Safety Topic — Sleep Deprivation

Published September 2018

In the MPR piece from July 2, 2018, Sarah struggled with being tired on the job.  We all take for granted that sleep deprivation is a regular occurrence in our industry but we want to hear your stories.

  •    Has your sleep schedule been thrown off because the only time you are able to work was during your normal sleeping hours? 
  •    How has being tired affected respectful communication in your workplace?
  •    How do you shut off your problem solving energy to ensure adequate rest during projects?
  •    Do you have a story about how being too tired has put you at risk of a significant injury?

Let us know your own experiences or tips in the comments.  We’ll address sleep deprivation again in a future newsletter.

Our Personal Stories:

Working Overnight

by Ray

            Some years ago, I worked as the master electrician on a show for a Twin Cities theater company.  The job was hired as an independent contractor, with some oversight of company-hired electricians. The show was being produced in a space that did not have a flyline system; there was a dead-hung grid, steel framework above that, and some HVAC ducting in between.  This show did not have much in the way of scenery.  Presumably because of that fact, there was no technical director hired.
            To augment the production, the director requested a large number of light bulbs to be dangling, with the goal of being able to have them fly in at different times.  Some were used in one particular story location, some another, etc.  All of the light bulbs were to be flown in almost to ground level in the last act.  This entire project was handed to me because electricity was involved, and no technical director was hired. I was informed of all this only a few weeks before load-in was scheduled, and there would be no pre-rigging possible.
            The original plan called for roughly 60 light bulbs to be flown in, utilizing approximately 11 operating lines for performers to operate during the show.  The load-in schedule was quite short, but I had managed to do some preparation before load-in.  However, the layout of the light bulbs and their physical hanging meant that there would be a virtual spider web of cable above the dead-hung grid.  Each ‘strand’ of that web needed to make minimal or no contact with any other strand.  Putting up the very first, simplest line with one lone light bulb quickly demonstrated that there would be much less room available than needed for that many flying light bulbs, especially with HVAC running through the same area.
            At the start of technical rehearsals, there were only 3 operating lines working, with a total of 5 light bulbs.  Out of 60.  Those 5 light bulbs would be by far the easiest to install, and it still required a very late night to accomplish those few.  At this point, the director agreed to cut the number of flying light bulbs in half.  This made the project technically possible, but it was now 10 days before opening, and tech rehearsals were starting immediately.
            For the next two nights, I worked on this project from the time rehearsal ended at roughly 10 PM until 10 AM the next morning, then fitfully slept in the afternoon for a few hours.  On the third day, I was told that the project needed to be mostly working and usable by the following rehearsal, but a crew would be hired for the following morning.  That night, I pulled another all-nighter to get the project to the point that having multiple people would be useful.
            When the crew arrived that next morning, I was technically awake (I think), but not very coherent.  That morning call with several electricians is a disjointed fog in my mind.  I believe I was able to emit some understandable instructions on occasion, and sometimes wield a screwdriver without stabbing myself, but could not swear to that in a court of law.
            The project was finished in the nick of time, with no catastrophes.  I managed to get home without crashing and then fell asleep, but it’s clear in hindsight that I shouldn’t have been driving by that point.  Perhaps not even walking.

Holiday Show

by Anonymous Stagehand

            About a decade ago, I was serving as head carpenter at a local venue that was producing a show for the holiday season. Load in and production occurred over 24 days, 8 am until 11 pm every day. 13-hour days were common. As the weeks wore on, the schedule began to significantly wear us down.  We started to eat during production time so we could sleep on our one-hour meal breaks.   Both the quality and quantity of work diminished, especially in the evening sessions. My job always started and ended with safety. I had to keep a close eye on all around me, even more so as we began to rehearse with actors and moving scenery, because the fatigue continued to grow worse. Nothing significant happened, but this is because I had a crew of talented and experienced stagehands. It would have been much safer, and more cost effective, to work shorter days over a longer production period. This would have reduced the overtime bill, maintained a safer working environment for everyone, and increased the productivity of all involved.

Broadway Load In

by Anonymous Stagehand

            Recently, I served as a carpenter for a Broadway load in. Due to scheduling constraints, the load in began in the early evening, and ran straight through until the beginning of the opening night performance. As required, the show crew worked the load in, then continued working until the end of the show. Their call ran for 27 hours.  While there were half-hour breaks for meals every 5 hours, there was no opportunity for sleep. The show was a musical with a large cast, complex flown and rolling scenery, and automation. With this type of touring show, it is common for there to be little or no time for technical rehearsal. The combination of extreme fatigue, the pressure of live performance, and the precision needed to run a show of this caliber could have resulted in a very dangerous situation.

Overnight Incident

by Anonymous Stagehand

            I was working as a carpenter at a local theater doing an overnight load in for a show. To avoid payroll penalties, and to provide a break for the show crew, the overnight call was filled from the extras list. Most of the house crew, including the head flyman, was sent home. A stagehand who was not well qualified took a position on the fly rail for the overnight. At around 3 am, certain procedures were not followed to secure a batten, resulting in a runaway lineset. No one was injured, but there was significant damage to parts of the fly system, as well as some show scenery. This resulted in a considerable delay in the load in. Because of the late hour, and a lack of appropriate supervision, a costly and very dangerous situation occurred.

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