Breathing Lessons

You note that performers are complaining again about theatrical fog in the March 2001 Entertainment Design [Editorial, p.4]. Has it occurred to lighting designers who shrug it off with the kind of anecdotal hypotheses you mention that there might really be a problem? People suffering with tuberculosis in the 10th century had to endure similar smug pronouncements that the disease was psychologically caused. There many not yet be a definitive study of the health hazards of breathing theatrical fog and smoke, but there is plenty of evidence that it can seriously damage some people:

  1. Any doctor will tell you that breathing oil mists can aggravate pre-existing respiratory conditions. The New York Musicians Union has a file of doctors' statements such as “Exposures to the smoke are a health hazard to this musician and to other members of the orchestra, and every effort should be made to correct this situation.”
  2. Seven of the musicians in the pit orchestra for the New York production of Beauty and the Beast developed respiratory conditions (including asthma), that they didn't have before.
  3. One Broadway musician, now partially disabled, won a Workers Compensation suit in which a serious lung condition caused by theatrical smoke was determined to be an occupational disease by the doctor for management's insurance company.
  4. There are lawsuits pending in New Jersey and California in which the plaintiffs allege serious damage from theatrical fog exposure — one person is now in a wheelchair and on oxygen most of each day.
  5. Labels on fog chemicals warn, “Not to be used in the presence of known asthmatics.”
  6. The Material Safety Data Sheet for mineral oil used in fog states that medical conditions aggravated by exposure to this fog include “lipoid granuloma/asthma/pneumonia when respiratory protective devices are not worn.”
  7. The safety claim for “food grade” oils used in fog is ludicrous, since we don't inhale our food (If we did, we'd have a health problem).
  8. Major manufacturers of oil-based products caution against their use for theatrical fog. For example, Texaco says, “We have consistently described this application as an inappropriate, and potentially harmful, use of our product, and have discovered the use of these glycols to produce theatre fogs.”

In view of this evidence, theatrical producers are taking an irresponsible risk with the health of their audiences, which often include children, the elderly, and people susceptible to respiratory diseases. Daily variations in temperature, humidity, and air flow in theatres makes it impossible to use fog “correctly” even if everyone is fully informed and follows the rules (and how often does that happen?). The biggest shame is that there are alternatives that are readily available to scenic and lighting designers who use their imaginations. Scenic designer John Conklin of New York City Opera says that a ban on smoke “becomes an element in the design thinking. You can always find another solution…management is beginning to understand that there may be a problem [with smoke and fog] and consider that they might have a moral responsibility not to endanger singers and crew.” (quoted in Opera America Newsline.)

Please help your scenic and lighting designer colleagues understand that problems really develop for performers who have to work in fog and smoke. Some suffer severe health consequences, to the point of permanent health and career damage. Many are unwilling to make a fuss or go public (like Pamela Dale) because of the possible professional stigma. The “here we go again” attitude helps no one, and contributes to many individuals' misery.
Evan Johnson
theatre violinist

Props for Your Peers

Hooray! At last, an article in your pages about propmasters [“The People Who Prop Up the Shows,” March 2001]! Frequently I search your excellent write-ups on theatrical productions for a mention of the propmasters involved, all too often in vain. Not mentioned by Davi Napoleon is that SPAM is the society of LORT theatre propmasters. I was privileged to be a member for two years, and the association is invaluable. Now a freelancer and no longer eligible, I was nevertheless delighted to see in your magazine the names of so many fabulous people in props around the nation.
Tessa Dunning

PS: April ED just arrived, and on page 8, I see my credit for Resident Alien. It was loads of fun doing that one. Thank you.