What a Showstopper!

Author: Achim Geiger

Sep 07, 2022 Safety at work

As a theater professional, Felix Malkowski likes to take a leading role on stage. Yet he does not expect applause from the stands and stalls. His part is to ensure the safety of the event technology – and the DEKRA expert tends to take over the entire theater to do so. He is currently on duty at the Munich Kammerspiele.

When cyclists ride freehand on high wires, or the father of the gods, Wotan, appears out of thin air with great clamor, or mythical winged creatures float through fantastic settings – then the illusion machine that is the theater is revving at high speed. But even though the arts are the main attraction on stage, the laws of physics still apply. The spectacle only succeeds when the supporting structure, machine technology, and electronic controls mesh perfectly with each other behind the scenes. In fact, theater technology is a world unto its own. “Stage technology usually involves special purpose mechanical engineering, planned and executed by specialized manufacturers for a single application and equipped with safety technology,” explains Felix Malkowski, expert for mechanical and systems engineering at DEKRA in Nuremberg.
The 38-year-old knows his way around theater stages. Not only did he undergo an apprenticeship as a specialist for event engineering in theater, he is also a master craftsman in theater and stage technology. As a stage manager, he spent five years working for the Westphalian Regional Theater Castrop-Rauxel, a touring theater that puts on several hundred guest performances a year in North Rhine-Westphalia. Afterwards, Malkowski studied mechanical engineering to open up new career prospects in theater: He worked for an international stage planner in Bayreuth as project manager for five years before joining DEKRA in 2019.
Only authorized experts are allowed to test
“A special feature of stage technology is the fact that loads may be suspended and moved above people,” Malkowski knows. The German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV) provides the corresponding rules with regard to operational safety and accident prevention. According to these rules, safety and mechanical equipment in event and production venues for staged presentation must be inspected at least every four years. This job is reserved exclusively for authorized experts who are appointed by the Administrative Professional Association (VBG) in Hamburg after successfully passing their exams. DEKRA expert Felix Malkowski belongs to this illustrious circle. His customers are companies and service providers from film, radio, television, drama, and musical theater, but also trade fairs, exhibition organizers, and museums – all cases often involve loads suspended in the air above people. Even when a shopping center hangs Christmas decorations above the sales floor, the operator is obligated to inspect them in accordance with the Ordinance on Industrial Safety and Health.
DEKRA plays a leading role at the Munich Kammerspiele
Felix Malkowski’s duty roster includes a special engagement in the Bavarian capital in September. For the Munich Kammerspiele – one of the most important spoken-word theaters in the German-speaking world with just under 700 seats – DEKRA will be conducting the event technology’s recurring inspection during the summer break. To do so, Malkowski will be taking over the entire theater. However, if required, the Munich-based company will provide the expert with a technician from the theater team, who knows the system inside and out. Malkowski happily accepted this offer – after all, up to 50 machine hoists are used in the stage area alone, which can be linked together for simultaneous movement. This allows large and heavy decorative elements to be positioned with millimeter precision. Even the staged flying of actors is possible with special drives. The fact that other people are allowed to be in the vicinity of the moving surface is only possible thanks to a plethora of safety functions – up to 14 different electronically controlled protective measures, which coordinate speed, position, and load behavior, can be put to use for a single drive.
The machinist must always rely on the technology
Obviously, security is a top priority in such cases. But why do stricter safety regulations apply in theaters in the first place? “You have to keep in mind how a system tends to be operated,” reports theater professional Malkowski. The machinist who moves the flying performers and decorative elements across the stage often sits in the side stage area. There, however, he only has a limited field of vision of his loads. An additional handicap can be poor lighting, often in combination with artificial fog. If, on top of that, the director demands that a movement take place in exact harmony with the music, the machinist has to deal with a number of uncertain factors – he must therefore be able to rely completely on the drive and control technology.
In a theater’s stage technology, the basic principle of single-fault safety always applies, verified in periodic acceptance inspections. Single-fault safety means that a fault in the system – no matter what it is – will not cause the system to enter a hazardous condition. That is why everything is doubly safeguarded – there is not just one brake on the drive, but two, which operate independently of each other. If one brake fails, the other can take over the load. In addition, the various systems monitor each other – brakes, control technology, and drive must notice any deviations from the target state and be able to bring the system to a safe stop.
When ten tons of decoration hang from a single machine hoist
A typical scenario that Felix Malkowski plays out during his test is the movement of a ten-ton ceiling element, lifted jointly by four machine hoists. If one of these hoists detects a problem and subsequently stops, the other machine hoists’ behavior is the decisive factor. If the systems were to lower even just a little bit further, the entire load would be stuck on the defective machine hoist – which would become completely overloaded. “For each test, we have to evaluate exactly what the relevant safe condition is,” says Malkowski, describing his approach. It is not just a matter of detecting a possible defect. In principle, a logical check is carried out to see whether the processes and communication between machine hoists are working properly.
DEKRA expert cannot help when it comes to flying structures
Malkowski will be visiting the Munich Kammerspiele to conduct the inspection for one week during the summer break. That is a fairly tight time frame. After all, the loads in this theater do not only come from above. In the lower machinery, for example, the fixture also includes several hydraulic sinking tables that enable the staged appearance or disappearance of actors. The machinery and safety technology must also be put through its paces for these cases. And what is next for Malkowski after this engagement? Could the DEKRA expert possibly also take on an assignment at the legendary Oktoberfest? After all, do technical installations like roller coasters, Ferris wheels, haunted houses, and carousels not play in a similar league as event technology in theater?
“Exactly that is the wrong assumption,” says Felix Malkowski, thereby narrowing down the scope of his portfolio. The explanation is of a legal nature: The amusement rides at the Wiesn in Munich operate as flying structures – comparable to a fixed building, even if the installation itself is not firmly attached to the ground. Nevertheless, they fall under the same jurisdiction as fixed buildings – in which case, it is not the Operational Safety Ordinance but the State Building Code who is responsible for the approval procedure.