The stage is an alluring space. It gives an actor the chance to eclipse their audience and immerse them in a world in which anything can happen. Love and loss, sorrow and joy, life and death all converge on this sacred ground and an actor will do anything in the name of ‘suspension of disbelief’. This desire to make the audience truly believe can turn the stage into a dangerous place where the shock and awe of a stunt can have a fatal twist.
One notorious production that has caused more fatalities than any other is the legendary Macbeth: Shakespeare’s cursed play that has claimed lives both on and off stage. A performance of the play in 1947 was one of the first to claim a life on stage. Harold Norman, a young aspiring actor, was cast as the titular lead and during the final death scene an intense sword fight stunt took place using real iron swords. Norman was truly stabbed by his co-star when the safety tip fell off midway through the choreographed fight, and the actor died a month later due to the severity of the cut left by the blade.
The tragic loss of Harold Norman is one in a long line of actors who have upheld the necessity for realistic death scenes. In 1997, 26 year-old Antony Wheeler accidentally hanged himself during a live performance of Jesus Christ Superstar in Greece. Having been cast as the disciple Judas, a scene in the production required him to hang himself onstage. The stunt had been performed before using a safety harness and scaffold; on the fateful night, Wheeler did not wear the harness and ultimately lost his life on stage.
Such stunts are a risk to actors, even with the various and extensive health and safety precautions that are taken to ensure as little risk as possible. Whilst some might consider these kinds of incidents impossible in this day and age, fatalities still occur on the theatrical stage today.
The recent tragedy of Raphael Schumacher has shocked the theatre world once more. The 27 year-old actor from Italy was performing as part of an experimental theatre piece in Pisa when his final scene took a deadly turn. The actor had changed the ending of his stunt from a fake gunshot to a hanging at the last minute, which ultimately resulted in this tragic incident. Unbeknownst to the audience members at large, Schumacher’s convulsions and trembling were the result of genuine asphyxiation caused by the noose. A medical graduate noticed this and rushed to rescue him but was too late. The actor was pronounced clinically dead at the theatre, with him being revealed to be brain dead at the hospital.
When it comes to theatre, an actor judges his or her worth by how the audience reacts to the ins-and-outs of the play, the depth of the character portrayal on stage and the arc and flow of the story; these cannot be fully achieved without suspending the audiences’ disbelief in the limitations of the space. For actors, the key to this lies in maintaining a balance between safe, choreographed routines and the thrill of elaborate and realistic stunts.
On the other hand, whenever a stunt is performed outside of a theatre it is almost always done by a trained professional. These kind of ethics should exist for the stage as well, especially when such stunts are more prone to error in a space that may not be designed for them. Suspension of disbelief is vital to the production, but the safety of the actors and crew should always come first.
These kind of tragic incidents open the eyes of the public to the unavoidable question: are realistic death stunts on stage really worth the risk?