By STEVE YAHN, who has written for and edited national publications for more than 30 years
Depending on how you look at it, the mishaps befalling the Broadway production "Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark" are not accidents at all. They are the result of the theater industry pushing the limits of acting and tip-toeing into the realm of acrobatics and gymnastics.
"The public is demanding more and more of this sort of thing," said Ray Piantanida, assistant vice president of casualty and safety at Gallagher Entertainment Insurance Services in Glendale, Calif. "It's almost like a highly complex circus event."
"Expectations grow higher and higher. Anything less will be disappointing," said Brian Kingman, managing director at Gallagher Entertainment. "Getting high up in the air requires a lot of technical skill and expertise."
It's one thing to push the limits of character development, narrative or acting techniques on the Broadway stage. It's quite another to push the boundaries of gymnastics and the physical abilities of the body. "Spider-Man" has sustained four accidents in the run-up to its twice-delayed Feb. 7 opening.
The two most-publicized accidents involved Christopher Tierney, one of several cast members who performs the show's daredevil, technically dangerous, flying stunts, and Natalie Mendoza, one of the lead actresses.
Tierney fell 20 feet when his safety harness was not properly hooked to the stage. The accident occurred during an acrobatic scene in the middle of a performance that then ended abruptly. Those in attendance were led out of the theater.
Mendoza chose to leave the production after suffering a concussion during the first preview performance.
In addition to these two accidents, one dancer broke his wrists after a failed landing and another injured his feet in the same stunt.
INSURER NOT FREAKING OUT
Backstage, the action is decidedly less dramatic. The production's underwriter, Chubb, "is not freaking out," said one executive with knowledge of the situation. "Chubb's engineers are deeply involved in the safety and security issues of the production."
The show's broker, DeWitt Stern Group of New York, is standing firm behind the $65 million production as well, despite separate investigations by the New York state Labor Department and the federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) into safety procedures.
The producer of the show, Juniper Street Productions, agreed to additional safety measures, and OSHA investigators have six months to complete their investigation. If the agency finds the show has violated safety or health standards, it can issue fines.
Chubb underwrites 85 percent of Broadway shows, while DeWitt Stern brokers three-quarters of them.
WHAT CAN BE DONE
When putting together a complex production, according to Kingman and Piantanida, it's critical for insurance brokers to pay attention to techniques and processes that have never been used before. In addition, there should always be backup for all procedures and processes in the form of "second and third redundancies," said Piantanida.
"You have to go into an in-depth analysis of the entire system," he said. "Most serious accidents are not a single cause. There are usually two or three factors."
So far, the only insurance coverage consideration to come into play is workers' compensation.
What's at issue, said Lauren Giangrande, vice president at Marsh USA Inc. in New York, is the general safety issue--what type of training was provided, who installed the ropes, who installed the sets, who was responsible for the broken ropes?
"Spider-Man" and Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express," in which actors performed on roller blades, are higher risk productions and place greater demands on insurers, those insurance experts interviewed for this piece said.
"Insurers are not expected to take the risk when a loss is expected, but rather when it is unexpected," said insurance consultant Martin K. Ridgers. "That is why the insurer will have its engineers review what the client is doing and would not insure them if they did not believe that the insured had not reduced the potential for loss."
Theater people are proud of doing an exceptional job, Ridgers also said. "That's why most of them extend themselves in their roles."
Said another insurance industry executive: "That's where the expression 'break a leg' came from."
January 5, 2011
Copyright 2011© LRP Publications