Sensationalizing Death – WSJ’s Article on Sasoun’s Fatal KÁ Accident

Sasoun and her final fight outfit

Sasoun and her final fight outfit

Our industry is entertaining enough; that’s why we’re called Entertainment.  But, we are human, and we do make mistakes.  Those mistakes are at the heart of the Wall Street Journal’s latest article on the death of Sarah Guillot-Guyard at Cirque du Soleil’s KÁ back in June 2013.

When something so tragic happens, wouldn’t you think that the death and subject matter enough would merit a story without really having to do much to it? It’s disappointing to see Alexandra Berzon’s article in the Wall Street Journal on Sarah Guillot-Guyard’s death be so sensationalized. One would think that an article in such a publication would preclude that kind of pulp. Right? Am I dreaming past the “If it bleeds, it leads” kind of reporting?

It’s not really her fault, I guess.  What people like to read about is other people bleeding.

I like what Alexandra Berzon normally says, I mean she is a constant writer on the plight of oil workers in our country, her WSJ work on that alone is pretty tremendous.  But why treat oil workers like human beings suffering the plight of working so hard in an industry that treats those workers like shit, and write a story about KÁ that makes our people and our work seem like the perfect setting for an episode of The First 48?  That’s rough, dude!  If anything, you’ve just made it harder for us who research and write within our industry by betraying the trust of the people you were interviewing, because you sure apparently did betray the trust of those who let you in, and completely let you in.  That part seems pretty painfully clear, from company member Erica Linz on Facebook.  I’ve quoted here here en toto:

There is a written companion to the WSJ KÁ video… The first sentences are everything, EVERYTHING that was wrong with the media response after the accident. I won’t post it outright because those first words dump painful salt in a wound that a lot of us carry. (My friend Diane has posted a free link in the comments. If you are like me, you’ll read it even if it’s upsetting, and I don’t want you buying a subscription to Wall Street Journal to do so.)

Shame, shame on you Alexandra Berzon. You assured me and we spoke at length before I agreed to do your interview about how you were not going to treat Sasoun’s story as an “if it bleeds it leads” headline. You decried the actions of journalists who had and assured me that you were asking to speak to those who loved her so you could portray her as a real person and stitch together the sincere truth. Your first line eradicates any illusion of integrity you aimed to portray in those conversations. Blood and gore will always get attention… You may as well have put naked chicks and flashing lights around the article for hype if you were going to approach it with the level of class you did. I’ve seen porn ads more subtle. Even your choice of including the word basement in that first paragraph… an image that connotes childhood fears, darkness, isolation and the work of serial killers. Very clever… Surely the fatal accident wasn’t tragic enough to get people to read on it’s own.

I am appalled by you.


Let me say — I don’t have a Pulitzer like Alexandra Berzon. I mean, come on – my website is called for feck’s sake — really creative naming, I know. But seriously, read this – what’s the tone set here?  It’s like reading some Tarantino:

Sarah Guillot-Guyard lay dying on the floor of a basement inside a darkened Cirque du Soleil theater here, one leg broken and blood pooling under her head.

It was June 2013, and the 31-year-old mother of two had fallen 94 feet in front of hundreds of horrified spectators after the wire attached to her safety harness shredded while she performed in the dramatic aerial climax of the company’s most technically challenging production, “Kà.”

It was the first fatality during a Cirque show, and it capped an increase in injuries at Cirque with the “Kà” production. The show had one of the highest rates of serious injuries of any workplace in the country, according to safety records kept by Cirque that were compared with federal records by The Wall Street Journal.”

Here’s a bit of a video on their story:

There are a couple of really odd things about the reporting on jobs numbers too, things that when you look at numbers and no backstory, it seems like it could potentially be feasible.  Check out the chart posted in the WSJ story:


This graph is saying that per 100 workers, KÁ had an increasing injury rate, per 100 workers, of about 35 per 100 in 2010, 48-50 per 100 workers in 2011, and almost 60 per 100 workers in 2012.  However, this is a odd selection of things to compare KÁ to, especially with respect to workplace injuries.  Why not Stunt personnel, Commercial Divers, Military contractors?

Compared to Nursing and Residential Care facilities, Manufactured Home Manufacturing, Police Protection (a pretty broad category, frankly) Skiing facilities, for whatever reason, Construction, and Foundries, holy crap, KA has a SERIOUS increase in workers per 100.  But the industries that the Wall Street Journal chose to select have tens of hundreds of thousands of workers!

