Theater Safety

The information on the following pages is intended for student-run theater groups. Information is applicable to all members of the theater community including directors, performers, crew, stage managers, and front-of-house personnel. Any questions or comments regarding this manual should be directed to Environmental Health & Safety (EHS).

The manual is designed to follow a production from planning stages to strike.  It is divided into primary sections such as event planning, event registration, emergency procedures, set design & construction, lighting & sound, cast & crew, performance and strike.

Sources of Assistance/Roles and Responsibilities

Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Student (ODUS) – The Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students is a primary source of support for all student organizations and is available to provide advice for students organizing new groups and planning programs and events.  The staff maintains financial records of student organizations, handles financial transactions (invoices, purchase orders, etc.) and produces monthly balance statements.  Please refer to the Princeton University Student Organization website for more information.

Program in Theater - The Program in Theater hosts the Marie and Edward Matthews ‘53 Acting Studio at 185 Nassau Street and the Roger S. Berlind ’52 Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center. Technical staff from the Program in Theater act as resources for students working on course work from the Lewis Center for the Arts.

University Fire Marshal – The University Fire Marshal provides assistance for fire code-related issues such as occupancy, seating arrangements, decorations, productions in spaces not normally used for assembly, etc. The Fire Marshal must also be contacted when the production involves open flames or pyrotechnic devices such as flashpots. The Fire Marshal is part of the Public Safety Department located at 200 Elm Drive, and can be reached at

Event and Venue Support Services – Campus Venue Services provides planning, production and house management services for arts events and operational support for venues throughout the campus.

Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) – EHS provides health and safety services to the University community through technical support, information and training programs, consulting services, and periodic auditing of health and safety practices and regulatory compliance.  The EHS web page contains information on a number of topics including hand and power tools, chemical safety, personal protective equipment, electrical safety related work practices, ladder safety, spill cleanup procedures, and waste disposal.


Event Planning and Registration

Organization Registration

If you wish to start a new student theater organization, please see the New Groups section of the ODUS website.

Available Venues

The available facilities most frequently used for student-run theatrical productions are the Forbes College Black Box Theater, the Class of 1970 Theatre at Whitman College, the Matthews Acting Studio at 185 Nassau Street, and the Wilcox Black Box Theater. Please contact Campus Venue Services for more information about other potential performance spaces on campus.

  • Forbes Black Box Theater – Anyone is eligible to use the Forbes College Black Box Theater, but Forbesians are given preference if there is a schedule conflict.  The theater is handicapped-accessible and has a seating capacity of 65 with 2-3 approved seating layouts.  For more information, contact Forbes College Office at 258-6094.
  • Wilcox Black Box Theater – The Wilcox Black Box Theater has a seating capacity of 79 with one approved seating layout.  Please see the Wilcox Black Box website for more information.
  • Class of 1970 Theatre at Whitman College - This theater has a fixed seating capacity of 65. It can be used for theatrical performances, film screenings or lectures. It is fully equipped with lighting and sound boards for theater performances, as well as capability to play CD's, DVD's and VHS tapes. No food or drink is permitted in the theater. The theater is available only to University groups.

Please keep in mind any seat in a modifiable seating arrangement must be no more than 11 seats from an aisle.  If there are any questions about seating capacity or arrangements, especially in unusual venues, please contact the University Fire Marshal at

Registering Your Event

All student organization events must be registered with ODUS for review and approval, including regularly scheduled meetings and rehearsals, as well as any events off campus. For more information, see the ODUS Event Registration page.

Pyrotechnics and Fire Code Permits

When open flames or pyrotechnic devices (such as flashpots) are a planned part of the performance, contact the University Fire Marshal at 8-6805 or a minimum of 4 weeks before the performance to obtain a fire code permit application.  Fire Code permits from the local municipality are required for these types of devices:

  • Open Flames: Require a type 1 permit.  A type 1 permit must be obtained from the Fire Marshal for any open flame or flame producing device for each individual presentation.
  • Fireworks/Pyrotechnics: Require a type 3 permit.  A type 3 permit must be obtained from the Fire Marshal for the storage or discharge of fireworks.

