To pursue a life in the theatre is to embark on a precarious path of rejection and intermittent employment. All theatre artists, even successful ones, face financial instability, cutthroat competition, and long hours. There are plenty of perils to face even when a job is booked, as one choreographic misstep or dropped cue can have a career-altering effect. The eight-show-a-week grind by itself, even minus any missteps, can have a lasting impact on a performer’s body for life.
There have always been, and always will be, injuries incurred in the realization of theatre magic. Most of that ostensible magic, after all, is crafted in the dark by stagehands on headsets, flymen watching infrared screens, and automated set pieces in motion. Performers are tasked with executing extraordinary things onstage, night after night, often amid such occupational hazards as theatrical smoke and haze, raked stages, and loud noises—all while decked out in unwieldy costume pieces and towering wigs.
The infamous 2011 Broadway production of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark made headlines when a number of faulty harnesses and unsafe mechanical set pieces caused injuries, leaving at least one actor hospitalized after a free fall of more than 20 feet into the orchestra pit. Idina Menzel fractured a rib after falling several feet through a trapdoor while performing in Wicked in 2005. Groundhog Day’s Andy Karl was sidelined in 2017 when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament onstage. Recently Andrea Martin bowed out of this season’s Gary: A Sequel to Titus Andronicus after breaking four ribs in rehearsal.
But aside from show-stopping injuries that make the news, there is a culture of silence around the subject of theatrical injuries, particularly those involving emerging artists working on smaller-scale productions. The old adage “the show must go on” can be a dangerous prescription for shows without understudies. And the adrenaline rush of performance, not to mention the fear of being replaced, can sometimes propel an actor to perform through their pain and illness—a mystical experience show people credit to a certain “Dr. Footlights.” But what happens when actors don’t have health insurance? How can an artist best prepare to prevent injuries?
In December 2018, actor Andy Lucien wrote a blog post for the Lark’s website, sharing a searing account of the back injury he sustained while performing Off-Broadway the previous year. Lucien described a headlong movement sequence that involved him sprinting, doing a quick costume change into football gear, ascending a spiral staircase, walking across a catwalk—then doing the choreography again in reverse, all in one minute and 20 seconds. The performance space was much bigger than the rehearsal room, rendering the task nearly impossible to pull off in the time allotted. “We had been rehearsing with no regard to our well-being,” he reflects. He says he spoke to the director repeatedly, asking for the sequence to be lengthened, and alerted the stage management team when his body began to hurt from the neck down.
Lucien soon lost sensation in his arms, the result of fluid leaking from three herniated discs and touching nerves. Quitting wasn’t an option—for one, there was no understudy. And, in a bitter irony, he knew that if he stuck with the show through the end of the run he’d qualify for health insurance. To get through it, four heating pads were taped onto his skin under his costume; when he wasn’t at the theatre he was on bed rest. He pleaded with the producers to reimburse cab costs to and from the theatre. After the production closed, an MRI showed a herniated disc in his neck. Another test last year revealed that Lucien had sustained a back fracture.
Lucien’s personal essay, titled “Why I Broke Up With the American Theatre,” received responses from theatre artists across the country thanking him for speaking up. “Nobody really says anything because they don’t want to miss out on future job opportunities,” Lucien concedes. The drawback to his public outcry, he says, was that he “didn’t hear from as many people from the administrative side of theatre as I had hoped.” Indeed, he notes that some people have been openly avoiding him since the piece was published.
This month marks Lucien’s second year of physical therapy treatment. He was out of work for most of the year after the injury. He’s been to court three times to fight for insurance to cover the costs of treatment, and his recovery process remains a daily struggle. He credits a supportive partner, therapy, and institutions such as the Lark for helping him to move forward. “I was really worried that my career was over,” he says.
Performers who are members of Actors’ Equity Association, as Lucien is, fill out an accident report if they’re injured on the job, then send it to the production’s management team as well as the show’s designated Equity business rep. AEA staffers review the reports and handle more than 100 cases each week, offering performers information on workers’ compensation, which varies state by state. If a doctor is needed, performers are advised to see one recommended by the show’s insurance carrier. Since Lucien was seeking treatment post-show, and the show’s producers weren’t fully cooperative with the insurance company, he had trouble securing coverage for physical therapy treatment. Lucien and his lawyers reached a settlement last year after three workers’ compensation hearings; only then did the disability department at AEA begin to match the payments made from the insurance company. The union “made good on their word,” says Lucien, though he had hoped that a union representative would have set a policy change into motion after the experience—or at least check in on his recovery process.