Here’s the thing:  As far as Ka goes, there’s about 80 employees.  All techs and non-artistic management are MGM employees.  Just to make this make a little more sense to anyone who is interested in making some sense out of these numbers, here’s the 2013 US Department of Labor’s Employer-Reported Incidents Report.  It’s a PDF link, comb through it just a little and you will instantly see a problem with the way these KÁ stats were derived.

Also, for all of you nerds like me out there who like to see just behind the veil of journalism — although in this case, it’s more like a Fox News kind of play…  here’s the raw data:

2012 US Department of Labor Employer-Reported Injuries Report

2011 US Department of Labor Employer-Reported Injuries Report

2010 US Department of Labor Employer-Reported Injuries Report

Please, comb through these and see if you find the same really odd comparisons here to industries with hundreds of thousands of workers.

OSHA Stats

Here’s some interesting data from the Occupational Safety and Health Organization that we all know as OSHA:

Worker injuries, illnesses and fatalities

4,585 workers were killed on the job in 2013 [BLS 2013 workplace fatality data] (3.3 per 100,000 full-time equivalent workers) — on average, 88 a week or more than 12 deaths every day. (This is the second lowest total since the fatal injury census was first conducted in 1992.)

817 Hispanic or Latino workers were killed from work-related injuries in 2013—on average, more than 15 deaths a week or two Latino workers killed every single day of the year, all year long.

Fatal work injuries involving contractors accounted for 16 percent of all fatal work injuries in 2013.

Construction’s “Fatal Four”

Out of 4,101* worker fatalities in private industry in calendar year 2013, 828 or 20.2% were in construction―that is, one in five worker deaths last  year were in construction. The leading causes of worker deaths on construction sites were falls, followed by struck by object, electrocution, and caught-in/between. These “Fatal Four” were responsible for more than half (57.7%) the construction worker deaths in 2013*, BLS reports. Eliminating the Fatal Four would save 478 workers’ lives in America every year.

  • Falls – 302 out of 828 total deaths in construction in CY 2013 (36.5%)
  • Struck by Object – 84 (10.1%)
  • Electrocutions – 71 (8.6%)
  • Caught-in/between – 21 (2.5%)

Top 10 most frequently cited OSHA standards violated in FY2014

The following were the top 10 most frequently cited standards by Federal OSHA in fiscal year 2014 (October 1, 2013 through September 30, 2014):

  1. Fall protection, construction (29 CFR 1926.501) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  2. Hazard communication standard, general industry (29 CFR 1910.1200) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  3. Scaffolding, general requirements, construction (29 CFR 1926.451) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  4. Respiratory protection, general industry (29 CFR 1910.134) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  5. Powered industrial trucks, general industry (29 CFR 1910.178) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  6. Control of hazardous energy (lockout/tagout), general industry (29 CFR 1910.147) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  7. Ladders, construction (29 CFR 1926.1053) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  8. Electrical, wiring methods, components and equipment, general industry (29 CFR 1910.305) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  9. Machinery and Machine Guarding, general requirements (29 CFR 1910.212) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]
  10. Electrical systems design, general requirements, general industry (29 CFR 1910.303) [related OSHA Safety and Health Topics page]

Frankly, there is a modicum of trust that people place in you when they invite you in to cover something so tragic as a fall death in the Entertainment Industry.  Here’s how an industry writer does it; now Alexandra, I totally respect the way you do things in every instance except for this one, but here’s an opportunity to learn how to deal with this industry.  This is from Jacob Coakley, one of the most prolific Entertainment industry writers to which I subscribe — this is from Jacob’s article Battle Tested:

So what did Cirque do to insure an accident like this couldn’t happen again? The first and foremost factor in the accident was the speed at which Guillot-Guyard was ascending. Cirque has completely eliminated the possibility for performers to gain that speed. The final fly-out of artists off the top the platform is now fully automated, with limiters on the speed at which an artist can approach the grid. “This involves a zone large enough under the grid that no one can enter above a specific speed without being governed. If they do run to the zone at full speed, the software shuts them down.” And there’s a second software system monitoring the limiting software–if the first doesn’t shut down in an over-speed situation then the second one kicks in. “This can react quicker than a person on an emergency-stop switch, although we still have those in place, too, during the act,” adds Pearson. 

