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Pyro 104: Participant Safety: Cast and Crew

Now that you have examined your production space for safety concerns, you need to address safety concerning the participants in your production. Everyone needs to be aware pyrotechnics are being used. In addition to your design team and crew, the cast, and eventually the audience, all need to be informed that pyrotechnics will be used during the performance, and those with health concerns such as allergies or asthma may not wish to participate or attend. This information should be given to the cast and crew as soon as the decision is made to use pyrotechnics. During pre-production planning, sound should produce an announcement concerning the use of pyrotechnics, chemical smoke, lasers, gunshots, or other effects, and inform the audience that the use of these effects may cause distress to those with existing health conditions such as allergies, asthma, epilepsy (when using strobe lights) or other conditions. Signs should be posted on all entry doors stating which effects will be used. Have a policy in place regarding refunds should patrons choose not to attend once they are aware of the use of effects.

Pre-production planning with the director and other designers should address the safety issues concerning the sets and stage, and the safety of the cast and crew. As the pyrotechnic shooter, you will have discussed the desired effects with the director, and the safest stage blocking for the actors. Remember, theatrical staging often allows for ‘cheating’ actors upstage or downstage of an effect without the audience being aware of the actual distance. You and the director need to coordinate with scenery and costumes to insure the sets have been properly treated with flame retardant, and the costume designer needs to be aware if actors are going to be close to effects.

The best situation is not to have actors in the 15′ safety area at all. Barring that capability, the pyrotechnic shooter and the director need to work carefully together with the actor and other participants to ensure the contact with the effect is kept at a minimum. While actors are normally the most likely to be close to an effect when it is fired, do not forget that if there is a scene change directly after the effect, or if the actor may need help getting off stage after the effect, you are likely to have crew members or other cast members in the area of the effect when it is fired.

Costumes for actors close to effects need to be in good repair, with a minimum of hanging threads. If possible, build protective features into costumes, such as long sleeves and pants, eye protection, gloves, and hair protection. A fiber content of at least 50% cotton is recommended, as this minimizes the chance of the fabric melting onto an actors skin should a hot particle make contact with the costume. Leather, canvas, and other heavy, tight knit fabrics which do not fray easily are recommended for costumes if possible, as sparks and other hot particles tend to bounce off these materials. Light, filmy fabrics are usually the most likely to melt or flame up easily. Synthetic materials, including feather and pantyhose, need to be avoided in costumes close to effects. Veils and other items like this may need to be deleted from a costume for a particular scene if the actor is close to an effect. Copious amounts of hair spray and other styling products are to be avoided by cast members involved with pyrotechnic effects, as these tend to continue to give off fumes which may be flammable. Crew members in the vicinity of an effect should have at least 50% cotton clothing, and it is recommended that they cover their hair with a hat or hood during the effect. Eye protection by safety glasses or safety shields is very strongly recommended.

Costumes can be treated with flame retardant, but carefully read the directions for the flame retardant for cautions against use on costumes, and that the flame retardant is intended for the fiber content of the fabric. There are flame retardants for natural fibers, and there are retardants for man-made fibers. As flame retardants are often composed of chemical salts, perspiration can cause the flame retardant to not be effective, and can be very irritating to the performer’s skin. If possible, a costume double is recommended, so you can wash the primary costume as needed, and the actor can just change into the flame retarded costume for the effects sequence. If this is not possible, it is recommended to under dress the costume with a heavier cotton garment to protect the actor from the irritating effects of a flame retardant treated costume.

All participants in a production need to be aware of the use of pyrotechnics, placement of the effects, and when the effects happen, and it is recommended that a demonstration firing of the effects is done for the participants. This demonstration needs to be approved by the authority having jurisdiction, and it is often the time when the fire marshal makes final approval of the plan as it is a demonstration for the fire marshal as well. Depending on your fire marshal, you may have to hold a separate demonstration for fire marshal approval before you can do your presentation to the cast and crew.

Ask the cast and crew to sit in the audience, so they can see the effects for themselves from the audience point of view. This tends to cut down on the number of people watching from the wings during effect sequences, as well as allowing the performers to concentrate on their roles rather than watching the effects. They need to be aware of what is going on around them, but if they know what the effect looks like already, they are less likely to try to get a glimpse of the effect while on stage, and stay where they need to be.

Take each effect as it happens during the show. Explain the scene, who is involved, and where the safe areas are. You may wish to have a member of your pyrotechnic crew stand in for the primary actor for this demonstration firing. Fire the effect, and go on to the next effect.

Following the demonstration firing, ask for questions from the cast and crew. This is also the time to establish the rules, which should include the following:

1) NO SMOKING

2) No one is allowed on stage while effects are being loaded and tested without permission from the pyrotechnics supervisor/lead shooter.

3) Only the pyrotechnics crew should touch or move any pyrotechnic effect or equipment.

4) If you are not needed on stage while an effect is going off, please do not be in the stage area. Please do not watch from the wings, and keep walkways clear.

5) Make everyone aware of the exits from the stage, audience, and back stage areas.

6) Make everyone aware of where fire extinguishers are, but remind them that exiting is preferable to fighting a fire that may get out of hand.

7) NO CHILDREN should be allowed in the stage area without adult supervision, and children must be escorted to safety immediately in the event of a fire.

8) NO VISITORS allowed once the pyrotechnics have been loaded. Only the pyrotechnic supervisor/lead shooter can give the all clear after the show, when all the pyrotechnic devices have been checked and spent effects have been removed.

Following the presentation of the rules, and taking questions from the participants, you and the director need to meet the performers and crew that will be the closest to the effects on stage, and talk through the effect again. With the image of the effect fresh in all minds, this is when questions will arise, and it is an excellent opportunity to get all the questions settled, as well as get everyone on the same page.

Reassure the actors of the safe areas around the effect, but let the actor determine their comfort zone, NEVER push anyone into a situation they are uncomfortable with. It is better that the overall appearance of an effect sequence suffer than anyone be hurt by an effect. Actors who are tense and afraid of an effect will not give a good performance, or may actually forget where they must be, and the entire production will suffer for it. On the other hand, actors will have a tendency to get too comfortable with an effect after several performances, and you may have to remind your actors involved with pyrotechnic effects of their safe areas and if they are pushing too close to an effect.

As always, careful preparation and planning is essential to a safe and successful production. The planning and paperwork aspect of pyrotechnics will be addressed in the next installment.