"Much Work" Needed Before Broadway Theater Can Resume, Actors' Equity Epidemiologist Says

Closed broadway theaters during the coronavirus pandemic on April 08, 2020 in New York City - Getty - H 2020
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The underlying message from the union and its adviser: Don’t expect to go to the theater soon.

Even as states reopen across the country, the short-term prognosis for live performance is likely to be darkened venues due to the ongoing pandemic, suggested leaders of the stage performers union Actors’ Equity and an epidemiologist engaged last month by the union, who all spoke Tuesday during a telephone press conference.

The union also released a memo prepared by the medical expert, Dr. David Michaels, whose experience includes serving as head of the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Broadway has been shut down for about 10 weeks due to the coronavirus, putting many actors and theater workers in dire straits and endangering many shows.

“Actors’ Equity Association is eager to reopen theatrical productions but should only permit this to happen, consistent with its collective bargaining agreements, when the safety of members and everyone else involved in producing theatre for the public can be protected,” Michaels wrote. “It is not yet possible to reopen theaters in a way that protects the safety of members, as well as production workers and audiences. ... [M]uch work will need to be accomplished before we can consider starting to mount theatre productions in ways that ensure the safety of everyone involved.”

Equity sought out Michaels, said union executive director Mary McColl, because "we knew the [safety] guidelines needed to be driven by science.” The union has not yet authorized any productions in the country to open, she said. “Members should not go to work.”

“We want to do this as soon as we can,” said Equity president Kate Shindle. “But we want to do it right.”

In the meantime, the union has agreed to “temporary COVID agreements in conjunction with SAG-AFTRA,” said McColl. (That union has engaged its own medical expert and has also directed members not to work.) Shindle added that theater owners are telling Equity that their subscribers have threatened to cancel season subscriptions, which has led to discussion of “virtual tickets to live theater events.”

All of that creates overlap, or at least close adjacency, with SAG-AFTRA’s jurisdiction, which encompasses live and recorded streamed product. How the jurisdictional questions will shake out over time is unknown: Six years ago, in the pre-COVID era, a stage play that offered both in-person and streaming tickets was produced in Los Angeles — but under SAG-AFTRA contracts, not Equity.

Michaels and Equity have been in communication with SAG-AFTRA regarding safety, as well as with IATSE — which has engaged three epidemiologists — and other Broadway unions, such as the American Federation of Musicians, the Society of Directors and Choreographers and other members of the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds, known as COBUG.

Meanwhile, just as in Hollywood, management — i.e. theater owners and producers — are developing their own guidelines, raising questions as to whose will prevail. “At the end of the day, we will be working together,” said McColl. “It’s going to take work on everybody’s part so that we don’t come to a stalemate.”

And when will Broadway be back? Charlotte St. Martin, head of the Broadway League, a management organization, told the Daily Beast on Monday to expect theaters to be open and full, without social distancing, starting in January. But McColl seemed dubious of that forecast, telling the press conference that small productions would open first and that larger shows would face “a longer on-ramp.”

“Those productions will have to open later,” she said. That was a conclusion reinforced by Michaels’ memo, which identified four core principles for reopening that still seem quite distant from the reality on the ground.

First, he wrote, “the epidemic must be under control,” which he said means that effective testing is available, there are few if any new cases in the geographic area of the theater wishing to reopen and “comprehensive contact tracing” of new cases is being performed to limit viral spread.

Second, “individuals who may be infectious must be readily identified and isolated,” Michaels wrote. That requires “frequent, regular testing of individuals involved in the production, using a test that has a high sensitivity (few false negatives), preferably a high specificity (few false positives) and that provides a result shortly after the test is administered.”

“Without this,” he warned, “it is questionable whether any production involving extensive exposure can be considered. … [A]t present, there is not easily available highly sensitive rapid testing, and many of the tests that are currently in use are not sufficiently accurate.”

Third, “venues and productions must be modified to minimize exposure.” This means maintaining social distancing, performing enhanced sanitary procedures, hiring additional understudies and crew to be ready to step in for those who may become ill, making physical modifications to venues such as enlarging dressing rooms and other backstage areas and implementing “alternative approaches to audience seating, entry and exits, [and] examin[ing] the ventilation systems and air flow to ensure that adequate flow of fresh air is present in all parts of the theater.”

Fourth, “efforts to control COVID-19 exposure must be collaborative.” All stakeholders must be involved and agree.

For a profession that requires its members to hug, kiss and fight onstage, while audiences watch from tightly squeezed seats in old and under-financed buildings, and with most everything on tight economic margins, that’s all a tall order. Just 16 months ago, the union waged a strike for a share of record Broadway profits.

But now, said Shindle, “the needle that we have to thread is being able to tell stories onstage while keeping people safe.” For the time being though, that needle may be lost in a haystack of ongoing contagion, botched testing and feckless government response to the worst pandemic in a century.