Want to reopen theaters? Here’s what the Actors’ Equity union says is needed

Want to reopen theaters? Here’s what the Actors’ Equity union says is needed

Actors’ Equity lays down guidelines to reopen theaters safely, eyeing a long road ahead

As theaters plot plans for reopening, the question of when it’s safe for actors to return to the stage looms large.

On Tuesday, the Actors’ Equity Association, the national union representing over 51,000 professional actors and stage managers working in theater, announced a set of guidelines to ensure the safety and health of workers when they return to work.

Broken into four “core principles,” the measures were released in a memo to Equity members and producers. Penned by David Michaels, a former federal public health official from the Obama administration, the guidelines include control of the pandemic; the ability to identify and isolate infectious individuals; the modification of productions and venues to minimize exposure; and collaborative infection control plans.

Sign up for our newsletter

“These four principles are the foundation for our continued work with Dr. Michaels,” Mary McColl, executive director of Equity, said. “We intend to build out protocols that can be used by our employers and all of our colleagues to [ensure] that everyone who works in the theatre has the safest workplace possible.”

In his letter, Michaels advises that the guidelines are meant to be addressed before a venue opens a production, with several additional measures required once these initial principles are met. Equity plans to reveal a “comprehensive program” to ensure safety once workers are allowed back in theaters at a later date.

“The COVID-19 epidemic has had a devastating impact on the country. Tens of thousands of people have been killed by the virus, many more sickened and more than a million people infected,” Michaels wrote. “The theatre community has also felt the pain of the epidemic. 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.”

The current chief concern before theaters can begin to consider reopening, Michaels stated, is the containment of the coronavirus outbreak, which means extensive testing and very few new cases in a given area. He explained that even as numbers of infections identified decreases, concern lingers as a “spike in transmissions and new infections can occur at any point in time” — a persistent reality that may only be lessened by the introduction and widespread dissemination of a vaccine.

Measures to protect workers throughout the audition and rehearsal process must also be considered, Michaels stated, noting that productions should account for the possibility of having to make quick replacements of cast members and stage managers should an infection be detected once theater work resumes.

“Producing live theatre requires close physical contact that increases risk of transmission among performers, musicians, theater staff and depending on the venue, the audiences,” Michaels wrote. “With rare exceptions, theatre performers cannot utilize the most effective forms of disease prevention — physical distancing and appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) — to protect themselves from COVID-19.”

As venues across the country ready possible reopen dates, barriers facing Broadway, in particular, remain high. From the density of Times Square to the audience demographic (which skews toward an older, higher-risk age bracket), factors existing outside of the theater itself weigh on decisions as to whether or not opening is feasible.

A recently conducted New York Times/Siena College Research Institute poll surveyed New York State voters to assess their comfortability of returning to live theater. Though only 39% of the 796 who responded indicated that they would be “very likely or somewhat likely to see a show” opened around September 1, this number spikes to 57% when asked if they will attend by the end of the year (operating under the assumption that all required safety measures are in place).

Beyond factors such as disinfecting theaters between shows and spacing issues, the poll found that audience members are hesitant to return because of other theater-goers. Their concerns? Of those who attended at least one show in 2019 but responded that they weren’t “very likely” to return this year, 58% indicated they didn’t trust their peers to obey social distancing rules. Echoing this line of thinking, 55% cited concern over other patrons not wearing masks.

Going forward, director Diane Paulus — who has teamed with Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health’s Joseph Allen to create “The Roadmap to Recovery and Resilience for Theater” — stressed the importance of creating “healthy” buildings with proper air circulation and ventilation during a live discussion hosted by ALL ARTS earlier this month. She also noted that the theater industry is particularly suited for creating solutions to managing audiences as the crisis continues to unfold.

“I do believe there’s going to come a time where we’re going to want to sit next to each other again, but in the interim, for our survival,” she said, “I think we really have to embrace what is unique about the field: that we’re creative, that we’re flexible, that we’re dynamic, that we’re used to the unknown.”