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Law affects MIT theater

By Katherine Shim

Recent revisions to the Massachusetts State Building Code have become a cause for concern among MIT theater groups. A possible interpretation of the revised code would potentially eliminate all use of scenery on "platform and thrust stages," as defined by the code, according to William A. Fregosi, technical instructor of music and theater arts and de facto representative of Institute theater groups.

Discussions are currently underway between Fregosi and John M. Fresina, director of the Safety Office, over the revisions. The changes, which first became apparent to the Safety Office in November, groups theatrical stages into four categories and outlines safety regulations for each specific category.

The revised building code is to go into effect Feb. 28, and discussions between Fregosi, the Safety Office, and Cambridge Inspectional Services (CIS) -- which enforces the code -- are to be concluded by that date.

According to the revised code, the first category of stage, a "legitimate stage," is defined as all stages that house sets and stage equipment behind a wall. The stage must also be equipped with a proscenium arch, a fire curtain separating the audience and stage, and a smoke ventilation system.

"On a legitimate stage," said Fresina, "fires . . . can be contained by dropping the curtain. Legitimate stages give [theater groups] a lot of freedom with what they can use in their acts. We've had cannons and smoking guns on our legitimate stages in past years with no problems."

"Legitimate stages can have a lot of scenery and scenery equipment -- which can burn -- with no problems," Fresina added.

Kresge Little Theater is the only legitimate theater at the Institute as defined by the revised building code.

The second category of stage, a "regular stage" is "not as substantial as a legitimate stage and doesn't have all of the features," said Fresina. By the revised building code, suspended sets would not be allowed on such stages.

Finally, "platform stages" and "thrust stages" are unenclosed stages, offering no protection to the audience. By the building code, elaborate scenery would not be allowed, Fresina said.

Stages set up in rooms such as La Sala de Puerto Rico, Kresge mainstage, Killian Hall, lecture rooms, and dormitory dining halls are examples of platform and thrust stages.

Concern over scenery use

Concern arose among Institute theater groups over the possibility that the code would eliminate scenery from platform and thrust stages, Fregosi said.

With regulations on the type of scenery that may be used on regular, platform, and thrust stages, Kresge Little Theater -- the only legitimate stage -- may be the only stage permitted to use elaborate scenery.

In an effort to obtain clear approvals from both the MIT Safety Office and CIS, Fregosi is preparing to issue a report to the Safety Office by the end of January. The Safety Office is also currently involved in discussions with CIS to clarify the meaning of the code revisions.

Preparation for the upcoming report will include consultations with safety officers from other universities and professional theater groups in Boston which do not perform on legitimate stages, Fregosi said.

"Based upon conversations that I have already had with safety officers from other universities," Fregosi said, "I am very confident that the code will not apply to us. Though I have no confirmation, I have every single indication that the law applies to amateur and grade school-type productions. It would not apply to productions at our level where we have staff to address . . . safety concerns."

Ongoing discussions between Fregosi and the MIT Safety Office were described by Fregosi as "most productive and most cordial."

Prior to the revisions in the building code, MIT productions had been carried out in a safe manner, Fresina said. Safety regulations for all productions had been in compliance with various letters sent by the Massachusetts Department of Public Safety and CIS.

"Past productions have always been carried out with great attention to safety concerns," Fregosi said. "We are simply trying to make sure that students have as much access to productions as possible."