Light & Verity

New emphasis on safety at drama school

Pierre-Andre Salim would have graduated from the School of Drama this year with a master's in technical design and production. But Salim was killed in November 2007 when set materials for a Yale Rep show toppled onto him as he tried to unload them from a truck. He was 26 years old.

Now, largely in response to Salim's death, the drama school has created a full-time safety director's position—perhaps the first in the country.

With around 40 live theater productions each year, the drama school will never be hazard-free.

“That's a real budget item, and especially in today's world,” says Monona Rossol, a New York-based expert on theater safety, who knows of no such position in any other university. “But it is a full-time job, because that's a big drama school. They spray-paint, they dye costumes, they weld—they do everything.”

From toxic paints to dangerous carpentry tools to narrow catwalks, the theater can be a hazardous place. As the drama school's facilities director, Bill Reynolds ’77MFA devoted part of his attention to reducing those hazards. Now it's his full-time job as director of theater safety and occupational health.

A top priority is improving the way students handle heavy materials—like the sheets of particleboard that fell on Salim.

“We've all, in this field, ignored materials handling,” says Rossol, who runs a nonprofit agency called Arts, Crafts & Theater Safety and also serves as health and safety director of a theatrical union in New York. After Salim's death, Yale consulted with her as part of a comprehensive review of health and safety practices at the drama school.

Reynolds has long taught a mandatory safety course for first-year students in technical design and stage management. But the school is now expanding several areas of safety training and making physical improvements. In place of a second-story platform at the Yale Rep, to which materials for sets were lifted by overhead hoist or by hand, the university is installing a loading dock. Reynolds has also focused on supplementing the school's safety curriculum and on preventing falls. Rossol says that when she first met with Yale officials, she “was very impressed with the openness and the willingness to fix” whatever problems she identified.

With around 40 live theater productions each year, the drama school will never be hazard-free. “We want the theater to be risky, to delight the senses,” Reynolds says. “We're going to have flying actors. We're going to have water on the floor. You train the people who are doing it, and limit the people who are exposed to the risk.”

While Salim's death pushed safety to the top of the drama school's agenda, “I think we were emphasizing safety more and more each year,” Reynolds says. But the fatality is always on his mind: “It never happened before, and we don't want anything like that to happen again.”  

The comment period has expired.