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Stop the Show

April 11, 2013

I got on my bicycle today for the first time in a long time and it felt good. Between my heavy travel schedule and my work load, I rarely get a chance to get out on the road. It’s been a busy year. So far I’ve taught classes or workshops in South Carolina, Ohio, Toronto, Boston, Chicago, Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney, and Brisbane, as well at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts in Greensboro, North Carolina.


All this travel reminds me of the time that I was the editor of PLSN and I used to go out on tour at the same time. On the road, I would wake up before anyone else on the bus and sit in the lounge editing articles, answering email, and putting out fires until load-in at 8:00AM. If I had a spare moment or two during the day or during lunch I would fire up the laptop and do what little work I could. And then after the rig was up, everything was working and all the lights were focused, I would do as much as I could before and after sound check. As soon as the show was over and we finished load out, I would be back on the bus working into the early morning hours while we drove to the next show. Most days I would work in my bunk as long as I could before I fell asleep and then wake up early in the morning before anyone else and start all over again. It was hard.

Why did I do it?

Because there’s no substitute for hands-on learning and I feel that if you want to write about the industry, you should experience it. My publisher never liked it when I was on the road. He preferred that I sat at my computer all day and focused strictly on the magazine, but I think he knew that, ultimately, it was good for the content of the magazine. My work in the field informed my writing and my writing informed my work in the field.

You get a completely different perspective working on the road than working from an office. It’s hard to imagine the pressure you feel to make sure the show goes off without a hitch when you’re sitting in the comfort of an office. But when you’ve got gear that’s not working right, or that’s working but poses a hazard, and it’s almost time for sound check or it’s almost time for doors, that’s when you really earn your stripes. No one wants to be that guy who couldn’t get the full rig up and working properly.

In our industry, we have a culture of pushing through sleep deprivation, illness, difficult working conditions, and other obstacles to make sure the performance is flawless. After all, the show must go on! But there are times when the show must not go on, and that’s when there is imminent danger.

Imminent danger is when there is an immediate situation that poses the threat of death or serious harm. When we recognize that there is imminent danger, it’s not only your right to do something about it, it’s your responsibility as a trained professional. The proper thing to do is to bring it to the attention of your supervisor or the venue, and if immediate action is not taken, then you should escalate it as high as you can before notifying the proper authorities. In the United States, the authority is the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and in Canada it’s the Occupational Health and Safety (OHS). Every country has a similar authority.

Had someone recognized the imminent danger of the approaching storm at the Indiana State Fair in 2011 and taken action, then Nathan Byrd and those six other victims might be alive today. The same can be said of many other accidents in our industry.

It takes a huge amount of courage to make that call. When a show is halted, someone is going to lose a lot of money. Still, we have to be willing to draw that line in the sand and say, “This is the line which we will not cross.” We need to understand the hazards and we need to stick to our guns, and if we’re going to err, then we should err on the safe side. I would rather be known as the guy who stopped the show because I thought it was dangerous but it wasn’t than the one who didn’t stop the show and caused people to be harmed.

One of the main reasons for training is to learn to recognize hazards on the stage. If we know what to look for then we’ll be better prepared to make those kinds of calls with confidence. And sometimes, understanding what constitutes a hazard and what doesn’t can allow the show to go on, even though the conditions might not be perfect.

I once worked a show like that. I won’t say who the band was, but they were some boys who used to like to hang out on the beach and go surfing in the U.S.A. In the morning, we floated the truss and hung all the lights, and before we flew the truss, we tested the circuits and all the lights. There were a few with bad lamps, so we promptly replaced them. But the two PARs that were lighting up downstage center—the two most important of them all—had bad wiring. Since they were six-lamp bars, it would have taken too long to swap places with another one that was working properly. So we took some new ceramics and wired them in. The problem was that we had no way of connecting the grounding conductor (earthing conductor for some of you) from the power cable to the housing of the fixture, so they effectively had no ground.

OSHA keeps a database of workplace accidents on their web site. If you go to osha.gov and type “electrocution” in the search box, you’ll get a long list of hits. Look at those incidents of electrocution and what you’ll find is that they generally fall into two categories: electrocution by overhead power line and electrocution by faulty ground (or earth). Those seem to be the two most common causes of death by electrical on the job, so having a proper ground is a huge deal.

As an ETCP Certified Entertainment Electrician (etcp.plasa.org), I was very aware of the hazard, yet I certainly didn’t want to stop the show. But since I understand how grounding and bonding works, I knew that by clamping the ungrounded PAR can to the grounded truss, the aluminum housing would then be grounded through the yoke and clamp which is connected to the truss. The show could go on!

These are the types of lessons you learn from the road. But experience doesn’t always teach the right lessons. The combination of training and experience is the best educator.  There is nothing better.

The Academy of Production Technology (www.APTXL.com) hosts training and workshops around the world for individuals, groups, companies, and organizations. The next public workshop will be held in June 2013 in Burbank, California. To inquire about training, visit the web site or click here.

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