Presaging Hollywood Dilemma, Actors Equity Calls for Government Help as Theaters Shut Down

The Broadway Theater advertises West Side Story on February 7, 2020 in New York City - H 2020

Trump’s proposed payroll tax cuts “won’t help those whose theaters are now dark.”

With Broadway theaters shut down by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo amid the deepening coronavirus crisis, the stage performers union Actors Equity called on government Thursday to help affected arts and entertainment workers as they face lost income, health insurance and retirement savings.

It’s the same issue confronting Hollywood industryites as well, with over 40 television shows announcing shutdowns or production acceleration in the last 12 hours.

“Equity members are dedicated professionals who earn their health care and pensions one week of work at a time,” Equity executive director Mary McColl said in a statement. “Today’s decision [by the governor] means tremendous uncertainty for thousands who work in the arts.... Now is the time for Congress and local governments to put workers first to ensure that everyone who works in the arts and entertainment sector has access to paid leave, health care and unemployment benefits.”

President Trump proposed a payroll tax cut in his Wednesday address from the Oval Office, but McColl noted that “payroll tax cuts won’t help those whose theaters are now dark.”

And it’s not just actors who are affected, of course. “For every middle-class actor you see onstage,” continued the statement, “there are dozens of other workers behind the scenes and in an administrative capacity.”

Among those workers are playwrights, and the Dramatists Guild spoke out Thursday as well.

“While we are calling for the industry to protect itself and its audiences,” the Guild said in a statement, “we also expect and demand a governmental response that provides sufficient public assistance in proportion to the damage being wrought.”

Theater on the West Coast has been hit as well, with California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s Wednesday recommendation that gatherings of 250 people or more be canceled or postponed, shuttering Hamilton at the Pantages and The SpongeBob Musical at the Dolby Theatre at least through the end of the month. That’s left disappointed fans with nothing but refunds — and a consolation prize from Lin-Manuel Miranda: a hitherto-unheard Hamilton/Washington tune called I Have This Friend, offered via a tweet.

Meanwhile, smaller houses in New York and Los Angeles — and, at some point, elsewhere — will likely be affected as well, in light of the twin horses of pandemic and fear racing through affected communities.

“We feel that the health crisis affects smaller spaces, too, and those not necessarily within the borders of the greater metropolitan area,” said the Guild. “So we urge theaters of every size, in any locale where cases have been reported, to take Broadway’s lead and consider postponement of their current and upcoming productions, until such time as medical experts have determined performances to be safe again.”

Indeed, less than a half-day after Newsom’s announcement, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti went further, banning all events of 50 or more people if City-sponsored or on City property. That may be a harbinger of forthcoming rules for the private sector, too, where numerous smaller gatherings have already been canceled voluntarily.

Hovering over all of this is the specter of Italy, whose government Wednesday ordered a halt to all nonessential travel and virtually all nonessential business activity in the country. Although no one knows for sure, tighter limitations, whether voluntary or not, seem increasingly likely in the U.S. as well.