Special Effects

Certain special effects should be reviewed to ensure all necessary safeguards are in place. Contact ODUS, Performance Services and/or EHS at the earliest phase of production if the performance involves the use of

  • Knives, swords, guns or any prop weapons
  • Items suspended over the audience
  • Pits, trap doors or other changes in elevation
  • Fog or smoke
  • Strobe Lighting
  • Lasers
  • Rigging or flying performers
  • Any unusual stage effect which raises safety/health concerns

Set Design & Construction

Props and Decoration
Structural Issues for Set Design
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)
Hand and Power Tools
Chemical Hazards
Storage of Materials
Lifting and Material Handling

Props and Decoration

Decorative materials such as curtains, draperies, streamers, fabrics, cotton batting, straw, hay, vines, leaves, stalks, tress and moss must be noncombustible or flame resistant or be rendered so with commercially available products.  Contact Performing Arts Services at Richardson Auditorium for information on how to obtain fire retardant treatments.  Certain types of decorative materials may be used only with the approval of the municipal fire official.  Contact the University Fire Marshal at if you have any questions about the approved use of decorative materials.

Structural Issues for Set Design

Any set design which includes ladders, traps, scaffolds, rakes, rigging or other specialty devices must be approved by the Performing Arts Services at Richardson Auditorium.


Hamilton Murray Theater is the only student theater space that has fly space.  Some rigging guidelines include:

  • Anything attached to a flybar must have a safety cable attached as well.
  • Check that everything attached to a light, including barn doors, gel cases and safety cables, are secure before it is raised. 
  • Make sure the rope or cord is strong enough for what you are lifting and that the rope or cord is not frayed or damaged in any way. 
  • Warn people on the stage or grid before moving any rigged scenery or other objects. 
  • Maintain visual contact with a moving piece at all times.

Rigging should be inspected by the production crew before each use.

Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)

Personal protective equipment includes all types of equipment used to increase individual safety while performing potentially hazardous tasks.  This may include eye and face protection, head protection, foot protection, hand protection, respiratory protection, or any equipment used to protect against injury or illness.  For more information about PPE, please see Personal Protective Equipment (PPE).

Hand & Portable Power Tools

Crewmembers should use a power tool only after receiving proper training.  Stage managers should review the operation of the equipment, making sure to point out safety features and guards. Crewmembers should be familiar with the owner’s manual for the tool, and should know both the use and the limitations of all power tools.

Only trained crewmembers are permitted to use power tools such as mitre saws, table saws and drill presses. For more information on training, please see the Employee Learning Center.

For information about hand and power tools, see Hand & Portable Power Tools


Ladders are one of the most common tools of the theater trade. For information on ladders, please see Ladder Safety.

Chemical Hazards

Most chemical use in theater is limited to paints and stains. However, if you are using any new or non-routine product, contact EHS for assistance on proper use, PPE, spill and disposal procedures. For more information on chemical safety, please see Chemical Safety
In the event of a chemical spill, determine if you need to contact Public Safety or if you will be able to clean it up yourself by reviewing the following Spill Response Procedures.


Work areas can become congested while constructing the set and while rehearsals take place.  Clutter makes it difficult to move around and can be a fire hazard.  To prevent accumulation of materials, trash should be removed daily.

  • Place trash in proper receptacles, preferable in metal containers.
  • Clean up after each work session
  • Avoid accumulating scrap lumber and materials
  • Purchase materials as needed to avoid the need for additional storage
  • Store tools in the proper areas when not in use

Storage of Materials

The proper storage of materials in theater spaces is extremely important to the efficiency of the production and the safety of the cast, crew and audience.  The NJ Uniform Fire Code mandates certain storage requirements, such as:

  • Flammable and combustible liquids must be stored in approved flammable storage cabinets.
  • If the building has sprinklers, materials must be a minimum of 18 inches below sprinkler heads
  • Materials in any building must be a minimum of 24 inches below the ceiling
  • Materials must never obstruct an exit from the building
  • Stored materials must be a minimum of three feet in all directions from unit heaters, duct furnaces and flues
  • Smoking is prohibited in all places of assembly and in spaces where combustible materials are stored or handled.

