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May 7, 2022

A Scott in the Dark: 67 - Keeping Performers Safe from Guests

In the wake of recent violence against live performers, Scott discusses the importance of performer safety.


In the wake of recent violence against live performers, Scott Swenson discusses the importance of performer safety.

Transcript

Hello everyone, and welcome back to the dark. I'm obviously not in the dark, nor am I in my home studio if you're watching this on video. I am in Houston, TX and I'm doing some work with Space Center, Houston. But there's been a couple of things that have happened over the last few weeks that I've been thinking about, wanted to talk about how it's going to affect us in the haunted attraction industry, and that is violence against performers. Obviously, there was the big one with the Academy Awards, which was, Chris Rock and Will Smith and I'm not going to beat that one into the ground. Also, with Dave Chappelle being tackled at the Hollywood Bowl just recently, I think it's important to maybe discuss this just a little bit more. I think it's important to recognize that there's a possibility that this kind of behavior, and the reactions to this kind of behavior, may actually encourage people to be even more violent than they ever have been before. The thing that concerns me the most is, this kind of behavior, and the response to this kind of behavior, seems to have created a new sense of empowerment against performers, and certainly, in the haunted attraction industry, this has always been a problem. We'll get into that in a bit more in a minute, but my biggest concern is that since we're seeing more and more of this, and since we're seeing more and more of it on the news and in social media and all that sort of stuff, The question comes up, is this going to be a season where guests will be more aggressive towards live performers in the haunt industry? I'll be honest, I don't know the answer. But I would rather talk about it now and have us prepped for it, then have it have us just say, "no, it's not going to be an issue. Everything will be fine." I think we're going to run into a situation of what I call, "monkey see monkey do," behavior, or if I'm being a little bit less kind, we're empowering the idiot. So, when they see somebody get national attention for attacking a celebrity, it somehow makes it OK--and especially when you see a celebrity attack a celebrity, but again not going to, I'm going to try not to. You know me, I'm not very good at that, so we'll see.

So, I just wanted to kind of reinforce actor safety, because like I said, I think this is the time where we need to do it, since people are seeing this kind of behavior more and more. Like I said, this has always been a problem. There's always been an issue about actors feeling unsafe, or actors getting hit, or actors getting punched, or whatever. I hate to say it, but that's kind of part of what we do. When you scare somebody, and I've said it for many, many years so if you've heard me say it before, I apologize, but I'm going to say it again because it still applies. With most haunted attractions, what you're doing is you're taking people, and in many cases feeding them alcohol or other intoxicants of some sort--whether you're doing it or whether it's happening before they get to you--and then putting them in the dark and scaring them. So, their reactions, well first and foremost anything that can come out of a human will. And there are those performers who view that as a badge of honor. "I made a big guy pee! I made a big guy pee!" That whole thing. I think what we're going to see, and what I'm afraid we're going to see more and more, is the fight or flight response. If you're in a crowded queue, especially like in a theme park haunt, for example, the opportunity to run away when you get scared is not an option, and so all you can do is fight, and that's unfortunately a human response. Let's hope that people recognize that's not a real zombie. But, you know, if we're doing our jobs right, we've created an atmosphere where they, for that fleeting moment, may believe that it's a real zombie. So, it's kind of a catch-22. Are we going to be realistic enough to be scary, but also realistic enough that makes people feel they need to defend themselves or defend their families?

