How ‘Skeleton Crew’ Addressed Broadway’s Biggest Challenges During a Difficult Winter Season
Playwright Dominique Morisseau, director Ruben Santiago-Hudson, and stars Joshua Boone and Chanté Adams speak to The Hollywood Reporter about how the play — a story about Detroit auto workers — navigated omicron amid striking real-life similarities: "With all these closures and COVID, Broadway became a skeleton crew of shows."
Skeleton Crew is a tale of two cities.
The third chapter in Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit trilogy captures how four workers at one last operating auto plant in motor city navigate a crumbling industry, once an American titan of the working class and now teetering dangerously on its last leg. But when it debuted, the play — which opened on Jan. 26 at the Manhattan Theatre Club and will close on Sunday, Feb. 20 — also arrived amid a New York theater industry crisis: omicron. As a result, it uniquely captured the state of New York’s theater industry in one of its most historically tumultuous times. Not just for the theater itself, but especially for its workers.
“When we’ve come into work and I listen to the first scene of the first play, I’m getting emotional because this is what my cast has been through,” Morisseau told The Hollywood Reporter about the timing of her show’s opening amid the January wave of show cancellations and closures due to the COVID-19 variant. “This is real life. When they go, ‘I heard that the other factory just got closed. We’re the last one’ — literally, we are the last one of the eight Black shows on Broadway.”
The similarities around the circumstances driving the play and the reality of Broadway during its winter season are uncanny. On-stage, it’s the mid- to late-2000s and, following numerous false closure rumors, an ongoing industry shift that’s been shuttering factories, sending jobs overseas and putting American laborers out of work for years has finally come for the last standing plant in Detroit, a city that once fueled the U.S. auto industry.
Off-stage, Skeleton Crew’s awaited debut arrived amid the height of the omicron variant, which had, over a few weeks, upended one of the nation’s most pandemic-vulnerable — and New York’s most historically lucrative — industries.
“Omicron threw a wrinkle into everything,” says Anne del Castillo, commissioner of the NYC Mayor’s Office of Media and Entertainment. “It ended up being a far more contagious variant than anyone anticipated, at a time when we were just starting to gather again. Additionally, because of how omicron was spreading, people were becoming more reluctant to go out than they would normally be around the holidays. That convergence of events was pretty impactful.”
After omicron hit Skeleton Crew, the show had to delay its opening multiple times in early January due to positive COVID cases before officially opening on Jan. 26. It was then tasked with remaining open during a pandemic surge and a few months that “tend to be a slow season” for Broadway, according to Castillo.
Like all Broadway shows, this play had COVID-19 procedures, so in-person elements went virtual when they could, with the creative team using Zoom not only to discuss things like the set design but to hold auditions, according to MTC Artistic Director Lynne Meadow.
Abiding by Broadway League protocols, Morisseau’s show also used a daily sign-in and self-screener questionnaire at the theatre, KN95 and surgical masks provided for all cast, crew and staff, a backstage area and a dressing room tower free of non-essential personnel, as well as no backstage or stage door visitors. There was booster shot encouragement and anyone who came in close contact — like press — was also required to be tested and vaccinated.
“Unlike TV and film, you can’t really change the theaters. Film and TV production, you can pick another location. A Broadway show is committed to the theater that it’s staged in. You can’t build out the back of house,” Castillo told THR about how live theater is different when trying to address COVID protocol. “Then with TV and film, you’re doing production in a pretty controlled environment, as opposed to an audience where you have, literally, a captive group.”
With each Broadway theater operating like its own factory, crews and performers continued to power the production machine through the pandemic. But keeping Skeleton Crew running — even as a show with a smaller cast than Broadway’s larger musicals — required “monumental strength” physically, mentally and spiritually.
“Every day lends itself to a possible disaster in a sense,” Santiago-Hudson said. “When you walk in, the first thing you have to find out is who’s here, who’s not here, what do we have, and, how do we proceed with what we have? Spiritually, you’re hoping and praying that when you come in it’s all intact and everybody is there, and you can continue to progress. But many days that is not the case. You have to reevaluate how you move forward.”
Beyond protocols, Meadow points to Santiago-Hudson’s work ensuring the production’s understudies were prepared. “‘I’m praising Ruben and Dom because of the ongoing work around getting understudies ready to do this,” the MTC artistic director said. “Ruben was in that theater a lot of hours that you weren’t usually in pre-COVID. A lot of work has gone in by the director, the stage management team and the assistant director.”
It was just one effort in a larger collaboration between the director and Morisseau that pushed MTC “to reimagine something new” in a season that is not in business as usual, according to Morisseau. “It’s a tremendous balance, probably the best balance I’ve had in my career,” the director said of his partnership with the “compassionate, intelligent and powerful” playwright. “I don’t let The Manhattan Theatre Club say anything to me that they don’t include her. If you bring me into a marketing meeting, you bring in Dominique. Or if you’re bringing me into a photo session, you bring in Dominique.”
Because of that approach, the duo was able to work together to have the hard conversations with MTC leadership that ultimately led to creative solutions in the omicron wave. While some tried out unprecedented hiatuses to save their shows, others pivoted to streaming as a way to keep audiences’ eyes trained on their production. Even more, like Skeleton Crew, leaned into delays to address the variant or avoid it altogether.
“It has been the best we can do under the circumstances while pushing the theater to be willing to think of another way of doing this,” the playwright said. “It’s not just turning out people like machinery. We got to be willing to pause the play to give these artists time, so they’re not under duress.”
“That was a hard decision for MTC to make, but we said we just can’t throw in understudies who haven’t had the time and who have been — like all of us — through a little bit of a trauma,” she continued. “Our whole team has been stressed, and so we decided with the theater we’re gonna have to take the pause and take the hit so we can restore and come back stronger.”
