Wednesday, July 20, 2011

ARTS POLICY: Protecting the Performers

An absolute must-read:
I recently talked with Carole Swann, an actor currently recovering from a violent accident, which resulted in a broken humerus bone, incurred while rehearsing a play. When I asked exactly what happened during that fateful rehearsal, Carole described how, while rehearsing a scene, the actor she was working with twisted her arm. The actor is also the Artistic Director of the theatre company. Carole describes how everyone in the room heard her bones snap and she had to be rushed off to the emergency room.

That's right, her bone was audibly snapping in a rehearsal for a play.

This was the first “on their feet” rehearsal of the fight scene, and the last one for Carole. She has been out of commission for several months, her arm in a complex sling, recovering from surgery, out of pocket scores of thousands of dollars. She was unable to do basic things such as washing dishes, tying her shoes... the list goes on and on.

She explained to me in our recent interview that this Artistic Director doesn't “believe” in professionally choreographed stage combat because, “it doesn't look authentic.” This is an extremely dangerous misconception. Professionals who've trained in stage combat and seen stage combat done well know you can make a scene scary to the audience and not painful to the actors.

Carole says, "You know in most areas of work in the world it would be so completely unacceptable to be doing such unsafe things in the work place, right? But why is it that with theatre it's not taken that seriously?" Excellent question.

It's not just theatre, film actors also engage in what Carole calls "improvised violence". I was recently listening to a radio program on a very well respected radio station about staged violence in film gone awry. The host was talking to actor Y about actor X (a very famous wealthy actor), let’s call him the scene partner. The actor said that while he was doing a scene with the partner, when they were at a very intense moment where the partner really thought he was that character, he was so in the moment and connected to his character that he actually smacked the actor repeatedly, for many takes. This move was unplanned and the actor was not pleased. The actor told the radio host that the slaps were hard… and hurt... a lot. No one on set yelled stop, or cut. Finally the actor had enough and halted the whole shebang... probably to go get some ice. He explained to the radio host that his partner was doing "The Method".

One of the tragedies here is that because Actor's Equity is so hard to work with (I mean come on, just let me video tape the performances!), people in independent theater wind up dismissing it entirely. I've heard artistic directors say they never work with Actor's Equity, or that they only work with actors willing to lie to Actor's Equity about whether they paid transportation, or about whether the show was video-taped.

I can't work with Actor's Equity, because I also refuse to lie to them. I once did an AEA workshop, and I wound up producing one budget for their consumption, and one budget that reflected the way the performance was actually going to work -- without unlimited metro cards for the cast, and with our lighting designer being paid slightly more than the actors ($100 more. Not per hour or per week, just... $100 more.)

All of that bullshit aside, the standards that Actor's Equity tries to set for actor safety and breaks are very important. Even though I don't participate in Equity contract work anymore, I try to hold to those standards. And the practices listed above very much don't stand up to that.


Lillian said...

I really appreciate your sharing Carole's story further. AEA is supposed to protect actors, but it's interesting to think that a rejection of AEA might also lead someone to reject AEA standard practices of safety. I had not thought of this. I'm happy to hear you try and live up to those standards within your capabilities. I was led here by our shared mention in The Guardian.

Best, Lillian Rodriguez

CultureFuture said...

Hi Lillian,

Thank you for your reporting on the subject. Artists have the same right to a safe workplace as anyone else, and considering how I've seen smaller versions of the same behavior elsewhere, I am still frustrated that artists don't think about the consequences of the risks they take.

I once had a thirty pound wooden set piece dropped on my head while working on a show -- but because the set designer had forced me to wear a hard hat, I suffered little more than shock.

Regarding the AEA: not only does not participating in AEA lead people not to practice AEA standards of safety, not participating in AEA takes away actors' ability to get help in unsafe situations. An actor who is working on a show outside of Equity out of the goodness of their heart has to hide their participation from Equity, and therefore don't have any ability to appeal to Equity if there are safety issues.