There should never be surprises: Theater expert weighs in on Westfield stage collapse

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INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. (April 26, 2015) – When 75 students took to the stage at a Westfield High School music performance Thursday, they never thought the night would end the way it did. Seventeen students reported injuries when that stage collapsed into an orchestra pit below, taking 30 high school students with it.

The injuries students suffered from the collapse at Westfield were far from severe, but experts are weighing in, saying it all could’ve been avoided.

Twelve Westfield High School students were taken to the hospital after the floor beneath them gave way.

It brought back bad memories for a state scarred by stage collapse; a stage collapse at the 2011 Indiana state fair, killed 7 people.

“The word stage collapse, you know, here in Indiana has a very special connotation to it, so yes, I was very very concerned when I saw that word on our dispatch,” said Westfield’s Mayor, Andy Cook during a news conference Friday.

“This is the structure; this is one of our two trapped areas. Similar to probably what was there at Westfield,” said Chris Fretts, technical director for the Indiana Repertory Theater as he showed us beneath the theater’s stage.

Frett is in charge of making sure the stage can handle anything that’s put on top of it.

“We’ve had cars sitting on top of this; we had one particular show a number of years ago where we had almost two tons of dirt,” he said.

Like Westfield’s, a portion of the theater’s stage can be removed for a pit orchestra. But when it’s in place and heavy sets are sitting on top, “In cases like that you put in some extra bracing, some extra shoring it up just to make sure that it’s going to be sturdy and those are things that we’re going to know ahead of time,” said Fretts.

Fretts and a team of stage managers will know exactly what will be sitting, standing, or shaking, on their stage, so they can act accordingly. Fretts said there are never any surprises like a group of students unexpectedly jumping up and down.

“We know exactly what’s going on and through the rehearsal process, if things change, our stage managers will let us know if all of a sudden, they’re jumping off this platform or they’re slamming this door and we have time to be able to make adjustments that we need to,” he said.

Fretts said the stage at the IRT receives no formal inspection from the state or city, but he has on multiple occasions called in structural engineers to check the safety of the stage during different performances.

An investigation detailing how the Westfield High School stage collapse happened is expected to take two weeks.

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