When the story of Raphael Schumacher–the Italian actor who accidentally hung himself during a stage performance–showed up on my newsfeed early last month, it sent a chill down my spine. Reading the reports on this tragedy broke my heart for his family and loved ones. It also made me think of Sarah Jones, who was killed on a film set two years ago as a result of irresponsible safety decisions made by people she was working for on that film.
I did not know Sarah Jones personally, but I have thought about her many, many times over the past two years. I’m sure I’ll think of Mr. Schumacher in the future as well, because I believe it is vital that we think about how we can educate each other about making sets and stages safer.
Stories of performers and crew members injured or killed on the job always hit close to home for me. Why? Because I think we’ve all been in at least one situation where we felt scared for our own safety or the safety of those around us. I absolutely have, and though I’ve never been seriously injured on set I have been put in situations where I felt it could have easily happened. (Ask me about the time I almost drowned in a tank of fake blood and then went home covered in hives, good times!) The primary memory of those experiences is the feeling that I “had to” go along with whatever was happening in order to be a “good actress.” That’s what scares me for myself, and for anyone else in this industry.
Here are a few things that I think contribute to this issue:
- Many people working in film or theatre feel–often with good reason–that their jobs are constantly on the line. When you feel replaceable, your sense of self-preservation is different. Where you might normally feel comfortable voicing an opinion about your safety or personal well-being in many areas of your life, if you have had to compete with thousands of other people to get your job, the idea that you’re dispensable is likely to make you agree to things you might not normally agree to.
- Specifically where actors are concerned: There is a sense that “good acting” is equivalent to who is “willing to go the furthest” for the role. Translate that notion into any situation where a performer might feel uncomfortable, but feels the need to go for it anyway… and you have a recipe for disaster. Actors will push themselves, because we are literally trained to think that way.
- Where crew members are concerned, and especially female crew members: There’s a certain “don’t rock the boat” attitude that comes into play on this side of the camera as well. For women breaking into a male-dominated industry to begin with, this is very intimidating. Women know that they have to work twice as hard to prove that they can handle themselves, carry heavy equipment, and “hang tough.” They’re also much less likely to speak up when something feels uncomfortable.
I think there are plenty of other reasons that contribute to these precarious safety issues, but these are the ones that I’ve heard most from others and felt from myself.
How do we combat this? Well, that’s a pretty good question that I think we should all be asking. I think that first and foremost we need to be constantly aware of these issues, and go above and beyond to account for them. Ask the people you’re working with if they’re comfortable, and be clear that they won’t be penalized if they aren’t. If you’re in a position of power, know that the tone you set could have a big impact on people around you. If you’re running an independent film set, make safety your top priority and remember that nobody’s life is as important as any scene or shot.
Have you ever felt your safety was compromised during a film shoot or theatre performance? What ideas do you have about how we can make each other feel safer on set?