Lifting and Material Handling

Moving and transporting set pieces can be some of the most significant hazards during set construction. The following tips are recommended to avoid injury while moving and lifting objects:

  • Ensure you have adequate help to lift heavy or awkward items
  • Plan your route before lifting. Ensure pieces will fit through doorways, openings on vehicles before attempting any lifting.
  • Use hand trucks or carts whenever possible to reduce lifting
  • Strap or secure items that may fall during transport. "If it can fall down, lay it down."

For more information about lifting and material handling, please see Strain & Sprain Prevention.

Lighting & Sound

Electrical Hazards

Many students have never worked with electricity directly before working on stage.

  • Repairs: Students should not attempt electrical repairs without proper training.  Equipment that malfunctions or causes shocks should be removed from service and repaired by a qualified individual.
  • Extension cords: Extension cords are only designed for temporary use.  Use of thin, light duty extension cords can increase the risk of fire and shock.  Make sure extension cords have adequate current capacity for the equipment being used.  Do not pull an electrical cord out of a socket by the cord.  This breaks interior wires and can cause a short and, possibly, a fire.  Inspect for frayed or split cords or plugs before use.
  • Electrical Cords: Electrical cords can also be a tripping hazard.  It is a good practice to route cords away from traffic areas to prevent trips and falls. Avoid stretching or pinching cords between objects.  This can break interior wires, causing overheating which can result in a fire. Do not cover electrical cords with rugs; this can also result in a fire.
  • Circuit Protection Devices: Circuit protection devices are designed to automatically limit or shut off the flow of electricity in the event of a ground-fault, overload, or short circuit in the wiring system.  A ground-fault circuit interrupter, or GFCI, should be used in high-risk areas such as wet locations or outdoor sites.  Portable GFCIs are available from any hardware store or safety supply catalog.
  • Training: Training is essential in working with lighting circuitry, dimmers and instruments.  Students should be trained before being authorized to work the control areas.  Keep food and beverages out of the light control areas to prevent possible shocks and damage to the circuitry.

Overhead Lighting

Lighting dimmers have limits to the lamp loads they can handle.  Overloading dimmers can cause a fire hazard.  There are standard size 1.2 kilowatt (1200W maximum) and 2.4 kilowatt (2400W maximum) dimmers used in the student-run theater spaces. NOTE: The wattage of the bulbs MAY NOT exceed that of the dimmers they are plugged into. 

Ladders & Catwalks

Lighting work sometimes requires working from ladders or elevated surfaces such as catwalks. For information on working from ladders, see Ladder Safety.

Catwalks are designed with fall protection in the form of guardrails. Guardrails may not be removed, climbed or defeated in any way without additional fall protection practices in place.

Safety Concerns for Cast & Crew


Products approved for makeup use have been tested extensively for toxic hazards.  Only these products should be used for stage productions.  Old containers of makeup could contain bacteria and should be thrown away.  Wash your face and hands before applying cosmetics.  If you are using makeup from a “communal” make-up kit, use a clean brush or your clean hands to apply.  Shared makeup should not be applied directly to your face.  These guidelines should be followed for shared makeup users:

  • Creme sticks: slice these out with dental spatulas on to individual papers such as butter trays.  Label and reuse them individually for touch-ups.
  • Lipsticks:  These too can be sliced and labeled.  For a long running show, provide individual lipsticks.
  • Pancakes and powders: Powdered products provide a less viable environment for infection, but try to individualize usage.  Supply powders in the smallest containers available.
  • Mascara: Use individual applicators/containers if possible.
  • Eyeliners and Eye makeup: Use individual products if possible.
  • Brushes: Use disposable brushes.
  • Sponges: Use disposable sponges whenever possible.  Reusable ones can be disinfected.  Give out individual sponges at the beginning of a show, and maintain separate use.
  • Miscellaneous: Any type of facial hair, skullcaps, sequins, or other face product should be disinfected before used by a new performer. Use an approved bactericide for disinfection.  Carefully store these types of products in labeled individual plastic bags between performances. 

Makeup artists should make a practice of washing their hands between actors.  Sponges and brushes should be washed after use on each individual.

When removing spirit gum or latex, avoid prolonged skin contact with solvents.  Use moisturizers to replace lost skin oils and to guard against dermatitis.


Fatigue is a serious safety concern that should be considered during all stage productions.  With performance dates approaching, most crewmembers can become severely overworked. 

