Drama students ponder safety and risk during an uncertain time
As the director of theater safety and occupational health at Yale School of Drama, Anna Glover helps students who are developing and designing theater productions make smart safety decisions for the stage crew and their audiences. When designers and stage managers plan to use pyrotechnics in a play, for example, or have an actor climb high on an apparatus as part of the show’s action, Glover is usually on hand.
During the fall semester, however, her work on productions ground to a halt when the school decided not to offer its usual season of plays as a health precaution for students, staff, and the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Then Shaminda Amarakoon, chair of technical design and production, asked Glover if she had interest in teaching a new course that would turn out to be particularly relevant at this moment in history.
Glover, who is also a lecturer in technical design and production and theater management, created “Risk and Behavior Based Safety in Theatre.” The fall course, which was offered to second- and third-year drama students, helped them assess risk, make better decisions, and manage living with uncertainty, both in their work in theater and in their lives in general. The course also examined behavior-based safety (the role of people’s daily behavior in creating safe or unsafe places of work), resilience, and decision-making quality, including the ways in which biases and assumptions can affect how choices are made.
Glover, a native of the United Kingdom who came to Yale three years ago after working in the areas of health and safety at London’s Royal National Theatre and Southbank Centre, designed the course with her friend Ben Cattaneo, a risk professional and host of the popular “All Things Risk” podcast. Cattaneo was also a guest lecturer for the course, which was offered on Zoom.
“The fall term felt like the perfect moment to introduce this course,” said Glover. “During this global pandemic, we are all dealing with risk, safety, and uncertainty. I designed the course to give students the tools to assess risk and make good decisions both in their work in theater and in their lives.
“Theater is a very broad church; our students go on to work in a myriad of different jobs,” she added. “The kinds of decisions they will make can be as varied as: Should we attempt this script? Should we update our lighting board? Should we tour this show or renegotiate this contract? In the pandemic, the questions for theater professionals worldwide have become much more sharp: Should we open this venue? Should we furlough staff? Should I change career? My course was my attempt to respond to this crisis, and to better equip students entering into this new landscape.”
She received support from the Poorvu Center for Teaching and Learning in rolling out the course.
Preparing for unpredictable risk
Risk is an inherent part of theater productions, Glover said. As a result, the School of Drama, unlike Yale’s other professional schools, has its own health and safety director. (Yale Environmental Health & Safety oversees workplace safety campus-wide.)
“The best theater productions you’ve seen have elements of risk — fire, acrobatics, sets falling over, and so on,” she said. “In my day-to-day job, I help people make good decisions about how to do that kind of stuff. Risk is a part of life, and is a good thing.”
It’s similar, she said, to mountain climbing — a worthwhile risk best taken with good decision making and considerations of safety.
“If you are climbing Mount Everest, you don’t just go in a rucksack with a Clif Bar and a pair of shoes and hope you get there,” she said. “You train, you develop an understanding, you work as a group, you read everything you can, and then you have the best shot of reaching the summit. The unpredictable risk is the weather, or something you haven’t foreseen.
“That’s what I want students to be able to do, to approach life like that. We are hard-wired to love certainty, but we need to get more comfortable with uncertainty and to make decisions in a time that is uncertain, such as now.”
Lessons from the class were “directly applicable” to the COVID-19 crisis, said Eliza Orleans, a third-year theater management student.
“In class, we discussed challenges that arts organizations are currently facing, such as when to resume performances, and applied risk assessment tools,” said Orleans, who is also associate managing director of the Yale Repertory Theatre. “As someone aspiring to a leadership position, I will take learnings from this course around decision-making, risk analysis, and safety culture into my future workplace.”
Laura Copenhaver, a third-year student in technical design and production, said that in addition to learning how to better assess risk, she gained new insights into how to look at possible outcomes.
“We learned that every decision can be viewed through the lens of risk, that understanding risk and working through potential outcomes leads to better decision making, and that positive outcomes do not always reflect good decisions and negative outcomes do not always reflect poor decisions,” Copenhaver said. “The class encouraged me to view the available options as complexly and completely as possible, to examine my own thinking, and be ever vigilant for logical fallacies that might distort my analysis.”
Both students were grateful that Glover encouraged them to explore podcasts, articles, and real-time situations to expand their own learning.
In addition to looking at some case studies involving decision-making, Glover asked her students to ponder big decisions of their own, such as whether or not they would study for an additional (fourth) year at the School of Drama. Dean James Bundy announced at the start of the fall semester that all third-year students would be offered that opportunity at no additional cost in light of missed opportunities during the pandemic.
“We talk in the course about developing habits, and about leadership, and Dean Bundy’s decision last summer to not hold in-person classes and campus stage productions, and to allow students an extra year of study, was an example of good leadership,” Glover said. “It minimized our exposure to uncertainty while the full repercussions of the virus were still being realized.”
Good decisions, she emphasized to the students, start with defining personal values and using them as the foundation for decision-making. “We have this notion that a really strong leader has a great gut. That is important, but it isn’t everything. My advice is to listen to it, but also do some research!”