How does live theater do hanging scenes?

The girlfriend and I are discussing different techniques for safely simulating a hanging in a production like Parade or Chicago. I always thought there was a noose that gets thrown around the actor’s neck for real but the rope end isn’t connected to anything. A separate rope is attached from the ceiling to a harness either under or over the shoulders.

The girlfriend says that the noose is connected to the line that runs to the ceiling but that it’s slack compared to another section of the rope that attaches to a belt harness.

Now, she’s an actress, so she’d know. But she’s never actually been ‘hanged’ before and she doesn’t claim to know all the techniques that are used. In Parade, the actor needed to be shirtless, so a belt harness was definitely used. As an extra precaution, the table upon which he stood was never actually removed.

Is my version accurate under any circumstances? Is the noose rope always connected to the ceiling or is it sometimes disconnected? Does the harness go over the shoulders like suspenders or under the shoulders like a belt?

What else can you tell me about it?

A harness is used, under the actors costume. Generally it has a strap around the chest under the armpits, another one around the waist, which connect to a strap running up the back. At the top of that strap (behind the neck) is a metal ring that a rope can connect to. The whole harness is made out of sturdy leather and canvas or nylon straps. It looks like an overgrown version of the harnesses you see for cats or dogs, really.

How this is attached is up to the Director & Scenic Designer. It is almost always a completely separate rope from the one that has the noose. It can be run behind the noose line, concealed from view, or even inside the noose line. The noose line is often a bigger rope, so it shows up on stage. The noose line is really just for show.

The noose line should never be actually tied off. If it goes up in the fly space, out of audience view, then the end of the noose line is tied to a thin twine or piece of string (easily breakable) that is tied to something to hold up the noose line.

If the noose line must appear on stage (like on the top of a gallows crossbar), then the noose line goes up to the crossbar and the end is held there by gaffers tape or thumb tacks. Then a separate length of rope is wrapped around the crossbar to give the appearance of a tied-off rope, covering up the taped or thumbtacked end of the actual noose line.

The noose line MUST come un-attached easily, by much less than the weight of a person. So that if the harness line ever broke, the noose line would then break away also – no chance of actually hanging the actor. (No matter how bad his performance!)

There have been a few people who have been killed by not following this rule. According to Snopes, Brian Jewell and William Anthony Odom both died in 1990 (two separate incidents) from performing this stunt as part of a Halloween performance.

Antony Wheeler died in 1997 when he forgot to attach the safety harness while he was playing the part of Judas in Jesus Christ Superstar, and Renato Di Paolo died in 2000 while also playing Judas.