Follow these simple guidelines to avoid fatigue:

  • Get proper rest. The average person requires 7-8 hours of sleep per night.
  • Limit drugs that might contribute to fatigue (tranquilizers and cold/allergy medications)
  • Reduce caffeine, nicotine and alcohol which can also contribute to fatigue.
  • Take frequent breaks while working.  Repetitive or long work sessions can reduce one’s ability to concentrate on the work at hand.
  • Plan ahead.  Having your building materials and equipment ahead of time can increase efficiency and reduce the work time required.
  • Know when to quit.  Recognize signs of fatigue – loss of concentration, slow reaction times, memory loss – and knock off for the day.

Heat Stress

Theater spaces are often without air-conditioning and, even if they are air-conditioned, stage lighting can produce an incredibly hot glow.  Add that to the stress and/or excitement of performing, and cast members are prime candidates for heat stress.  Working in hot conditions may pose special hazards to safety and health.

Drink plenty of liquids during a performance to replace the fluids lost from sweating – as much as one quart per hour may be necessary.  Water and/or sports drinks are recommended.  Avoid caffeinated beverages such as cola, iced tea and coffee.

Please see the Heat Stress page for more information.

During the Performance

Crowd Control

Attendance for an event can be controlled through ticket sales, so overcrowding does not become an issue.  The need for security measures at events sponsored by recognized student organizations is determined by the ODUS and the Department of Public Safety. The number of people involved and the nature of the event are the primary determining factors.  In some cases, security may be required for the use of certain buildings or areas.  

The group sponsoring the event is responsible for the cost of security.  Twenty-four hour notice is required for cancellations or a fee will be charged.

Seating may not be added to a space on the dates of performance to accommodate additional ticket sales. Additional seating may create fire safety hazards in the event of a building evacuation.

Front-of-House Personnel

The house manager and all front-of-house personnel must assist the audience to evacuate the building safely in case of an emergency.  A fire safety and evacuation plan must be prepared and all personnel should be trained in the duties they are to perform under the plan.  Front-of-house personnel may wish to be instructed in the proper use of portable fire extinguishers. Fire extinguisher training is available through the Office of the University Fire Marshal.

Exits (Means of Egress)

The means of egress is the continuous and unobstructed path of travel from any point in a place of assembly to an exit or public way (e.g., sidewalk, street, etc.).  All parts of the means of egress must be available for immediate, emergency use. 

  • Aisles and corridors must be unobstructed and kept free of flammable or combustible materials.
  • Event organizers must inspect the means of egress immediately prior to any event and remove any obstructions immediately.
  • Exit doors must be unlocked. 
  • Ensure that the exit discharge is also unobstructed (e.g., not blocked by dumpsters or vehicles, no materials stored against the exit door, all snow removed, etc.). 
  • All exit signs must be clearly illuminated and unobstructed at all times.
  • The width of a means of egress cannot be blocked or reduced.
  • Draperies or similar decorative hangings cannot obstruct the view or the access to an exit. 
  • Mirrors cannot be placed near an exit in any manner that may confuse those trying to exit.
  • Exits cannot be used for any other purpose other than a means of egress.  Spaces within a stairway enclosure are not to be used for storage of any materials. 


Set Deconstruction & Material Disposal

Strike can be a chaotic, hazardous aspect of any production. Care must be taken to ensure that the stability of set pieces is not compromised as they are deconstructed, creating fall or crush hazards. Strikes should be organized with individuals assigned discrete tasks.


According to ODUS, "all spaces used by a group must be left in good condition, furniture returned to its proper place, etc.  If a group leaves a facility or area in unsatisfactory condition, the individuals responsible may be disciplined and the organization charged for necessary maintenance.  Repeated lack of compliance with regulations may result in loss of recognition for the group."

Chemical Waste Disposal

Most commonly used organic solvents (e.g., acetone, methanol, toluene, mineral spirits, turpentine) and paints are considered hazardous waste and cannot be disposed of with regular trash or poured down the drain.   If you have hazardous waste to be disposed of, contact Environmental Health & Safety at 8-5294 for instructions.

For more information on hazardous waste disposal, please see Chemical Waste Disposal.