They have also changed the behavior of winches when artists are still in front of the wall as well, though they haven’t automated that. “For us and the artists, it was important that they retained control of their winch lines throughout the majority of the act,” Pearson says. “This allows them to react with their bodies for the start and end of a move at high speeds. In doing so, it was still possible for collisions in the choreography to occur, so we engineered out the severity of those collisions by ensuring that if one person makes a mistake, the winch software and hardware will not allow them to continue until that error has been corrected. So ultimately it doesn’t remove human error, but makes sure that human error is not going to cause something worse to happen.”

They did this by changing how the winches operate under extreme load changes, replacing the primary and secondary brakes for new upgraded ones that won’t allow movement on the winch with the weight of two people on a line. The system also now uses no-load payout so if one of the lines sees zero weight on it, it will stop operating. 

In terms of hardware, they lowered the winches to replace a small diverter wheel with a larger pulley block also bolted to the grid steel frames. 

“We looked at every angle to see what could introduce an excessive shock load in the operating system and then worked with our engineers and manufacturers to remove the possibility of those forces being introduced during the act,” Pearson says. And to make sure the artists were comfortable with equipment, they brought in the manufacturers of each component in the system to explain how the system had been designed and how equipment choices were made to ensure safety. “We also brought the winches out of the grid, so we could show people up close what had happened and how we had mitigated it. This went all the way down to what bolts are used, what specifics are looked at in cable choices and how we maintain a 10:1 safety ratio. For some this was the first time they had touched the equipment at that component level, so we have identified that this will be an important part of new artist orientation in the future.” 

Yet he admits that as a company that flies people, there will always be a level of risk. “We continue to focus on training and ensuring the most up to date upgrades on every piece of equipment. We take into account everything we can think of, such as power outages, to ensure that in those circumstances everyone knows how to respond and everyone in the air is safe. This is maintained through rigorous protocols such as rescue procedures, operational protocols and equipment enhancements, like artists wearing wireless communications so we can talk to them in the air as well as retaining a first response team on the show and holding monthly rescue trainings for any act that may require an artist to be helped down from a wire.”


The Slideshow

WSJ provided a bit of moving graphics along with the story to, you know, help the illiterate understand.  I’ve taken the liberty of taking screenshots of the non-animation sections, hence screenshot…  for those of you unfamiliar with the story, this part actually helps:

WSJ Slide 1

WSJ Slide 1

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Do You Scream at Stagehands? STOP IT!



Hiya, Entertainment Industry!

I got a really interesting email last night from a local stagehand at a large concert venue in Colorado that would prefer that the venue and city in which he works be redacted, so I have done that.  But you have GOT to read the email below, it’s absolutely disgusting.  I hope you see it the same as I do.  Who the fuck do you think you are yelling at stagehands?

Jim, hi.  Love the site, we here at [redacted] in Colorado read you a lot.  Next time you’re out this way, let me know so we can get you in here and get some better pics of the venue.  I don’t want to speak for all of the guys here, but I know that we all feel the same about this.  Do me a favor and don’t post my name and don’t post that I work at [redacted].  Thanks.

I have a really important question to ask, maybe you can give us some insight on why most of the crews that come through here feel it’s the right thing to do to scream at us all day.  Most of us here are people who are just as good at the jobs we do as the tours that come through here.  Why do you think they think it’s the right thing to do to yell at us to get us to do what they need done?  I went into the Army back in the 1970s and did two tours in Vietnam.  Every very good lieutenant that I served under was the kind of man that could motivate the men without raising his voice, and every time we had to go out on patrol with a squad leader who was a screamer was more times that not a really scary time because no one wanted to help the screamer.  Don’t the people out there driving the tours understand this logic?  To us, it seems like nobody gives a shit about the crew of the day.  We hump cases, we put trusses together, we take care of what they need because it’s our job.  We’re great at our job.  All we want is that people would treat us like we were humans and not a gaggle of stupid people who need their instructions shouted at us.

I’m just an old hippy who used to love my job but it’s hard to get new people to come to the local after they see how we’re treated.  Nobody wants to work somewhere with shitty tour crew yelling all day long.  Any normal person would be just as bitter if they had to put up with this bullshit all day every day.

Keep doing what you do, you give us some sane time before and after the yelling.



