Health & Safety

Two very powerful words. Words representing concepts we are all very likely to encounter in our lives, particularly if, like yours truly, you have chosen to head into the Performing Arts as a profession. However, I am not preaching to the converted with this post. My driving aim here is to explain to the rest of you, the non-initiated folk of humankind, some of the things that we, the performers of tomorrow, have to deal with on a daily basis. Below are just a few examples:

Now, I am a peace-loving individual who believes we should all be nice to each other and, generally speaking, my terroristic tendencies begin and end with the zapping of the occasional mosquito that may happen to cross my line of sight on a generic summer day. I don’t set out to hunt mosquitoes as a pastime; it’s not something I particularly enjoy doing either. I zap the buggers because they have the indecency to think they’ve got the right to suck out my blood. And that’s something I cannot tolerate. But that’s as far as my criminal instincts go.

Then there are the people who plan for disasters like they are bound to happen every second. While it’s understandable that most Health & Safety rules have their use, and that they saved more lives than we might think, you must admit they are not without their absurdities. What would John Lennon think, for instance, if he were alive today and he would see the trouble my band had to go through in order to get 10 kids from LIPA 4:19 to perform on “Happy Xmas – War Is Over” with us. That we had to go through so many offices and speak to so many people, in order to arrive at the absurd compromise that the kids would be legally viewed as “members of the audience spontaneously breaking into song in front of the stage”. But they are not members of the audience spontaneously breaking into song in front of the stage. They are performers on the track, as John Lennon wrote it. They rehearsed for weeks, with glimmers of excitement in their eyes, and their appearance on our song brought such a smile on their parents’ faces. Why should we belittle that? Did Lennon have the same trouble getting those kids to sing on the recording, I wonder? For the love of God, have we become so afraid that we spend more time making sure a venue is safe than we do rehearsing and planning the actual show?

And if, by some infinitessimally minute chance, a fire (or World War 3) does indeed break out during the show… surely, in a theatre that can only hold 100 people, with two exits marked so clearly that anyone could spot them… surely, there’s no need for all that trouble. I’m sure we can all make a run for it before the house falls down. Surely all we need to do is breathe in, and remember that life is not just a race to make sure accidents don’t happen. Because I believe the line should be drawn at the point where Health & Safety begins to interfere with creativity. Otherwise, we might as well all pack up and go home, and lead safer lives.

Plus, if World War 3 does happen to break out during the show, it sure as hell won’t make any difference whether you’ve got 3 stewards in the theatre, or 4. Would it? The place would be blown to smithereens before the stewards could even begin to shepherd the audience out in an orderly manner. And if it’s all that dangerous to be in a theatre nowadays, then maybe I should refuse to go onstage myself. Why should I want to risk my neck in such a house of perils anymore than the audience might?

(sigh)

Bottom line is, I get it. Health & Safety is there to ensure I don’t catch fire while on the premises of a theatre. But it begs the following question: How much are we willing to restrict a show creatively, just to make sure all these norms are met? Where is the limit between common-sense prevention, and draconian paranoia?

PS. I am aware this post has created some controversy at my university. I have edited the harsher bits out and restored the post on my blog. Last I checked, freedom of speech was a still a staple of democracy – and if certain readers read too much into my meaningless quotidian ramblings, well, that’s their problem more than it is mine. It is very flattering to see people are reading my blog, though 🙂

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5 thoughts on “Health & Safety

  1. I came to read this after a comment from someone outside LIPA, so you have created some waves. I might ask you in person to clarify, but I expect the singing kids issues were more about child protection than health & safety. Liverpool city rules do seem to go beyond reason to safeguard our next generation to allow them to proceed into adulthood in a world free of risks from nasty predators. I think rules were written by LCC with thought only for child protection, and ignoring benefits of child development through creativity. As far as health & safety goes, it’s here to stay. I find theatre managers/technicians etc may well stop something happening if it falls outside their safety zone, but they will always work with you to find an alternative solution. Rules may be a nuisance, but we all have to learn how to use the rules as supports to creativity rather than restrictions.

    • Haha, I would seriously like to know who reads my blog! There’s nothing I love more than a passionate, friendly debate. I don’t really mean to sound controversial, and when I write here it’s mostly to myself.

      So it’s surprising to see people writing back 🙂

      Of course, I completely understand and agree with the need for H&S. I don’t mean to be unreasonable. I’m just pointing out that, in our effort to prevent horrible accidents from ever happening again, we are maybe going that little tiny bit too far?

  2. I sometimes wonder why so much of today’s media continually highlights and replays the memories of those who recall The Great Wars.

    At first, I considered Into The Clouds in the same light; how would this show be any different to the hours of footage, documentaries, and evidence? – what was the point? – what difference would it hope to make? After all, VE Day was 65 years ago last week – It’s not exactly relevant to today’s society.

    The truth is, the number of people who remember The Great Wars is running out; The horror and fear which must have been experienced while fighting in the trenches and the inconceivable, inhuman conditions suffered in the concentration camps are well publicised. A less well known, but still harrowing experience which mirrors the feelings of fear and uncertainty would have been shared by those left at home who experienced the bombing runs of both Allied and Axis forces.

