Why The Incident At Hamilton: San Francisco Should Be A Wake Up Call To Venues

by Michael Mahany | 2/19/2019 6:10 PM

Hamilton at the Orpheum in San Francisco. Photo credit: NBC

Last Friday night, the cast, crew, and audience of Hamilton at the Orpheum Theatre in San Francisco went through a hellish experience. After a medical emergency in the audience and the screaming of an audience member— the venue erupted into chaos.

"Well, apparently…someone had a heart attack. I don't know how it started, but someone began screaming. I heard the screaming … and saw the actors breaking character, and suddenly they exited,” a source familiar with the situation told Dance Network. 

It’s rare, but not unheard of in live theatre for a medical emergency to happen. Usually, when a medical event occurs, a loud call or urgent request for a doctor erupts from the darkness of the audience in the house. After a momentary period where in-the-moment performers and stage managers access the situation, the company often exits stage, and the venue’s staff — those trained to deal with these sorts of incidents — begin to assist the ill patron. 

After the emergency is dealt with and the injured or sick person is transferred to the proper authorities for treatment, the performance usually starts back up and continues on. And, the reason all of this works, is because there’s somewhat of an established protocol to deal with these sorts of emergencies.

But this time in San Francisco was different. 

“Once the [stage lights] went out,” the source said, “[people were] rushing the aisles, running to the exits, some even running and throwing themselves into the [orchestra] pit.”

So what happened this time? Was this the result of a larger societal issue? Moreover, why were the folks inside the Orpheum left without any information? How do venues fix it so that it doesn’t happen again — or, in the event of an actual threatening emergency, theatre and patrons are better prepared?

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Our source told us they were asking themselves the same question.

“Still not knowing what was happening… [we ended up in a] bathroom. We walk into the bathroom and are faced with a dozen, wide-eyed, terrified people who immediately turn... and say ‘What's going on? Is there a shooter? Are we safe?’”

“The worst part was not knowing what was happening,” the source continued. “Was it really a medical emergency that just erupted into chaos in lieu of the day's events? Or was it really the worst-case scenario come to life? I silently hoped and prayed for one, while bracing and preparing myself for the other.”

The seemingly short and simple answer is—and, mind you, nothing is short or simple about situations like these — the development protocols, effective methods of communication, and ultimately, sharing that knowledge with patrons.

The cast of 'Hamilton' celebrating their Grammy win. Photo credit: Getty

"I know it wasn't very long that we were in there, but you could have told me we were there for an hour and I would believe it,” the source said. “[Someone with me] volunteered to check out the lobby. I stayed [in the bathroom with the others who had evacuated there, trying to help keep] them calm, and fortunately, he came back quickly with the 'all clear' and we told them it was safe to leave.”

The eerie fact that these sorts of issues need to be discussed in today’s climate is unfortunate, but, also, shouldn’t negate the necessity that a response to their existence must be meticulously, seriously and thoroughly planned and put into practice. Theatre and venues need to develop action plans, and when they have, share them with their communities.

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“It was surreal observing the people I was with: one girl clinging to her boyfriend looking like an animal trapped in a quick-approaching fire, others sobbing and praying, and most eerily - a ten-year-old girl who was completely unfazed by it all, probably already accustomed to regular drills.”

So, how do theatrical venues move forward? It’s a serious question that needs to be answered sooner rather than later. 

One thing, apparently not to do, is what the SHN Orpheum’s Twitter account did — overlook many of the incident's facts on a public social media platform. 

“During a medical event at the SHN Orpheum Theatre this evening an audience member activated the theater's fire pull station,” SHN Broadway in San Francisco Twitter account stated. “The audience and cast followed the life/safety system's automatic announcement and exited the theater."

The statement was quickly repudiated on Twitter by many who had attended the show.

According to local reporting, three people were physically injured in the self-evacuation that needed hospitalization, including one person with a broken leg. There were multiple social media accounts of mass confusion, chaos, rumors of a shooter, and claims that no automatic announcement was made at all.

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In the immediate moments at the beginning of a large scale traumatic event, especially given today's social climate, confusion and fear are often unavoidable. This incident, however, needs to be a wakeup call to venues around the nation. A notice that specific protocols need to be enacted, practiced and communicated.

It’s unfortunate that artistic spaces — where people go to invest deeply into a communal experience, forget about what’s happening outside, and live in an artfully crafted and developed world for a few hours — need to worry about these kinds of issues. But, these fears are something people carry with them, and until something changes on a governmental level, venues are responsible for keeping spaces safe. 

They need to set protocols, develop effective means of communication, put them into practice, and share those procedures with both communities at large and attendees at each performance. And, they need to do it now — the artistic community and the public need them to.

Michael Mahany serves as the New York City Correspondent for Dance Network. He is also a professional actor, musician, dancer, and writer. Follow him on TwitterInstagram, or click here to find out more.