Exclusive interview: paralysed stage manager Rachael Presdee
Former stage manager Rachael Presdee, who was paralysed in a fall while working at Soho Theatre, has urged the industry to “start having a deeper look” at health and safety for backstage staff, especially those from visiting companies.
Speaking exclusively to The Stage, Presdee, who was last week awarded £3.7 million in compensation, revealed the impact the accident in 2012 has had on her life.
Presdee, now 39, fell 3 metres on to an open stage after stepping through an unmarked door while working on Headlong’s production of Boys at Soho Theatre. She had never worked at the venue before.
She suffered permanent injuries to her spine, which left her paralysed from the waist down and with major neurological problems in the lower half of her body.
Presdee said theatres need to do more to ensure their staff, including stage managers, are safe. She also said theatres should make sure visiting companies are fully briefed about the space they will be working in.
“It’s like if you go to visit someone’s house, you don’t necessarily know what’s behind every door. You need to be inducted into the building and I wasn’t. As boring as that is, and as tortuous for your production schedule as that is, everyone needs to do it because those are the kind of things that get cut. If you go up 10 minutes late that night, too bad,” she said.
She added: “If it can be talked about, then things can improve. Stage managers don’t have much of a voice because of the nature of the job, but stage managers need to be looked after just as much as they’re looking after everyone else. That was one thought I had, who was looking after me?”
Presdee, who is Australian and was speaking on her first visit to the UK since the accident, said there was nothing about the door she stepped through at Soho Theatre to suggest there was any danger.
She said: “It was plain, no lock, no sign, and the same colour as all the other doors. I didn’t even think.
“I opened the door looking for a lighting panel and took a step in to turn the lights on and there was no floor beneath me. I found myself falling in the pitch black and I just had absolutely no idea what was going on.
“I landed on the stage in absolute agony and knew straight away that something was very wrong. I was pretty certain I had broken my back because I could feel the outline of my legs but I couldn’t actually feel my legs. It was two minutes of my life that completely and utterly changed everything.”
Presdee was airlifted to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington, where she underwent a four-hour operation on her back.
“They literally glued back my spinal cord. One of the vertebrae had just dislocated, but another one had exploded. The doctors picked all the bones off my organs, made a new vertebra and stuck it in with two big rods,” she explained.
Presdee was told when she came to from her operation that she would spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair and would be unable to work again.
“My first reaction was just shock,” she said. “There is nothing in the world that can prepare you for it. You don’t ever think that it’s going to happen to you.”
She said she thought that, in some theatres, “there are times when [health and safety] does slide”.
“It’s not just the physical building. I think it’s the pressure that is put on crew, but stage management as well; the length of time people work and the lack of breaks people get. All of those things can contribute to something like what happened to me, because if the staff are too busy or too tired to see that something is wrong, then it gets pushed to the background and they don’t do it,” she said.
She added: “I feel like my accident needs to highlight that we don’t always have a lot of money in this industry, we don’t have a lot of resources, but we do need to take care of ourselves before we even start thinking about what we’re putting on a stage.”
Presdee’s damages of £3.7 million, which is the largest compensation settlement in Equity history, marks the conclusion of an exhaustive legal process comprising both civil and criminal proceedings against Soho Theatre.
She said that she had received no personal apology from the theatre, but conceded that the civil case had made any interaction difficult.
Despite the compensation being one of the largest of its type in the UK entertainment industry, Presdee will be unable to work for the rest of her life and stressed that the money will be used purely to pay for her day-to-day living, which now costs three to four times that of an average person.
“It sounds like a huge windfall, but it’s not. It’s money that I’m going to have to use to make sure that I can have a normal life, as opposed to a life where I’m scratching around trying to get money for the medical equipment that I need,” she said.
Presdee returned to Australia following the accident, where she now lives with her mother, but also needs frequent care.
Soho Theatre was sentenced in criminal proceedings brought by Westminster City Council at Southwark Crown Court on Monday, which saw the theatre ordered to pay £30,000 for a breach of health and safety regulations. Presdee was speaking to The Stage ahead of this sentencing.
“At this point in time, I kind of feel that through the criminal case, justice has been done. I’m not vengeful towards them. I can’t point a finger and say, ‘You’re the reason I am in this chair’, because I think it was a failing of a lot of different systems together,” Presdee said.
“I suppose there will always be a part of me that is frustrated beyond belief with them, but they’re human. While it would be lovely to say, ‘I want to do this, that and the other’, there’s no point. Life’s too short.”
Presdee had worked extensively in the industry during her career, both in the West End and on touring productions. She said she was struggling to come to terms with not being able to work in the theatre again.
“I can’t come to terms with it properly, I think, because it makes up who you are. You don’t do stage management for the money or the glamour. You do it because you’re that type of person. To suddenly not have that, to not have a company of actors driving you mad or a director in a room making crazy demands, your life becomes empty. That I will never be in that room again, that’s really hard,” she said.
She is currently studying law – “because I needed to give my brain something to do” – and hopes to be able to return to the arts in any way possible.
She said: “I will never work as a lawyer because my body won’t let me do that, but if I can help arts organisations, help draft a contract or help do some commissioning stuff, I will be happy because I will be back in the world in a different way. I just have to look at what it is possible for me to do now, and keep looking forward.”