“I was aware of every second of the fall”: Rachel Presdee

Equity secured £3.7m for stage manager Rachael Presdee after she was paralysed following a preventable accident at Soho Theatre. Here she tells her story and calls for greater viligance on health and safety

After training in my native Australia and working for the Sydney Theatre Company I came to the UK in 2006 with the aim of working in theatre stage management. I was employed in the industry for six years and it was truly a dream come true to have the experience of working for the National and also calling a show in the West End. The first time I did it I was absolutely shaking from head to toe.

In 2012 I was working for Headlong’s touring production of Boys at Soho Theatre. I had never worked at that venue before. We had a matinee performance and the set required a lot of work in order to get it ready for the performance. The deputy stage manager and I were in before the show and the lights weren’t on in the theatre. We needed to get on to the stage to start working, so I went looking for someone who could switch on the lights. Backstage there was a spiral staircase, so I went up and opened the first door I saw. This was the common room and there wasn’t anyone in. I came out of that room and there was a door to the right that looked exactly the same as the previous one. There was no lock, no warning sign. I opened it and it was dark, so I stepped in to turn the light on and fell back into the theatre.

I fell three metres and I was aware of every second of the fall. I landed on the stage in absolute agony and I knew 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 sense them. I was airlifted to St Mary’s Hospital in Paddington where I had a four-hour operation on my back. The surgeon 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.

The recovery has been really challenging. There is nothing that can prepare you for ending up in a wheelchair. It’s much more than not being able to walk; it’s also a neurological condition and there are parts of your body that do not behave like they used to. Every single day there’s a new challenge that you’ve got to try to figure out: How am I going to get through that doorway? How am I going to get myself off this chair and onto that bed? Unfortunately, you do become a bit invisible to other people because you’re down in a wheelchair. When people say it’s life-changing it is not a throw-away comment. It’s life-changing not just for you, but your friends, family and your colleagues.

Equity has been incredible. They supported me from day one when I was in a hospital bed and I had no idea how I was going to get by. They’ve been there for me and basically held my hand through the whole process. They supplied me with incredible lawyers who cared very much about my future. They cared that I wasn’t going to be left in a situation where I wasn’t going to survive very well financially because of a preventable accident. £3.7m may sound like a huge windfall, but it’s the money I will need to make sure that I can have as normal a life as possible. I’m only 39 years of age so that’s a long time that I will need to find money for care, housing, etc.

It’s hard for me to accept that my accident could have been so easily prevented. A simple sign or lock on that door would have stopped me from being in a wheelchair. It’s very frustrating as I know this is not a one-off incident. Preventable accidents like mine will happen again, not just in theatre but in other industries, because health and safety issues are often pushed to the bottom of a pile of work. We need to have a little more care for those working in venues like theatres so they are not too tired or too busy to let simple precautions slide.

You don’t do stage management for money or glamour. You do it because you’re that type of person and I was one of them. 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 can become empty. But the future is pretty much what I make of it now. I am studying law and a positive thing about being in a wheelchair is that you realise you can be whatever you want to be. I hope to combine my growing legal knowledge with helping out arts organisations sometime in the near future.

You can find out more about the legal support Equity offers here