One of many artists who reached out to Lucien after the article was actor Peter Romano. In a 2016 production of Othello, Romano, who portrayed Iago, developed severe bronchitis and laryngitis after spending a weekend in a black box with fog machines on full blast while teching the show. There were two performances for high school audiences slated for the following Monday, the understudy had not been rehearsed, and so Romano went on. By the end of the second performance, he was speaking in a whisper and had to be carried off the stage in the final scene.
At an urgent care facility, Romano was given a prescription of steroids, which carried him through the first week of performances. He wasn’t the only cast member experiencing residual effects of the fog machine, and as tlauhe show’s Equity deputy (the liaison between the cast and Actor’s Equity Association), he filed a complaint. “The following week a union representative came to the show and asked the stage manager to shut the fog off, limiting the number to two or three times during the show when fog was allowed to be used,” he said. “So I did feel supported, but it was too late to avoid my circumstances.”
In a spring episode of the American Theatre podcast Three on the Aisle, Broadway star Laura Benanti shared her own account of a life-altering onstage injury. It happened while she was starring as Cinderella in the 2002 Broadway production of Into the Woods, when she ran down a moving staircase in heels while carrying a tiara, a sequence that ended with a pratfall on the Broadhurst Theatre stage. The stunt elicited gasps from the audience each night and then, one performance, the maneuver resulted in what the audience feared: Benanti had literally broken her neck.
Then 22 years old, she had three spinal surgeries to correct the problem, but continues to suffer residual effects from the trauma, including myelopathy in her hands and the need for physical therapy for the rest of her life.
Here’s the thing about physical therapy: It’s not just for treatment anymore. It’s also become a preventative measure. Over the past two decades, it’s become standard for commercial producers to contract physical therapists to work with the cast on shows that feature movement.
The practice of Dr. Sean P. Gallagher, Performing Arts Physical Therapy, is located in the heart of New York City’s theatre district. Gallagher was a dancer-turned-athletic trainer after an injury left him sidelined. He started working with performing artists on the 1989 Broadway production of Jerome Robbins’ Broadway—according to him the first production to contract a physical therapist. The show’s 65 performers benefitted from foam rollers, massages, and workshops led by Gallagher.
“I used to be the only guy on the block, and now there are four or five different practices doing the same type of work,” he noted. “When I first started, shows didn’t have physical therapy, so it was like, ‘Oh my God, this is so great.’ Now it’s, ‘Where is the PT?’ There’s an expectation for it—and there should be.”
Oklahoma!, Dear Evan Hansen, The Play That Goes Wrong, and The Phantom of the Opera are some of the projects Gallagher is currently contracted on. He meets with cast members a few times a week for physical therapy appointments to prevent injury. But shows like Cirque du Soleil’s Broadway outing Paramour, for instance, require more than biweekly maintenance appointments. For that show Gallagher and an athletic trainer reported to the theatre for each performance to be on hand in case of an acrobatic accident. High-wire risks or not, Gallagher tells performers, “It’s not whether you can do it—it’s whether you can do it eight times a week. You only have to be tired and make a mistake once to get an injury.”
Even shows without strenuous demands can take their toll at that level of frequency: A heavy wig can cause a neck strain, a raked stage can cause a knee injury. If a performer has a chronic injury that doesn’t seem to be healing with physical therapy, Gallagher will advocate for the choreographer or dance captain to modify the performer’s track.
“We accommodate and habituate to our environment until we can’t,” he explains. “Then the stress becomes distress.”
Gallagher recognizes that the physical demands required of performers are comparable to those of athletes. But athletes, he likes to remind his clients, have more than a few days of PT—they have teams of trainers and health care specialists tending to their needs every day.
Indeed, if athletes have access to physical therapists and trainers, why shouldn’t artists? That’s true even at the college level. As John Simpkins, head of Penn State University’s musical theatre program, puts it, “In many respects, the experience of these student-artists resembles the experience of NCAA Division I varsity student athletes.”
So last summer, Penn State University launched a wellness center for the musical theatre program. “Wellness is a topic currently on the minds of university leaders everywhere,” Simpkins tells me. “The Wellness Center for musical theatre students has four prongs: physical health, mental health, vocal health, and nutrition. Students can book appointments with physical therapists, free of charge, for ongoing care to tackle any aches and pains incurred through training or to treat injuries from rehearsal or performance.”
Students also have the opportunity to book confidential therapy appointments, create a nutrition plan with a sports nutritionist, and to work with laryngologists on any vocal issues. They also have access to food at fueling stations in rehearsal and dance studios, a program created by the Penn State Athletics Department.
“We conduct group or individual sessions with our physical therapists that help students understand the preventative care they can undertake to avoid injury and best understand their own individual body,” says Simpkins.
