"As with most things, the re-opening of the theatres will most likely occur in stages to ensure the safety of all involved...but the decisions made now are going to impact the arts community and New York’s economy for years to come.'"
By Megan Kern
While many are eager to once again see the raising of the red curtain, due to the enclosed spaces and close proximity, live theatre poses great health risks to industry personnel and audience members alike during the current pandemic. The Broadway runs of Disney’s “Frozen,” “Hades Town” and thirty other productions have been suspended, while eight new productions have had to postpone their debuts. After two previous extensions to Broadway’s closure, Broadway will now officially remain closed through September 6, 2020. This time frame is still tentative, however, as the Broadway League and Actor’s Equity Association– the labor union that represents actors and stage managers in live theatre– work alongside Governor Cuomo and health officials toward re-opening the Broadway theatres as safely and efficiently as possible.
Among the many challenges and changes that COVID-19 has brought to the entertainment industry, the closing of Broadway and live theatres all around the globe has been a devastating blow to the artistic community. But this is not the first time live theatre has suffered due to a widespread outbreak of disease or illness. Many thespians are eerily reminded of the theatre closures, specifically Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, of 1609 when the Bubonic Plague wreaked havoc across all of Europe. Along with today’s closures, the 2020 Tony Awards also stand to be cancelled. As with many things, however, history repeats itself, and just as the theatres have recovered from various pandemics in the past, Broadway Publicist Keith Sherman is optimistic that it “will thrive again.”
Much effort centers on making the theatre-going experience safe and comfortable for audience members again, especially as elderly individuals make up a great portion of the fan-base. Equally as important, however, is the health and safety of the actors, musicians, directors, producers, and other personnel involved in the creation of live productions. With this in mind, the Actor’s Equity Association, along with their public health safety consultant Dr. David Michaels, released four core principles that will shape the theatre’s re-opening. The principles include:
The epidemic must be under control, with effective testing, few new cases in the area and contact tracing;
Individuals who may be infectious can be readily identified and isolated, with frequent, regular and accurate testing with speedy results;
The way we audition, rehearse, perform and stage manage may need to change and the venues we work in may need to undergo changes in order to reduce the risk;
Efforts to control COVID-19 exposure must be collaborative, involving Equity members, employers, the union and all others involved in the production of theatre. There must be collective buy-in and ongoing evaluation and improvement of health and safety practices.
These principles will act as guidance as more detailed protocols are developed, such as: the sale of virtual along with in-house tickets to encourage attendance with the opportunity to enjoy the theatre from the comfort and safety of your own home, venue and production modifications (habitual and physical) to encourage social distancing, testing, and sanitation, and the industry is encouraging the hiring of additional understudies and assistant stage managers in case of illness.
The economic ability and sustainability of the theatres implementing new protocols like the one’s mentioned above are of concern, not to mention audience interest and attendance in general. However, Actor’s Equity, Broadway League, Governor Cuomo, and health officials’ primary concern is the health and well-being of theatre-goers and personnel. As with most things, the re-opening of the theatres will most likely occur in stages to ensure the safety of all involved. But the decisions made now are going to impact the arts community and New York’s economy for years to come.
Megan Kern, JD candidate at Case Western Reserve University, School of Law in Cleveland, Ohio.