Local 802 and League Evaluate Health and Safety ‘Prototypes’

Volume CII, No. 7/8July, 2002

David Lennon

One important provision of the current Broadway agreement was the designation of several “prototype” productions that would implement innovative sound and air treatments in an effort to address longstanding health and safety concerns. On May 15, representatives of 802 and the League of American Theatres and Producers met to review and assess the effectiveness of those approaches.

The prototype productions assessed were High Society at the St. James, Beauty and the Beast at the Palace, Les Miserables at the Imperial and The Phantom of the Opera at the Majestic. Miss Saigon, although not designated as a prototype, was also reviewed, since a sound treatment similar to that of High Society had been installed at the Broadway Theatre. As stipulated in the Broadway agreement, the prototype productions were designated “in an effort to deal with the concerns of the parties about the use of certain smoke, fog, and/or pyrotechnics, as well as excessively high sound levels in the orchestra performance areas of the theatres.”


Local 802 initiated the meeting for several reasons. First, the installation of the air curtain at the Majestic marked the completion of the last prototype device. Second, the budget for the prototypes, paid for by the Local 802 Sick Pay and Hospitalization Fund, had been reached, and therefore any ongoing maintenance of these devices needed to be prudently addressed. Third, it was important for both parties to conduct an assessment since the contract’s health and safety language provides for the “implementation of appropriate remedial techniques or devices which have been successfully utilized at other theatres” in productions beyond the prototypes where similar health and safety problems may exist. Lastly, the union hoped to identify ways to avert potential future problems.

In attendance at the meeting were representative musicians from each of the shows to be reviewed, Local 802 Theatre Department staff and representatives from the League, along with key production and theatre personnel from all of the prototype shows with the exception of Disney and Nederlander (Beauty and the Beast), whose presence had been requested by Local 802. The meeting was productive in that the parties were able to agree on several things.

First of all, the sound treatments at both High Society and Miss Saigon were judged a success in significantly reducing sound levels and improving the overall sound of the orchestra. It was noted, however, that addressing such problems quickly is crucial, since years of exposure to unsafe sound levels prior to the installation at Miss Saigon compounded the difficulty in resolving the problems and ultimately compromised the degree of the sound treatment’s success.

The first of the three smoke and fog prototypes was installed at the Palace Theatre. The air curtain at Disney’s Beauty and the Beast, by far the most problematic show, was deemed unsuccessful for several reasons. First, it did not protect the musicians against the show’s excessive use of pyrotechnic effects and the particulate matter these effects produced. David Gordon of Gordon Air Quality Consultants, the air curtain’s designer, confirmed this fact in a written report. As a result, the union was unable to determine the air curtain’s effectiveness against other types of smoke and fog used in this production. And years of exposure before the air curtain was installed had sensitized many of the musicians, again highlighting the importance of addressing these problems quickly.

Beauty and the Beast has since moved to the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre, which does not have an air curtain. Although the employer eliminated the most problematic pyrotechnic effects as a result of the union’s ongoing pressure, Local 802 continues to receive reports of problems resulting from the use of oil-based fogs. That fact underscores the importance of evaluating the air curtains’ effectiveness against the use of such materials.

Les Miz, where the second prototype air curtain is installed, is just such a production. From the onset, however, management has not allowed this air curtain to run at its design capacity due to objections regarding noise levels by the show’s sound designer. Gordon, the air curtain’s designer, has made several adjustments to increase its effectiveness without raising the air capacity level. He has repeatedly confirmed that the air curtain needs to be run at a minimum of 60 percent capacity to do its job effectively. It currently is running at only 50 percent. At the meeting, the producer’s representatives agreed to run the prototype at a higher level in order to make a judgment both about noise levels and about its effectiveness in keeping smoke and fog out of the pit.

The final prototype air curtain, installed at Phantom, was deemed the most successful of the three; it has been highly effective in keeping the low-lying dry-ice effects out of the pit. The outstanding cooperation of production and theatre personnel, in addition to their quick response in trouble-shooting occasional problems, was especially noted.

Finally, the union emphasized League members’ obligation to inform Local 802 about any planned use of smoke and fog and the requirement, under law, to provide Material Safety Data Sheets. The League was also reminded of the contractual requirement for the employer/producer to conduct “right to know” sessions for musicians, to make them aware of any substance they might be exposed to in the course of their work. The union agreed to discuss with orchestra conductors ways in which potential sound level problems might be prevented.

Although the success of the devices utilized in the prototype productions has been varied, determining that fact is the very purpose of designating prototype productions. Resolving these serious issues can take a great deal of time. Assessing the prototypes has hopefully brought Local 802 closer to effectively addressing these problems in the future, and was an important step in preparing to address this issue in the upcoming Broadway negotiations.