    These memories are dying out – every day more memories are lost. If it was not for the documentaries, the remembrance services, and performances such as Beyond the Clouds we would risk forgetting what happened. It is estimated more than 46 million people were killed during the second world war alone; to put that into context, the population of Romania is 21.5 million – less than half of the toll.

    It is vital that we remember what happened, so that (god willing) nothing like this should ever happen again. Everyone can learn from what happened in some way; the hope is, with those memories in mind, we can avoid the mistakes and oversights and complacency which allowed The Wars to happen.

    Today is May 11th; 25 years ago today, in a town called Bradford just north of Manchester everyone was celebrating. It was the last day of the football season, and Bradford City FC had won league 2, and promotion to the top division. Before the match the team had been presented with the trophy (the first silverware they had received in 56 years), and done a lap of honour to thank the fans. The main point for celebrations would have been in the main stand which housed 12300 home supporters. There must have been a fantastic party atmosphere.

    Outside of the game sat a new steel roof for the stand. The club had recently been warned by council officials about the condition of the stand. The structure was made extensively of wood, and their design meant that any discarded litter collected below the stand and was not cleared away. The steel roof was part of a £400,000 renovation which would also see the wooden benches replaced with concrete, and the gaps which caused a problem with litter would be removed.

    So what were the chances that a discarded cigarette would have ignited the litter?
    How minute would the risk have to be to justify ignoring the warnings, and not clearing it? After all, this was the last game of the season and the stand had survived without any problem for 77 years. Surely this guy from the council was just some jobsworth trying to cover his own back. Even if there was a risk, the gates were locked shut to ensure extra fans did not get into the ground, the mood was good so trouble was unlikely, and there were plenty of stewards on duty. What’s the worst that could happen?

    4 minutes. That’s as long as it took. Just before half time commentators and those on the pitch became aware that fans had begun to climb over the advertising hoarding onto the pitch. The impossible had happened; a cigarette had set alight the rubbish below the stand, and ignited; this spread to the wooden stand, and it began to burn. Fast.

    I have included a link to a youtube video. The video is just over 4 minutes long, and shows the fire spread in almost real time. It documents the panic and confusion; it shows fans and the police dragging the lifeless bodies of victims away from the fire, and trying to extinguish the bodies of friends who they will have sat with for years.

    Before the match was due to have finished, 56 people died, and more than 200 were injured. As it was 25 years ago, very few people working on Beyond the Clouds will remember what happened on that day. Sadly, very few people make documentaries about disasters such as this; and, as far as I know there is not a single theatre performance. This does not mean we should forget.

    To paraphrase:
    It is vital that we remember what happened, so that (god willing) nothing like this should ever happen again. Everyone can learn from what happened in some way; the hope is, with those memories in mind, we can avoid the mistakes and oversights and complacency which allowed this to happen.

    Sometimes it may seem that Health and Safety regulations are just there to make things difficult, put in place by people who prefer to do things by the book instead of take some responsibility to make a sensible call on what is practicable. Wouldn’t it be great if, say during a performance of Marat Sade you could actually chop an actor’s head off? Imagine the effect – simply revolutionary. Granted, there are a few problems – you would need a new performer to learn the lines for each performance, and I am sure those ludicrous Health and Safety restrictions would once again get in the way of your creativity. Why is that?!

    That is because the rules are not just made up by some crazy old man who lives in the attic – they are almost all based on past disaster, with the hope they would never be repeated. In reality, the Health and Safety restrictions in LIPA can often be negotiated – I would be amazed if your situation could not be resolved amicably.

    I would suggest it is a little naive to book and pay to travel all the way to liverpool to see a show before you have the tickets, but I know the heath and safety officer at LIPA very well. As long as you have not done something stupid to annoy or upset him, I am sure he will be reasonable.

    • What I find funny is how my ramble about health & safety late at night on my laptop has created such waves to begin with… for me it was just some silly musings late at night. This blog is more of a personal diary for me, I don’t mean to attack anyone, and when I write, its mostly as if I were speaking to myself.

      I didn’t expect my blog to be so widely read that this would gain such momentum – so I don’t know whether to be flattered I’ve got so many readers, or concerned that I should watch what I write from now on? But isn’t the beauty of freedom of speech that it can give rise to reasonable arguments, and invitations to dialogue?

      It wasn’t really an attack though, and I do see the use for Health & Safety. The Bradford Stadium fire is a horrific tragedy, to say the least, and I hope we’ve got rules in place now to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again. I was not advocating we should allow stadiums to be built that way again, anymore than I was saying we should chop an actor’s head off during performances of “Marat Sade”. I wasn’t meaning to be unreasonable in that way.

      I guess I’m just a bit upset that H&S got in the way of every single show I’ve done at LIPA so far – negatively… and I was just wondering whether we can still make sure a venue is safe without restricting creativity in any way!

      My conclusion was that if H&S becomes too restrictive, then it might mean theatre (or football matches, or any other activity) is too dangerous an activity – and I was simply raising a rhethorical question that maybe we should stop doing these activities altogether, if they hold so much potential danger.

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