Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Spiderman: Turn Off the Show

Once again, the producers dodged a bullet. Nobody died. This time.

Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark, the inexplicable hit of the current Broadway season (it hasn't even opened yet), has been plagued from its inception, years ago. But as soon as the actors stepped onstage (or leaped, or flew, or backflipped, or what-have-you), they started getting injured. This hasn't stopped the producers from forging ahead, though they continue to postpone their official opening to make "creative changes." Meanwhile, the previews are raking in the bucks; according to Broadway.com, the show is grossing over a million a week, and in terms of capacity, they are filling their houses better than Wicked, The Lion King, Jersey Boys, in fact every show on Broadway, with the exception of The Merchant of Venice, which has a limited run starring Al Pacino.

There is some macabre word on the street that people are packing into the theatre in hopes of seeing the next big unplanned disaster. The show had to be halted five times during the first preview, and technical snafus continue to arise. Well, that's what previews are all about these days (though technical snafus USED to be handled during something we actors call REHEARSAL, but since rehearsals don't generate income, and Spiderman is in sore need of some, they started selling tickets.)

But as I said, as soon as actors joined the process, they started getting hurt. One of the leading actresses was conked on the head backstage and was out of the show for two weeks with a concussion, some other poor schnook broke BOTH his wrists trying a stunt, and surely there have been sprains and other injuries ("minor") which have not made the press. Once these mishaps started occurring with regularity, Actors Equity Association dispatched one of its "safety officials" to be onsite at every performance (nobody can recall that EVER happening before).

Well, that safety official didn't prevent the biggest injury yet, which happened in the final minutes of last night's preview. One of the stunt doubles for the hero took a header into the pit when his cable broke, and he wound up in traction on a stretcher, being wheeled into an ambulance.

The mishap even caused some equipment to tumble into the audience. The producers have not released the name of the actor, but the New York Times has determined it is Christopher Tierney, who is an aerialist and one of Spidey's stunt doubles.

I'm wondering when the heck Equity is going to step in with some force. Clearly the production team is determined to move forward with their show, which, at $65 million is the most expensive production (BY FAR) to ever hit Broadway. It is estimated that they must gross over a million dollars a week just to meet their running costs; economists are predicting the show must exceed those running costs for four solid years before profit is made.

Labor Department safety inspectors are on hand as I write these words, trying to determine what happened and, I assume, how it can be prevented in the future. These are the same guys who investigated the last mishap, when a sling-shot effect went wrong and two actors were injured. After that accident in November, they gave approval for performances to continue uninterrupted.

I wonder, how CAN it be prevented in the future? This monster show looks like Cirque de Soleil on steroids, with plenty of opportunities for severe injury to its cast. Equity has the power to shut down this production until it can be proven safe to perform: by pulling its members off the stage (as a Broadway show, everyone who steps foot on the stage is a union member), the show would have to shutter, at least temporarily. Would that be such a drastic step, considering what has been going on? Yes, I know the argument: if Spiderman turns into a smash hit (rather than the gruesome curiosity it now is) and runs for years, it will generate tens of thousands of work weeks for union actors. Is it worth making that gamble, when the next injury could put an actor in a wheelchair for life, or actually end it?

According to AEA rules, if any actor feels unsafe performing anything on stage, all he has to do is say so, and he cannot be forced to do so. So why are these actors taking their own safety so cavalierly? Because that's what we do: we are desperate to work, and anxious to be considered a team player. I am a big Equity supporter, been in the union for decades, serve on the local liaison committee, rah rah sis boom bah. But I am ashamed that AEA has so tentatively stepped in to insure the safety of its actors. The producers are not going to do it, they've been injuring their cast members since day one. Somebody should. Somebody must.

(update: the most recent accident has been labeled "human error," and resulted in a postponement of one performance of Spiderman; new safety measures are being put in place, and performances will continue tomorrow night.)