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Students allege unsafe work environment and potential negligent behavior in theatre department

Reports from students within UMKC’s Theatre Department describe a pattern of unsafe work conditions during stage productions. These conditions have caused falls, concussions, and shattered props. Students claim there are safety issues within the department.

Michelle Lawson, a senior, was working backstage during a production of UMKC Theatre’s “Italian Straw Hat” in 2019 when a crew member opened a door on the set piece, slamming one of the doorknobs into Lawson’s head. Lawson ended up with a concussion and over $1,500 in medical bills.

“I immediately felt nauseous, dizzy, like, stumbled off stage. And then, you know, waited a couple minutes, because I didn’t really know I had a concussion,” she said. “But then I started feeling like I was going to throw up. I felt really sick.”

Lawson filled out an incident report, which is a form that documents any accidents and injuries that occur during rehearsals and performances. Stage management, who are typically graduate students in the department, recommended she should go to the hospital. There, doctors performed a CT scan to check for skull fractures. The hospital bill totaled $1,581 after insurance, which Lawson paid out-of-pocket. She stated she has experienced memory problems since the incident, which she attributes to the injury.

Lawson explained that in typical productions, stage crew are given a full rehearsal, called a shift rehearsal, to work out scene transitions. This rehearsal allows the crew to understand how and where props and set pieces should be moved to prevent injuries. For UMKC’s production of “Italian Straw Hat,” that rehearsal never happened.

“Problem is, they didn’t finish building [the set] in time, and then they didn’t have one. They didn’t have a shift rehearsal,” Lawson said. “We were just expected to figure out how to do it without really having any time.”

Lawson described feeling pressured by stage managers and directors in that rehearsal because of a lack of time. She also claimed the set piece she was assigned to move should have had three to four crew members moving it. Only two were assigned. 

“I said multiple, multiple, multiple times, the way we’re doing this is not safe. I don’t feel comfortable moving these things, someone’s gonna get hurt,” Lawson said. “Someone else got hurt moving those. His foot got run over. And it wasn’t like a big deal. Like he didn’t break his toe. But it’s like, it was really painful.”

Lawson reported being pressured to return backstage in the following days to continue working on the production.

“I didn’t go back to rehearsals after my concussion and wasn’t told to, but the general tone of folks that I spoke to gave me the impression that I should,” Lawson said. “It’s an unwritten rule to come back as soon as possible. The department doesn’t force us back but when our grades and reputation are on the line, we feel the pressure to.”

Ken Martin, chair of the UMKC Conservatory’s Theatre Division, said he is confident the director of production would never pressure students. 

“We’re actually a little bit on the other side of that,” Martin said. “We would have preferred, if she had a concussion, for her to not come back.”

Martin, who became the Theatre Department Chair in fall 2019, said the department followed UMKC’s protocols for determining whether or not the university would pay for any medical expenses. 

“As students, if you get hurt on campus, which is really what this is, you end up having to pay the bills, unfortunately, unless you can come after the university for some sort of negligence,” he said

UMKC Law Professor Allen Rostron said that in Lawson’s situation, “it’s possible that someone would claim there was negligence.”

“Negligence means failure to exercise the care of a reasonable person under the circumstances,” Rostron said. “You basically use an imaginary ‘reasonable person’ as a measuring stick, and you compare what the actual person did to what that hypothetical ‘reasonable person’ would do.”

Rostron explained that to fully determine if there was negligence, someone would need to prove the extent of the danger, who knew about the danger, how foreseeable the danger was and what could have been done to prevent it. While Rostron said it is impossible to state for certain whether or not there was negligence, it is “a situation where it is plausible that one could assert that there was negligence.” 

Regarding Lawson’s injury, Assistant Director of Strategic Communications Stacy Downs said, “We will follow up to see if the student wishes to report information on health status or concerns about the incident.”

The university contacted Lawson. She then made a liability claim, which was denied.

Lawson’s injury was not the only case of dangerous conditions inside the Theatre Department. 

During UMKC’s production of “Women” in 2018, a prop disco ball broke free from its attachment and fell, barely missing actors during a dance scene.

“If it had dropped at other points in the show, it certainly could have hit somebody,” senior Emily Ho, who witnessed the accident, said. “It could have hit an actor. But also, when it broke, pieces flew into the audience, so someone could have gotten hurt that way.” 

A crew member captured the accident on video, which was posted to social media. Multiple students confirmed that faculty told students not to share the video because it contained copyrighted music that the Theatre Department had not secured the rights to use. 

There were also two incidents during the UMKC production of “Dracula.” The first incident occurred during rehearsals for the 2018 show, where the overuse of a fog machine caused actors to slip on stage. Multiple students reported that guest director John Rensenhouse pressured students to use the fog machine even though safety concerns were brought up by students. Guest actor Kip Niven, who was 73 at the time of the performance, fell multiple times. He was forced to rely on a cane to walk after the falls. 

In the same production, a second incident occurred during the strike, which is when the set is disassembled.The technical director instructed students to cut pieces of a steel frame without training or safety equipment. Students expressed their concerns, but the technical director continued telling the students to cut the steel frames.

Lawson thinks these incidents could have been prevented with more faculty supervision over productions. 

“They just don’t, I guess, see a need to hire another faculty member,” Lawson said. “Really, we should have a faculty member, a different faculty member for each show.”

According to Martin, the theatre department chair, faculty members are present at all strikes.

“The director of production and production manager, technical director would be there,” Martin said. “The ones that I’ve been to, they’ve always been there. So I can’t imagine that that’s not standard.”

Downs said many of the incidents date back to 2018, and the department has changed since then.

“Ken Martin became the chair of the Theatre department in fall 2019, the same year that Theatre department became part of the UMKC Conservatory, under Dean Diane Petrella,” Downs said. “Dean Petrella and Prof. Martin both said that the Conservatory has high standards and expectations for all faculty, staff and students.”

hmgb87@mail.umkc.edu 

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