Walking into Jean Browne Theatre on almost any given day, there is a flurry of hammering and drilling on the set for the upcoming production. Students can often be seen scaling ladders while attaching lighting equipment to the scaffolding above. But while these technicians appear to be seasoned pros, there is a very real danger that threatens them as they do their jobs, and has for the past several years.
According to Denise Weatherly-Green, the technical director and theater manager, she and the technicians work every day with worn-out equipment and electrical wiring that has not been updated in years due to lack of funds.
“Cables have proven to pose the risk of electrical shock,” Weatherly-Green said.
She is not the only one concerned with the hazard.
“People have gotten shocked. Nothing major yet thankfully, but it’s just a matter of time. The cables are so old and it’s really not safe, but we do it anyway,” Libby Harmon, sophomore technician, said.
Bill King, physical plant director, after taking a walk-through of the facilities, agrees that there is a danger.
“In my estimation, the wiring and electrical problem does pose a safety risk to those working with it,” King said.
But the problem extends past the faulty wiring. Tools and climbing equipment have presented a concern as well. Weatherly-Green and the other technicians regularly climb 30 feet into the air on a broken extension ladder to hang lights.
Harmon herself had a dangerous experience when working on a Genie, which is a manually operated cherry picker device. A cable snapped and sent her plummeting several feet. Fortunately, the device stopped descending before it hit the ground and others working with her were able to remove her before it fell farther.
“The experience was terrifying. I really could have gotten hurt,” Harmon said.
With lights and cables that are short-circuiting, the problems of both theaters have affected a show on more than one occasion, including one performance of the Apache Belles show this semester when all the lights in the theater short-circuited, delaying the show for several minutes.
With all these issues at hand threatening the safety of students working inside the theater, it is important for the theater to be updated to eliminate safety risks. But the funds to begin the renovation have not been made available to the theater department.
Jean Browne Theatre is allotted an annual budget for maintenance and upkeep of the theater and its equipment. The maintenance budget for fall 2008 through spring 2009 for Jean Browne Theatre was $5,000, most of which has already been spent on eight new-generation tools and a roll of black fabric to make a curtain. Wise Auditorium does not have any funds allotted for maintenance.
At the beginning of the semester, Weatherly-Green appealed to the Student Services Fee Advisory Committee, or SSFAC, with a request for funding to update the equipment.
A detailed list of everything that was needed as a minimum to get started on the necessary renovation was presented. The total cost of all materials for the two theaters was over $44,000, but Weatherly-Green stressed in her presentation that the theater department would be thankful for any funds that the committee was willing to grant, even if it was just a few hundred dollars.
Unfortunately, the committee denied the entire request and did not grant any funds. According to Taylor Jett, the former chair of SSFAC, the funds were not granted because the Texas Education code does not allow student life fee money to be used for buildings or facilities.
The physical plant is working with the theater department in every way they can to come up with a plan to update the theaters.
“Bill King is serious about taking care of any safety risks. They have been really supportive along with Dean Figueroa,” Weatherly-Green said.
Weatherly-Green is actively working on taking inventory and evaluating all the equipment and the physical space itself in order to give a report to the administration on all the work that needs to be done.
In the meantime, she and the rest of the technicians must make do with what they have, which often means carting old equipment back and forth between the two theaters, as there is not enough equipment for both spaces. Wise does not even contain its own drill, a basic necessity for any theater.
“All this work cuts our man hours in half. Often times I end up putting in three- to-four times the physical hours I should theoretically have to in order to work around the dangerous and outdated equipment. I’m used to making something out of nothing,” Weatherly-Green said.
Even beyond making the technicians’ work safer and more productive, the renovations could drastically increase energy efficiency and in the long run save costs. According to Weatherly Green, the new generation instruments burn 40 percent less energy than the old ones they are working with.
“We could be much more energy efficient if we would sink the initial funds into the new equipment. In the long run, it would more than pay for itself in energy costs,” Weatherly-Green said.
However, until the funds come through to bring all the equipment up to date, the show will still go on, and the associated risks and costs will remain in the backdrop.