Technical director dies in fall at Performing Arts Center

The North Charleston Coliseum (oval) and Performing Arts Center (above the Coliseum to the right) and Charleston Area Convention Center (above the Coliseum to the left).

David Gibson Swain was the man behind the scenes at the North Charleston Performing Arts Center since the facility opened its doors in 1999.

As the theater’s technical director, he took on the formidable task of bringing to life the artistic vision behind each production.

The work ultimately cost Swain his life Wednesday in what’s being called a “tragic accident” involving a piece of equipment that had allowed Swain to reach heights of at least 40 feet while carrying out the day-to-day responsibilities of his job.

Alan Coker, director of marketing for the theater, released a statement Thursday morning that said Swain fell from a hydraulic lift and was found unresponsive.

Swain, of Moncks Corner, was pronounced dead at the scene. He was 54, according to the Charleston County Coroner’s Office. “I can’t impress upon you enough that working in a live theater is inherently one of the most dangerous work environments that you can come across,” said Christian Crum, who works as an instructor and technical director at the College of Charleston.

Technical directors often work from precarious heights and are “constantly surrounded” by high-voltage machines that can be both powerful and destructive, Crum said. They face the dangers associated with carpentry, lighting and sound in order to transform a two-dimensional design on paper into a three-dimensional reality, he said.

North Charleston police were called to the Performing Arts Center shortly after Swain was found lying unresponsive on the stage near the basket of a toppled mechanical lift, according to an incident report released by the department. Such hydraulic lifts are used for tasks that are out of reach of a typical A-line ladder.

Swain fell 30 to 40 feet, Coker said. He suffered a severe head injury and died at the scene, the incident report said.

No one saw the fall, police said, but surveillance video showed Swain moving the lift by hand from the loading dock toward the stage at 4:19 p.m. The person who found Swain was shown walking toward the stage about 40 minutes later, the report said.

No other employees were involved in the incident and no events were taking place at the time, Coker said.

The state Occupational Safety and Health Administration is investigating the death.

“We’re deeply saddened and shaken by the tragic accident that happened yesterday. David Swain has been a cherished member of our coliseum family for many years. Our thoughts and prayers go out to David’s family, friends and co-workers,” said Dave Holscher, general manager of the center.

Those who take on the responsibility as technical director must first complete in-depth safety training on what type of clothing to wear, the proper use of equipment and other protocols to help prevent accidents from occurring, Crum said. As an instructor, Crum teaches those practices to theater students at the college.

“People don’t understand how much effort, how many hours and how many people go into even the tiniest of productions,” Crum said. “Technical directors are pretty high in that hierarchy. Their decisions affect the outcome of what you see. People see the results, but not the efforts behind it. ... This is a tragic time for the arts community of Charleston. The loss of David Swain will weigh heavily on so many of us. Our hearts go out to David’s loved ones and co-workers.”

Reach Christina Elmore at 937-5908 or at Twitter.com/celmorePC.