The Wellness Center certainly helps to alleviate some of the mounting pressure student artists face while juggling academic classes with round-the-clock rehearsals. It not only makes for happier, healthier students on campus; the goal is also to help students form habits they can carry with them throughout their careers. “We hope this can help reduce burnout or injury, and create systems for our students to healthily navigate and celebrate the rewarding but difficult career path they have chosen,” says Simpkins.
Education, prevention, and treatment can all be found at the Actors Fund in New York City. In 2017, the service organization partnered with the Mount Sinai hospital network to create the Samuel J. Friedman Health Center for the Performing Arts, a health center focused on the needs of performing artists. The clinic replaced the organization’s former Al Hirschfeld Free Health Clinic, which offered primary care to people without health insurance.
The new center, located in Times Square, operates at unusual hours to accommodate performance schedules. “We offer walk-in appointments, and we’re more lenient if patients are late—we know that they may be coming from an audition,” explains Molly McNeil, the practice manager for the Mount Sinai Health System.
McNeil works to program workshops and discussions about health and wellness for the theatre community. A recent workshop series, requested by the Local One union of stagehands and technicians, focused on injury prevention. An occupational therapist instructed stagehands and performers on how to strengthen their core, conduct safe lifts, and practice healthy habits outside of working hours.
In addition to information sessions and workshops with health care specialists at the Actors Fund, the Friedman Center sends doctors to theatres to talk about preventative care. In April, the Friedman Center stopped by the Winter Garden Theatre to administer Vitamin B12 shots to the cast of Beetlejuice The Musical for an opening-week energy boost.
The Actors Fund also offers emotional support to performers who have sustained an injury. The Dancers’ Resource was founded in 2007 by Bebe Neuwirth, who broke her hip while playing Velma Kelly in Chicago. The multi-week program provides group counseling, emergency financial assistance, information about advocacy for workers’ compensation and disability insurance, and a space for dancers to share their experiences.
Lucien hopes to create more spaces for this kind of healing, and plans to establish a post-injury support group for performers via the Lark. “I didn’t realize that there was a connection between injury and depression—I’m learning that now,” he says.
Though there is a growing focus on the prevention of injury, and resources for performers, it often falls to the performer to speak up when they feel unsafe. There’s a chain of command when it comes to workplace injuries in the theatre. It may be a director’s job to create a safe rehearsal room, and the stage management team’s role to anticipate any potential dangers. But it’s a performer’s job to speak up when a gut instinct twinges.
Looking back at his injury, Lucien accepts his own complicity. “I didn’t value myself,” he says. Lucien has a new approach to his work as an actor: He asks about how the scenes might be staged as early as the audition process. When he is cast in a show, he vets nearby hospitals and even goes into the closest medical facilities to talk to the front desk workers about insurance policies. He requests that his costume pieces—shoes are a top priority—are made available as soon as possible in the rehearsal process.
Most of all, he advocates for his fellow cast and crew members to look out for each other, sometimes taking up the mantle to volunteer as the Equity deputy. “Volunteering to be deputy is something every actor should do,” says Lucien. While he would like to see procedures put in place to further protect actors—a Do Not Work list of dangerous directors, for instance—he recognizes that performers need to feel empowered to speak up.
“MeToo was one of the most informative and educational movements I’ve experienced, as a man and an advocate,” he says. The inspiration of that groundswell against sexual discrimination and abuse, paired with the rise of intimacy directors, just might be the kind of shift the industry needs as it takes a field-wide look at health and safety for actors.
For her part, Benanti is open about her traumatic experience. “I talk about it with young actors because I want them to know you can respectfully say, ‘No, I can’t do that,’” she says. “I regret not saying, ‘I’m not going to do that pratfall,’ because that would have honestly changed the trajectory of my life as just a human being.”
Romano now approaches collaborations with caution, and says he’s felt more empowered to speak up after his bout with bronchitis and laryngitis. “I am much more willing to be vocal if I sense there is a risk of physical harm involved,” he says. “As an actor, it’s hard to advocate for your well-being in rehearsal situations where that kind of behavior is mislabeled as ‘being difficult.’ In my experience it has been met with eyerolls—but the reality is that my body is my instrument.”
Lucien’s essay was the start of what he hopes to be an industry-wide sea change. “If nothing else, I really want to dismantle and attack ‘the show must go on’ point of view,” he says. “The art wouldn’t exist without the individuals who come together to make it. This idea that the art is somehow more important than the people who are making it creates a world where you have people justifying their own exploitation. Why does the art have to be made on our backs?”
Been injured on the job? We’ve assembled a list of medical and legal resources here.