An Ill Wind That Blew No Good

Smoke Problem at "Wicked" Prompts Action

Volume CVII, No. 2February, 2007

Bettina Covo and Mary Donovan

Click for larger image.

Smoke and fog effects at “Wicked” prompted musicians, actors and stagehands to protest. Above, Stephanie J. Block levitates as the witch Elphaba. Photo by Joan Marcus via Wikipedia.

The Theatre Department of Local 802 recently received information that a meeting was scheduled at “Wicked” initiated by IATSE Local 1 (the stagehands’ union) because of a smoke and fog problem. Upon deeper investigation, our department learned that this particular issue seemed to affect the stagehands more directly than anyone else. Hence, Local 1 instigated the meeting. We decided to send representatives to show our support for the other unions.

Unbeknownst to us, this was a full meeting of cast, crew and orchestra members together with representatives from their respective unions.

It turned out that the producers of “Wicked” had made the decision to replace the dry ice – used to produce the smoke and fog since the inception of the show – with a glycol mixture.


It seems that the producers were so impressed with the glycol fog quality in the Chicago and London productions that they decided to change to glycol in the New York production as well.

By this point in time, the experiment with the glycol mixture had been in place in New York for over four weeks. All of this without any notification to 802.

It was an emotionally charged meeting. Supposedly there were no adverse affects in Chicago or London. However, here at the Gershwin Theatre the new substance was apparently causing nasal congestion, throat and eye problems as well as breathing problems.

It was so severe that the actors were having difficulty singing and visibility on stage was compromised.

At this meeting, members of the orchestra expressed that they, too, had developed uncomfortable symptoms from the glycol, some more than others.

It was apparent from the turnout and the attitude in the room that no one wanted to continue working in the production under the health and safety concerns caused by the use of glycol – particularly the stagehands, who were in no mood for the cavalier explanation handed out by the management representatives.

In a private meeting between management and union representatives, the Local 1 business agent clearly indicated that a crisis was at hand and that management had to make a choice with regards to the stagehands’ continued cooperation or else. The glycol was immediately replaced with dry ice for that evening’s performance.

Local 802 representatives returned a few days later to meet with Eric Wallace, who is the health and safety officer from Universal Pictures, one of the show’s producers. We met together with some of the orchestra members.

Wallace gave a breakdown of their plans on testing the substance in an empty theatre and monitoring the effects from there. He assured us he would stay in close contact and keep the union informed well in advance of any future testing.

Currently, the show is running using only dry ice. The producers plan to test the glycol mixture in L.A. first and, if they decide to use it in New York, they will let us know.

So, for the moment, the issue seems to be on hold pending their additional testing. Local 802 will continue to stay in close touch with the orchestra and management to monitor the situation for any upcoming changes.

It is important to understand that 802 is here for its members. This particular situation with “Wicked” highlights several things. It seems that some producers still have little concern for their employees, from stagehands to actors to musicians. Those producers show little respect for the unions and the correct way to do business. They often skirt the rules laid out by our contract.

Under the terms of the Broadway agreement, the employer failed to comply with article 13, section one, part two, which basically states that the employer agrees to notify the union if smoke, fog or pyrotechnics are scheduled to be used.

Because this employer failed so blatantly to live up to this part of the agreement, it becomes important for the union and its members to implement another part of the contract that states that a health and safety committee shall be established. This would be a committee made up of both management and Local 802 representatives to investigate these serious issues.

Toward this end, the Theatre Department has instructed our attorney to notify the League of our intentions that such a committee be put into place. It is hoped that such a committee can be proactive in addressing health and safety concerns. It is also hoped that producers will get the message that the health and safety of our members is important to the union.

But it is also vital that our members communicate with us so that we can know when a problem arises.

We urge the in-house contractors and Broadway delegates to bring these matters to the union’s attention as soon as possible. Please help us help you. Call 802 at (212) 245-4802 and ask for the Theatre Department.