Understudies specifically became the heroes of the omicron surge, but with a rapidly transmissible variant, even additional talent — coupled with a bevy of protocols and regular testing — wasn’t enough. “With all these closures and COVID, Broadway became a skeleton crew of shows, and then, more specifically, a skeleton crew of actors available,” said star Joshua Boone, who had friends who were “flown in from L.A., Florida and other different places to keep shows up.”
The MTC is a nonprofit theater working on a different model than commercial productions. But both Morisseau — who says a show can be “a little more victim of circumstance at a not-for-profit” — and Meadow acknowledge that their work is not any less affected by the surge. “Obviously, there are huge economic repercussions running through the commercial and nonprofit theater right now,” Meadow told THR. “And there will be repercussions in the future.”
For how various shows are fairing following two months of omicron, particularly those with Save Our Stages funding, Castillo told THR that she thinks “omicron has been a bit equalizing,” noting, “The margins for Broadway and live performance are really small, and so I think we’re now seeing an across-the-board strategic approach to how they can sustain.”
While Skeleton Crew‘s run offers a clear, historical accounting of the financial and health challenges of Broadway’s omicron surge, on and off-stage, it perhaps most strikingly parallels the labor issues that bubbled up during Broadway’s winter months.
Morisseau’s story homes in on the circumstances of four workers — Phylicia Rashad (Faye), Boone (Dez), Chanté Adams (Shanita) and Brandon J. Dirden (Reggie) — and the issues they prioritize as the auto plant’s impending closure looms. Already facing annual threats of being shut down, the struggle to afford housing, ownership that prioritizes profits and working more with fewer resources, growing tension with the factory’s union, middle-management and the plant owners highlights topics like a liveable wage and a work environment that prioritizes the broadest terms of health and safety.
While the topics are being grappled with by the show’s auto workers hundreds of miles from Broadway, many of the same issues have been faced by the theater industry’s working-class before the pandemic and exacerbated by the general pandemic shutdown, reopening and winter variant surge.
“As we went through that shut down in January, that was the moment for all of us that we related to this play the most, especially living in this pandemic and trying to do theater through it,” Adams, who was Detroit-raised and has known Morisseau for a decade, told THR. “What does that do for you as an artist? How does it make you feel when you have put so much work into something that you love and that you are passionate about and, at any point, it can be ripped from you because of circumstances that are beyond your control?”
For some productions, the winter wave only lasted a handful of performances. For other shows, it resulted in week-long shutdowns, openings pushed to later in the spring or worse: permanent closure. Omicron has been dubbed responsible for the demise of several of this season’s Black-led productions, including Thoughts of a Colored Man, by shuttering their runs early or reducing the “viability” of extending runs.
“When this pandemic hit, they figured out: we got to send in a first-line to see if it’s even possible. So, are there any volunteers? And the people who are going to volunteer are the people who don’t get that opportunity,” Santiago-Hudson said. “But you will never convince me that in the best of times, the Skeleton Crew and Lackawanna Blues wouldn’t break records or sell out.”
To help stave off some closure on Broadway, inventive solutions like the nine-week hiatus of Mrs. Doubtfire were put forth, offering the promise of survival. But in what became arguably the most publicized battle around workers’ treatment since reopening, some efforts to prolong shows’ runs raised serious questions about worker treatment — including wages and healthcare — according to The Daily Beast. That resulted in tenuous negotiations between the Broadway League and Actors’ Equity.
“When I grieved with my musical [Ain’t Too Proud] closing, I looked at producers and people with lots of money who are also saying how hard this is for them, and then I looked at the workers that we’re putting out of work,” Morisseau said. “And I’m like, ‘I don’t want to hear [producers’] tears — we are putting people out of work.’ Our grief is inconsequential to the grief we’re causing.”
While most of Skeleton Crew’s characters are focused on these issues playing out on a ground level, Morisseau said Boone’s Dez serves as the pillar reminder of how this Broadway winter and its tensions can be fueled, and ultimately ceased by, the decisions of faceless “people upstairs,” on and off stage.
“He is the one advocating for not pulling down the people beside you, but pointing upward. He’s talking about upstairs the most while everybody else is dealing with each other on the ground. He’s going, ‘let’s look at the top-down,'” Morisseau said. “It’s easy to dismiss him because you can hear it with anger, but that’s how it’s easy to dismiss everyone who’s a labor activist and a protester because we call it anger instead of agitation.”
“In the commercial sector, these are economical choices made by a very select few — the one percent,” she went on to say. “I’m not suggesting that those are not hard decisions because they are, but everybody has hard decisions, and these are definitely decisions.”
Despite the ongoing issues around the conditions shows across Broadway have been operating under during the winter variant, the show’s team mirrored one heartening aspect of their stage counterparts: a deep love and dignity for their work. It not only helped unite them as they weathered their run on Broadway but served as a reminder of why, as artists, they haven’t left the industry.
“‘This is my return to theater after five years of just doing film and TV,” Adams said. “The journey to get here for me and the anxiety brewing inside of me — I don’t know if I could have done this if I did not have Dominique and Ruben reassuring me every day that this show was going to happen and that each one of us belongs here.”
Boone added, “I don’t know what meetings Ruben or Dominique had or what pressure they were facing, but they never put any of that on us, even though that concern was there.”
These sentiments underscore a theme Morisseau intentionally injected into her telling of the Detroit auto industry’s toppling after remembering the national response and researching. “I had heard and read online a lot of negative things about factory workers, especially during the time of 2008, about why they shouldn’t be bailing out the auto industry, and people talking about lazy workers,” she recalled. “Just this idea that people didn’t have any kind of sense of dignity and, therefore, their jobs weren’t worth saving. So I wanted to make sure I included in this gumbo a sense of pride around working people.”