I suppose the first thing I should say is that I’m sorry this is happening.  I have done my share of shows worldwide, and I don’t believe in yelling at the crew.  I believe that the best way to get the crew to do any and everything that you need done is to show up in the morning bright eyed, bushy-tailed, and with donuts and coffee.  It’s true that I get a lot of shit for that (especially the coffee and donuts part) but if I have to work with guys I don’t know and I know a hard day’s coming for the locals that day, it’s part of my job for the success of the show that they believe in the show that they’re assembling.  It’s not a secret that people will work hard for you if you make them feel like human beings.  It amazes me that people decide to take the douchebag route on their local tours.  I know many people who lead crews on tour, and it’s my pleasure to say that a lot of those people are really great guys and ladies who believe the same way I do.

Are you a screamer on tour?

The first thing I want to know is WHAT is it that gives you the right to screw up the attitudes for the shows that come after you?  Who the hell do you think you are that you can treat people this way?  I know that one thing you’re doing is making a reputation for yourself that assures that your career will be short-lived, because team leaders do NOT want to hire someone who creates a work stoppage in the middle of a busy show day.  Touring is hard enough as it is without you making all of the locals hate touring personnel without getting to know us.  I know a good handful of really unbelievably great programmers and LDs who don’t work because of their attitude — one of them is an awesome cook at a restaurant in Dallas, and another is an insurance adjuster in southern Illinois.  Is this the career path you’d rather have?  Something outside of the industry you love?  If you keep yelling, it’s coming.  I’ll definitely help you exit my industry if you feel that you need to screw up the harmonious and often very rewarding work that the rest of us call a career.

To be fair, we’ve all had local crews who haven’t been worth the paper their badges are printed on, and those days do suck.  I’ve had Labor-Ready crews that barely had the skill to not be selling crack out behind the venue, and I’ve had non-Union riggers who dropped cell phones and sets of keys from the grid.  Those are rough days.  But even in those situations, it does you NO JUSTICE to scream at people.  When you’re out on a B or C market tour, you should expect to have these things happen — just recently in February 2013 in Los Angeles, I had a Union stagehand at the Event Live LA show tell me “I’m not pushing those fucking towers, one fell on my buddy and messed up his back for life.”  It was fine with me, all I needed to do was go tell his Freeman foreman that the guy wouldn’t do his job and I got someone else on the crew that would push those towers out to the truck.  I didn’t need to yell.  Sometimes you just get a hand who wants to be a jerk on the jobsite because of whatever reason there is — but just as many times as that’s happened, I’ve been able to smile at somebody who wanted to be a Summer’s Eve in at crew call, tell a few jokes, and get that man or woman to get on board with the work that needed to be done that day.  It’s amazing what can be done when you inject a bit of happiness and compassion into people’s daily existence.  If that doesn’t work, you always have the crew chief to help them get motivated, or to get someone who wants to work on your crew.

All of this is just as applicable to stage hands, too — if every day that you work is another day in hell, maybe you should get yourself into another line of work.  We’ve all got more to do in the short amount of hours in the day without having to put up with your shit attitude.  Seriously.  The large majority of us treat you all with the utmost respect and admiration because you make our days easier.  There’s no reason to act like a jerk when we’re only trying to do OUR jobs, too.

Industry pros, ask yourself:
“Do I think it’s OK to scream at my local crews in order to get the work done?”

If your answer is anything other than NO, maybe you ought to look into working with another industry’s people.  We don’t want you in our business.  You screw it up for every one of us every single time you take your personal problems out on a local stagehand.  I know the service industry is hiring, it might be a good idea to lose your God complex and see how it feels to be in service for a while.  That’s more of a humbling experience than death.

As for the talent?  Well…  as long as they keep paying, karma will sort that out on its own.


Help Out One of Our Own – Mobile Devices in the Entertainment Industry Survey


It’s true, we need to reach out and help our own people in this industry, and this is one of those times.

Resident Twitterer and Lighting Designer Nathan Jewett is writing his thesis right now, and he is asking the Entertainment Industry community to participate in a ridiculously quick survey about mobile device usage in the Entertainment Industry.  SO, if you’re a lighting designer, lighting tech, system tech, programmer, electrician, stage manager, production manager, road manager, and any other position I can apparently not think of, drop on over to Nathan Jewett’s survey page and help the man out!  It will take you no time at all, and you’ll make Nathan’s day!