So, this is not at all a new problem. This is something that has been around forever. The one thing that I do think is interesting, and again, I'm not a psychologist, so this is my opinion. You can completely disagree with me and maybe find more ways to prove me wrong and show other alternatives. But I really think that coming out of the pandemic and coming out of the separation that we've gone through, I think this has done two things. To start with, it may have actually increased the issue now that we're back in the real world. Because if you think about it, for the last two-ish years we've been isolated from other people. For many people, our communication has been through social media and when we don't like something, what we'll do is we'll rant about it, or we'll get into huge arguments. Well, now we have a way to physicalize that disagreement or physicalize that power and we want to make that impact. It's like, "I want to make sure that... I'm so angry that it..." and I keep making fist, if you're not watching the video, I keep making a fist because we're so angry. So, I think it has stunted our social interaction just a little bit. Hopefully, we'll recover, but I think that's part of it. On the flip side though, because during the pandemic those haunted attractions that were open and operating. I think you guys, I think we all had the opportunity to figure out, "what are ways to make things safer?" Because if you think about it, the things that kept physical distancing during the pandemic, as far as spreading disease are also things that can be adapted and utilized for physical attacks as well. One of my favorites is the haunts, and there were a couple, that actually created a catwalk above the guest performance space, and that's where the performer was, but they were using rods to animate puppets and props from above. So, the worst that could happen is the guest will punch the prop, which of course we don't want either, but it certainly doesn't hurt anybody and doesn't create a major lawsuit. So, I think those kinds of things we've already started to experiment with. Even down to the many haunts who developed ways to hide masks in, well masks, and keep them hidden and make them part of the costume. I think we can do that again, we can expand on that and do that to help protect the performers, if we feel that there's going to be more violence going on in the upcoming season. Again, I hope I'm wrong, but I'd rather talk about it now. So, I guess the question is, what can we do to make certain that our performers or actors are going to remain safe? A lot of this is review, but I think now is a good time to sort of talk through it again just to make sure that we are checking all the boxes to make sure that none of our performers end up bleeding. Yes, I know there are those haunters who walk out of a haunt experience wearing their bruises and their contusions like badges of honor. But, haunt owners, if you're listening to this, you clearly don't want to have a worker’s comp situation. You clearly don't want to have an injury that takes place on property that ends up... one major lawsuit can destroy your annual profit. So, looking at it with a little bit of a business hat, what can we do to make certain our performers do not get injured? And also, in this day and age, staffing. If someone gets injured and has to leave, that's one less staff member that you have, and you're probably struggling to get them all to begin with. So, I know there are some haunts that aren't, but in many cases, there's more competition out there, there's more people who recognize, "you know, I don't really want to work. I'd much rather just go and play." So, let's go back and just review, real quick, some of the simplest things that we can do to help protect our performers. I always say design for safety. Make sure that the way you design your haunt is the safest it possibly can be--for the performers and for the guests. I will give you an example of how I did this wrong once, and you'll understand exactly why it's wrong. In an Egyptian themed haunt that I designed I thought it would be really cool to have actors and put them into a carved foam wall, and actually carve out where the actors were in sort of an Egyptian pose, and then put them in Egyptian makeup in costume and then have them jump out of the wall like the wall comes alive. This is basically an invitation for guests to punch them because they had absolutely no way of getting out, they were in essence trapped in the carved-out foam. It was a dumb thing to do on my part, and if any of you have done it and not had this problem, great. But I will never ever do anything like that again, and if I do, I will make some alterations. First and foremost, escape routes. Make it so that the performers can get away. So, if were to ever do that again, they would be, instead of carved out of the foam, they would be cut out, so that the performers could all of a sudden just back up and get out of the way if they see somebody trying to do something stupid. Escape routes, in general, I think are important. You know we've all heard those horror stories of guests, sometimes inebriated, sometimes not, who find ways to sneak back around and scare the crap out of the performer or even injure them. I've heard many stories about guests coming back who got scared in front of their friends and didn't want to be scared, so they remember where the performer is, they come back through again and they intentionally hurt them. The worst story I ever heard was, somebody snuck in and while one of their buddies distracted the performer, the other one snuck around behind them and picked them up and basically, body-slammed him into the ground. Everybody has those stories. I wish they didn’t, but they all have stories that are like that. So, by creating a scenario where the performer has an escape, they can get away, they can get into a back area where they can then break character and say, "look, dude, stop." Make sure that there is more than one way out so that no one gets cornered, and no one gets trapped. Make certain that you can design, and this is something again that we learned a bit more for during the pandemic, if there are situations where you think performers might be vulnerable, make sure that you build certain protective equipment into their costuming.

