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Auditorium Safety Tips All Teachers Should Know

Dana Taylor on stage discussing auditorium safety

Auditoriums. They’re the beloved home for our theatre programs, but also an unknowable Pandora’s box filled with potential safety concerns and liability. For many educators, auditoriums are inherited, meaning you likely weren’t a part of the decision process in choosing the rigging, lighting, and safety equipment. This also means you’re also likely not entirely sure what auditorium safety procedures (if any) have been taken.

Dana Taylor’s workshop at the International Thespian Festival (ITF), “A Guide to Auditorium Management: Taking Care of Your Space and Protecting Your Investment,” explores the complex theatre spaces educators find and the challenges they face when maintaining them to industry standards.

EdTA caught up with Taylor to identify some actionable steps to help theatre educators start their safety audits and get buy-in from administration.

The Importance of Auditorium Safety

Beyond protecting your Thespians from harm, prioritizing auditorium safety is essential for the upkeep and longevity of the many systems in your theatre space. In his experience, Taylor has seen schools invest over six figures on equipment only to have the warranty voided for failing to keep up with maintenance and inspection cycles.

“It’s not being good stewards of what the taxpayers gave you,” he says. “And the greater issue is, do you know if your system is in good shape? Most people couldn’t tell unless something ceased to function.”

Of course, the lack of care isn’t an intentional oversight from the school or educator, it’s a matter of not knowing what needs to be done.

3 Tips for Inspecting Your Theatre Space

According to a survey of teachers and administrators performed by Taylor, over 40% of respondents have theatre spaces over 20 years old, with an additional 20% in the 15 to 20-year range, with many of the spaces retaining much of their original equipment and infrastructure.

And unless someone has been meticulously documenting all the maintenance and inspections done in the space, it can be challenging to have a handle on the health of your theatre space. As Taylor puts it, we don’t know what we don’t know, but that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to find out. It starts with planning.

Dana Taylor working with a group of students on rigging safety

1. Familiarize Yourself with Industry and Manufacturer Standards

Not sure how your theatre should be maintained? Taylor suggests looking at industry best practices for guidance. For example, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has requirements for the hoisting equipment in your theatre, while the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) sets standards for rigging equipment.

The National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) has safety standards for equipment like fire doors and fire curtains, along with emergency lighting systems. Add in your local and state regulations, along with the actual manufacturer’s guidelines, and you have a basic outline of some of the key areas you should be inspecting.

Not only does this help guide your inspection decisions, but in the case of a liability lawsuit, it’s the standards your theatre space and safety precautions will be judged against, says Taylor.

He also notes that one of the most important things to know is how to appropriately use equipment – and that means keeping up with and seeking out training. “Even if the systems are inspected and in great shape, a procedural error on the part of an untrained user can have catastrophic outcomes,” he says.

2. Make a Checklist to Start Tackling Your Systems

Now that you know what standards you’re gauging your safety against, make a checklist of the systems you’ll be checking. Taylor recommends starting with the following:

  • Rigging: Look for deformations of wire rope where it appears the wire rope may have been shock loaded along with malformations of the coils from incorrectly sized pulleys.
  • Stage Curtains: Verify fire retardant certificates are up to date and there are no visible signs of wear and tear or damage. You can also use test strips to verify fire retardancy.
A student at ITF checking audio equipment with an adult.
  • Power Tools: Check that all power tools are in good shape and that students have received proper training on their safe usage.
  • Audio: Verify that audio equipment, especially wireless mics, are compliant with current regulations and not operating on illegal frequencies.
  • Lighting: Ensure proper power supply for LED fixtures, which should be run on constant power supplies instead of standard dimmers.

For theatre educators tackling a safety audit, one of the best places to start (if you have it available to you), is past inspection reports. Of course, if you don’t have any, this is the perfect opportunity to start tracking the work done in your theatre space.

3. Get Your Administration Invested in Auditorium Safety

The final part of any auditorium safety plan is getting your administration on board. While you may be committed to bringing your auditorium up to standard, most of the work will require funding. In the same survey by Taylor, 70% of respondents said they had no budget for equipment repair or replacements. “If something breaks in the theatre, then you’re not prioritizing it,” he said. “And you certainly wouldn’t do the same for your football stadium.”

Part of getting buy-in is outlining the importance of auditorium safety for admins. “Document what the industry expects and show them the line item in the brochure that says failure to get an inspection voids the warranty,” Taylor says. This can also be a wonderful opportunity to bring in an expert, who can help with some of the more technical aspects of a safety audit.

At a minimum, however, make the stakes clear. From being open to insurance liability to voided warranties on costly theatre systems, your administrators should know that neglecting auditorium spaces is never the right call.

auditorium pulleys safety

Getting a Handle on Your Theatre Space

Auditorium safety should be a priority for all theatre educators. And while it can seem overwhelming to get started, particularly when it hasn’t been a normal part of your routine, it doesn’t have to be.

Whether you’re starting with industry standards, auditing your systems, or working with your administrators to bring in professionals for inspections, there’s a lot you can do to protect the longevity of your theatre space and ensure your Thespians are always safe.

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