The nightclub tragedy in Rhode Island has forced us all to take a hard look at pyrotechnics and indeed all safety issues in the entertainment industry. Being on the road myself as a technical director, I've already received a phone call from a date we have in that state next month. We have no actual pyrotechnics in the show, but we do have live fire. As I attempted to convince the venue that our fire was safe and up to code, it occurred to me that safety was not the issue as much as consideration of the audience reaction to viewing live fire onstage. I finally concluded that it might be better to cut the fire entirely rather than have the audience see a live flame and flashback to the CNN footage of sparks on the ceiling and the fire that ensued. After the World Trade Center collapsed, there was extreme sensitivity to everything from violent Hollywood movies to jokes on late-night TV. With this in mind, I believe if I were in charge of a rock band or other show that used pyrotechnics, I would leave it in the truck for a while until this tragedy is no longer fresh in the mind of the public.
Because I'm not a pyrotechnician, I talked to some people in the know. Bob Shelley of Special FX in Atlanta says that Rhode Island is probably one of the top 10 most stringent states when it comes to pyrotechnics. “That doesn't mean laws are strictly enforced,” he adds.
He explained that the fountains we all saw on CNN were called gerbs, and don't even require a license to purchase. “You still require a permit to set them off in a public place,” he says, “but purchasing pyrotechnics and actually using them are controlled by two different government agencies.”
Just how prevalent is pyro in rock-and-roll shows? After watching the news, you might think that rock and fire are joined at the hip. Bands like KISS, who have made pyro their trademark, are in fact the exception and not the rule. I asked Roy Snyder of the Keswick Theatre in a Philadelphia suburb about this; he does more rock shows every year than anyone I know. He says that seasoned rock bands hardly ever use fire at all, and the last pyrotechnics he remembers was actually Lord of the Dance — not a band at all. Even the tour manager for Great White, Dan Biechele, has publicly announced that this is the first year in their 20-year history that they've used pyro, and even then only a half-dozen times.
Of course it's rare — it should be. The fact is that anytime pyrotechnics are in the room you have a certain risk. But before we all go out and lynch pyro as an industry, we have to accept the reality that many kinds of entertainment are full of risk. Just ask anyone at an amusement park. Working with the Peking Acrobats, I can't condemn anyone for risking lives in the name of entertainment. While our audiences are never at risk, our performers certainly are. Late-night runs to the hospital are no stranger to me than they are to Ringling Bros. or NASCAR. And, like the circus, if you work around pyro long enough you are going to see a mishap. My assistant Daniel Montes (Lucky), himself a trained pyrotechnician, tells the story of the time he worked on a magic show and a concussion mortar didn't go off when it was supposed to. When the magician was convinced it was a misfire, he moved back to the area of the blast, only to have it ignite close to his head. “If he had been one step closer,” says Lucky, “I'm sure he would have been seriously injured.”
I know Lucky to be a well-trained and competent technician but when you load powder everyday there are bound to be mishaps. This is compounded by less experienced technicians who lack training or, worse, don't fully comprehend what they're dealing with. This goes well beyond pyro. The technical side of the entertainment industry by its very nature pushes everything to dangerous limits. We've all heard horror stories about accidents on the loading dock, or at the high-voltage power panel, and chain motors, truss, or tools dropped from the grid. It's somewhat sad human nature that we have to make our own mistakes and see the consequences before we give our profession the respect it requires.
I should know — it's happened to me. Many years ago I haphazardly rigged a tight wire for Sun Hongli, an ex-Cirque du Soleil performer. The rigging broke and she fractured her spine. And though I now take rigging very personally, I'm certain that's little comfort to her. Whoever loaded the pyrotechnics at that nightclub in Rhode Island must have had no idea what could happen in a crowded club if it caught fire. If that person survived, perhaps they will become the most safety-conscious technician in the industry. But the last thing we want is for each person to learn, like I did, the gravity of his or her position through the sacrifice of others. We simply can't afford for everyone to learn the hard way.
With this in mind, legislators from the federal government all the way down to city and county lawmakers must take the time to enact codes and restrictions that force everyone to maintain a certain level of safety.
Making regulations is one thing; enforcing them is another matter entirely. Often the relationship between the theatre and the fire department becomes adversarial. Sometimes it's the venue refusing to take fire safety seriously, only barely complying when the fire marshal threatens fines. Other times it's power-hungry civil servants making excessive demands on small businesses. Recently I saw a theatre get charged $800 for two firemen to sit through a single two-hour show just because there were five live candles. Still, ours is an industry that has shown little initiative to police itself, so it does fall on local lawmakers to watchdog unscrupulous individuals who place profits above the safety and well-being of theatre patrons.
But the fire department alone can't prevent the kinds of unsafe situations that lead to loss of life. They can't come to every club and theatre every day and babysit us. We are the professionals. We must shift our attitude away from the adversarial situation between the venue and the fire department and take a proactive role in all fire safety issues. When our company blocks a fire exit, the house manager is usually right on us: “If the fire marshal sees that we'll get fined.” But wouldn't it be better to say, “If there were to be an emergency we want this hallway clear.” At the same time, we on the road must also take responsibility for our own actions: Train our performers and crew not to lay props against the fire extinguishers, designate someone to know where the extinguishers are at each stage. This shift in attitude, where we as an industry become serious about safety, is the only way more tragedies can be prevented.
Rusty Strauss is the technical director for the Peking Acrobats. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.