For example. I've had situations where there were performers who were camo blends in like a 3D haunt, or a blacklight haunt, and there were 3D camo blends that were blending up against the wall. Through no fault of the guest, really, they would walkthrough with their hands out in front of them, touching the wall as they go, and there were several people who several performers who said, "I don't want to do this because I'm constantly getting groped. People are walking up and touching my chest or touching my... The parts that my Underwear covers." I'll talk to you like you're a toddler or a 5-year-old. they feel as though they are touched inappropriately, and that is legit. Some people don't want to be groped. I had to put that caveat in there because I have friends... But the idea here is, what can you do to help that? It's actually quite simple. You build in a chest plate, or even like an umpire chest plate, which actually covers the groin area, and you put it underneath the costume so that if that kind of mistake does happen, the performer doesn't feel violated by it. Obviously, if they still do, move the performer, move them somewhere else. But at least you've done your due diligence to try to protect them in some way.

I think this is true with more physically active characters like sliders. Obviously, they need their shin guards or their kneepads, and their steel-toed boots, gloves, I think wrist guards are probably the most important thing. Because the moment they start to fall forward, you're going to put your hands out, and from personal experience... I think I've told my power skip story many, many times, but very early on I was trying a new pair of power skips, which at my age I'd never do anymore, but I was trying a pair of power skips, I was not wearing wrist guards and I caught the toe of my skip and fell and slid across the blacktop, and basically pulled off a huge chunk of my palm. Which, to this day I can actually still see where it was, it was not pretty. So, make sure that in addition to those kinds of safety gear that you consider in the costuming any safety gear, that's going to protect the performer from any sort of guest violence. Just make sure that they're safe. I think you also have to look at, we talked about fight or flight, you have to look at opportunities as to where the scare comes from and where the guest is going to retreat to. This is also important for guest safety as well. If you're working in a scare zone which is not in a confined space, make sure that you're not scaring them over a curb so that they tripped and fall, and hurt themselves. Recognize that there is going to be an angle of "attack" from the performer, and there also needs to be an angle of retreat for the guest. Because if a guest is cornered, they will hit, and if they're already going in there to try to raise a little bit of hell, they're going to do it even more when they're trapped, and they can't get out of there. So, make sure that you recognize that the guest needs to have an escape route so that, you know, even if they're not going in there intentionally to be violent against the performer, they're not encouraged to do so because they feel they have no other option. Finally... well, not finally but in this particular case, let's talk a little bit about training, training of performers. There's a phrase that I've used for way too long and that is, make the scare and get out of there. Get in, make the startle, and leave. If you're in a situation where you know you can't read your guest, make sure that you stay out of the distance of them throwing a punch. Don't linger once you get in there, don't get in there and just get up in your face. There's a difference between being startling and being just annoying. Annoying is not fear. Being annoyed is not fear. A startle is great. Atmosphere is fine, atmosphere scares are fine, but they don't require you to be up in somebody's face long enough for them to hit you. That's my opinion. There are people who disagree with that, who want to get up there and you know, just get right in people's faces. I just want to touch their nose, like, "boop, got you." Because you don't scare me when you do that, you're just annoying. What it does, to me, is it shows the insecurity of the performer because I didn't scream enough when they first jumped out, they're going to just keep going until they get the response that they want, and for me personally, it takes me in the opposite direction. I'm like, "no, now you're just being dumb. Stop trying to talk me into being scared." That's a whole other show, we'll talk about that. It hasn't been another show many, many times. Again, make sure that the training is there so that the performers themselves scare in a way that it makes it less likely that they're going to be injured by an angry guest. I think it's important to recognize that, unfortunately, performers can protect themselves but can't fight back. The moment you fight back, and again, not a legal expert. Based on my experience, once the performer fights back and doesn't walk away and make sure that they contact the proper authority or people, hopefully, that's maybe even police who happened to be on sight, or there's a trained security team to take care of the situation. The moment they fight back, if it ever turns into a fight-back brawl, then there's legal opportunities on both sides. I always say that if the performer ends up fighting back, not just protecting themselves, but actively going after the guest after they've done something stupid then the guest has won, because that's what they wanted to do. They wanted to get you to break character and provoke an interaction. So, my strongest recommendation is to have, again, talking to the haunt owners out there or haunt managers, and make sure that you have some security in place, whether that is local police, off-duty police, or some security. And, have a plan so that if this happens, every single performer, every single actor, every single stage manager, and every single technician knows exactly what to do. One suggestion that has been used very successfully by a lot of different organizations is to either have the performer or one of the other performers in the area, follow the person out, have security at the exit, and point out the person, explain what happened, and have security deal with it. The moment you get a performer in conflict with a guest, the haunt is going to lose. It's just that simple. Let security be security. Let police be police. Yes, this is a budgetary issue, but it's just something you might want to consider for this year. If you do it already, great and maybe that's who you talked to. Maybe there's the real expert that you talk to and, you know, throw this information out the window. Talk to your security people talk to your police and say, "have you noticed an increase in unprovoked violence against performers or unprovoked violence in general?" Maybe they can help guide you. So, just make sure that you stay legal. Now here's the big question. There's always going to be those diehard haunters, and I totally understand your point of view, who will say, "well, I'm not going to back down, I'm just going to go in there and I'm going to scare the crap out of people. And that's just the way I'm going to do it." I'm not saying, don't be scary. I'm not saying, don't be aggressively scary if that is the style of your haunt. What I am saying is, find a balance. A lot of this has to do with reading people, and I mean reading people as far as who's going to do what? Once you learn that, you're going to be far safer, and honestly, you'll be a much better scare actor. Just saying. I'm not saying, you know, let's wrap everybody in bubble wrap and keep them seven and a half feet away from everybody and not be scary. I'm not saying that at all. What I am saying is, find the balance that is right for you and your organization, and have these kinds of discussions. You know, that's really what my show is all about, is giving you opportunities to have these discussions. And if you disagree with me and you find that you want to go in a completely different direction, I'm golden with that. I'm just here to share what I've done and what I've seen work in the past. Will it always work for you? I don't know that. But I think because of what we've seen recently, we need to find that balance, and by we I mean you, you need to find the balance that is right for you and your organization. So, ask these questions. Have these discussions now, while you're planning, and make sure that you are properly prepared and properly budgeted to make certain that your performers stay safe. As kind of a last word. I really, really hope that this entire episode was unnecessary. I really, really hope that we do not see a fallout from this rash of, well, small rash, but I think growing rash, of violence against performers. and it's unprovoked violence against performers For whatever reason. I want to make sure that people don't feel, "I disagree with you so therefore I can hit you." I'm hoping that mentality does not seep deeper and deeper into the haunted attraction industry. So have these discussions. Make these preparations. Re-evaluate. Just take a moment to re-evaluate what this new season is going to hold for you as far as protection against guest violence. Hopefully, fingers crossed, it won't be an issue at all, but I think it's better to be prepared and not need that preparation than to not be prepared and have someone injured or hurt on your staff or a guest. So, there's my rant. I will step down off my soapbox and hope that that you got at least something out of this.

