---version of what most consider an occupational risk.
"The hazards [in professional theatre] are different, but they're as serious as injuries in a factory," says Maria Somma, a spokesperson for Actors Equity. "Factory workers are not working on a raked stage, and they're not flying."
Overall, the incidence of recorded injuries among entertainers is almost 50 percent higher than for the average worker, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And in 2009 alone, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration recorded some 5,800 workplace injuries for artists nationwide.
Some of these accidents are so sensational that they make the news. In 2005, for instance, Idina Menzel fell through a trap door during a performance of Wicked and broke a rib, and in 2007, James Carpinello broke his leg in three places during a preview performance of Xanadu.
In general, however, performer's injuries are less flashy. Just ask Gabriel Olds, who played Rodolpho in the 1997 Broadway revival of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge. “[I had] a repetitive stress injury from wrestling with Anthony LaPaglia eight times a week,” he says. “This is pretty standard for doing a Broadway play for nine months.”
Olds went into physical therapy for the rest of the run, and his treatment continued for two years after the show closed. For the first year, “there was pain every day, all day,” he recalls. “But it was a minor pain, just an annoyance.”
When Christopher Tierney was injured in December, several commentators said Spider-Man’s kind of high-flying stunts should be left to Hollywood, where they only have to be performed once. Olds, who now primarily works in television, echoes that argument when he says that theatre is more dangerous than film: “No question it's stage work, because of the repetition; you’re doing something every day."
But is film contributing to the increased danger on stage? Alexandra Hastings thinks so. Along with her husband David, she runs En Garde Entertainment, a theatrical organization and training academy that specializes in stage combat, and she has seen her field change in recent years. "Stage combat used to mean Shakespearean swordplay," she says. "It has escalated into all kinds of physical clashes, from rape scenes to kung fu to those found objects, whether floorboards or kitchen appliances."
She says the cinema is a direct cause of this escalation, noting, "There is a lot more stylized violence in the movies. Theatre audiences are more savvy about what violence should look like."
Recently, politicians have addressed this escalation. In a December 23 press conference in front of the Foxwoods Theatre, where Spider-Man performs, assemblyman Rory Lancman, who chairs the Assembly Subcommittee on Workplace Safety, noted the increase in on-stage danger. "The current legislation that governs these kinds of performances dates back to 1953 and has not been materially updated since then," he said. "Spider-Man is not going to be the last Broadway performance that pushes the envelope in terms of the stunts and special effects it uses."
Response to Danger
Unsurprisingly, the theatre community itself has rallied around the wounded Spider-Man cast members and raised a general cry for more safety. Alice Ripley, for instance, recently tweeted, "This is completely unacceptable and embarrassing to working actors everywhere." In another message, she wrote, "Does someone have to die?"
The day after New Year’s, Actors Equity president Nick Wyman released a statement that he was “disturbed and distraught” by the injuries in Spider-Man. But he was also clearly upset at the fury directed at his union, repeating a question he had heard repeatedly: “’Why is Equity allowing this to happen?’”
In his statement Wyman replied, “Before a Broadway show goes into production, Equity staff are poring over the script, looking for possible risk elements such as raked stages, smoke and haze, stunts, firearms, unusual or overly-demanding choreography. Our staff brings decades of judgment and experience to bear in assessing potentially risky situations, and they use many different tactics to convince, cajole, pressure the producers, design team, director, etc. to make the changes necessary to protect the actor."
While the union negotiates with individual shows, it also gathers statistics (which it does not make public) in order to beef up the safety provisions in its standard contract with the producers. The contract currently states, "No Actor shall be required to perform any feat or act which places Actor in imminent danger or is inherently dangerous."
Safety is also an intrinsic part of the stage manager's daily job, says Gene O'Donovan, a long-time production manager who has worked on over 150 Broadway shows. He notes that many productions have a physical therapist on call for the performers as well. "Lots of people in the theatre have bad knees and bad legs," he says. "Doing a Broadway show is a very strenuous job. Actors and dancers have to be in good shape."
Jonathan Mandell covers theatre for The Faster Times and is on Twitter as @NewYorkTheater :