As I said earlier, I'm in Houston, TX. I will be here on and off throughout the month. Thank you, thank you for listening, and if you have not joined the newsletter, please go to scottswenson.com. On the landing page right underneath my picture, I think it's underneath my picture, it's on the landing page, I'm pretty sure it's underneath my picture, is a place where you can just click give me your email address, and once a month you'll get an email with everything that I'm doing, not just from a haunt standpoint, but from from my entire career. There's always some sort of member-only content. Sometimes it's a download, sometimes it's a video. Recently it's been videos of the different places that I've been just so you can kind of get an experience of what it's like at the Indianapolis Zoo, or I just might do one for Space Center Houston since I'm here, who knows? But that said, go to scottswenson.com and join the newsletter and you'll get something from me, once a month. Don't panic, I do not sell your information, nor do I bug you constantly about stuff.

I will say that I've got a lot of haunt stuff coming up and as soon as I can talk about it I will, and probably be the most in-depth information will be in the newsletter when it happens. So, if you're interested in following that side, go to scottswenson.com and sign up for the newsletter. Thank you so much for listening. Until next time, this is Scott Swenson from Scott in the dark, saying, rest in peace.

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Scott Swenson

Owner/Creative Director

For over 30 years, Scott Swenson has been a storyteller, bringing stories to life as a writer, director, producer and performer. His work in theme park, consumer events, live theatre and television has given him a broad spectrum of experiences. In 2014, after 21 years with SeaWorld Parks and Entertainment, Scott formed Scott Swenson Creative Development LLC. Since then he has been providing impactful experiences for clients around the world. Whether he is installing shows on cruise ships or creating seasonal festivals for theme parks, writing educational presentations for zoos and museums or directing successful fund raisers, Scott is always finding new ways to tell stories that engage and entertain.