Actors’ Equity President on Health Insurance, Contracts + Moving Forward Amidst COVID-19

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Photo Source: Joan Marcus

March 12, 2020 is a date already written in the history books of New York City; the grim day on which every Broadway theater was forced to shutter in the face of the coronavirus pandemic. Now, nearly two months into the shutdown and with no foreseeable end in sight, many performers are left asking, “What next?” 

Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association since 2015, has been working round the clock to answer the question along with many others. Between a just-announced partnership with former OSHA Chief David Michaels, advocating for federal and state funding, and forward-thinking on exactly how and when members can safely return to work, Shindle knows the show can’t go on just yet. But the union will be ready when it does. 

Let’s start with the obvious: So many actors are panicking right now—and for good reason. What is Equity doing to support them? 
We have spent a lot of time negotiating settlements for some pay and health weeks for people who were working when the shutdown occurred. We’ve been busy working with our employers to create agreements that will allow them to use—legally capture, contractually capture, archival content in exchange for pay to our members, so that they can have some kind of media contract. It doesn’t only help the theater to generate some revenue but it also helps the members who otherwise wouldn’t be making money right now. Obviously we are very active on the legislative front and one of the things we started saying as quickly as this all happened was, not just people who were working but people who were waiting for contracts to start were really in a perilous position and traditionally, those stage managers and actors and other theater professionals who had a concert coming up or an industrial or other kinds of one-off work, that just evaporated before their very eyes; they would not have been eligible for unemployment, so we pushed very hard on that and were thrilled to have that be a successful effort. 

We have been aggressively advocating for more arts funding for a long time but in the context of this pandemic, theaters are going to need help to reopen. We’re not just trying to put stage managers and actors and other theatrical professionals back to work; theaters are a huge economic engine for communities of all sizes across the country. They provide jobs for people who work within the building but they also have ancillary effect on parking garages and restaurants and all the surrounding businesses who benefit from the theater being open. We’ve been doing that for quite some time on the arts funding front, but more recently that effort has definitely been focused and it’s disheartening to me when I hear people refer to the arts in a way that implies that it’s frivolous in any way or that it’s a luxury. Broadway generates more revenue for New York City than all the sports teams combined. 

Health insurance is one of if not the concern for many in the union right now. What should actors concerned about losing their insurance—or who already have—be doing? 
One thing they can do is sign onto the directive, the action item that we put out to contact legislators and advocate for the 100% COBRA subsidy. I mean, that’s a very real, very concrete action that people can take that we think will move the needle. We have had a lot of conversations about that at Equity lately, and the Equity League Pension Health Fund is a separate organization from Actors’ Equity. So as much as we’d like to just make all the rules, the trustees of the Fund make those rules. Half of the trustees are appointed by Equity and half are representatives of employer groups so I am not personally a trustee but I’ve been advocating and pushing as hard as I can for our trustees, many of whom attended a council meeting and had a really productive conversation [last week] to help people in the short term in any way they possibly can. Obviously, health insurance is a complicated and loaded issue no matter what. But I do think, personally, that it’s incredibly important that they exhaust all options to keep people from dropping off of health insurance when they have no availability to work because the industry is shut down. They have to balance that with the solvency of the fund and make sure that there will be insurance going forward for people who need it.

The question on everybody’s mind of course is, “When?” In your opinion, what will it take to get actors back onstage and audiences back in seats? 
The thing I am most focused on is making sure that the workspace is safe for the workers, because I think once we accomplish that, then we can actually talk about reopening in a real way. There are theaters all over the country right now who are trying to figure out how to reopen their theater and sell half the seats and have some kind of media agreement that allows a “password” if they are sick or don’t want to come to the theater or are uncomfortable sharing an armrest. I think theaters will  get creative when it comes to solving that and as soon as it’s legal to reopen and as soon as we understand logically how to make the workspace safe, then I think theaters will reopen. It will be safe for a group of actors and stage managers and musicians and stage hands to be on the stage and backstage probably before people are comfortable sitting in a theater with 4,500 other people. So I believe that’s the priority, at least for us, and the thing that is very reassuring to me, even in the midst of all this chaos, is that theater-makers—whether they’re producers or performers or ushers or name any group in the theater—theater-makers want to make theater. It’s what we do. We do it even though it’s not always financially stable. We do it in all kinds of spaces, both traditional and unconventional, and I have no doubt that there are going to be plenty of creative solutions to making that happen because it is what we do. 

Speaking to re-opening, Equity has teamed with public health expert David Michaels. Why is that important? 
It’s important for a number of reasons but chief among them is the fact that most of the conversations I hear, whether it’s just among our colleagues or on social media, are about “When is it going to be safe for audiences to come back to the theater?” and I can absolutely understand why that’s an important consideration. Without audiences, we either don’t have shows or shows look very different than they have in the past. One of the things that’s also very important to us is the safety of the people who are working onstage and backstage, regardless of whether an employer is trying to open a 300-seat theater, a 500-seat theater, a 2,000-seat theater. The nature of what we do carries inherent risk in the context of a pandemic. I’ve said over and over again, there’s no such thing as social distancing for an actor. I mean, it’s one of the only workplaces in which it's not only legal but expected that you will kiss your coworker as a condition of your job. I’m sure directors and other creatives will get appropriately creative when it comes to things like staging, but we wanted to make sure that we were on really solid ground regarding how to make the space itself onstage safe for the people who are going to work there. That’s our lane. 

In what ways do you think theater will look different when this is over? 
I don’t know yet and that’s why we really prioritized the partnership with Dr. Michaels, because none of us are doctors, none of us are scientists, and I believe that seeking professional recommendations on how things can be made safe is the responsible thing to do. The good news is I think we have partners in our employers who also want people to stay safe for the very good, noble, ethical reasons and also because, if people get sick onstage in numbers that are too high, they can’t have a show. The other thing that may be a sea change—and I’m interested to see how this plays out—is actors and stage managers are very committed to working through whatever is ailing them, and I wonder if this will shift the paradigm of “The show must go on no matter what, even if I’m injured or sick” and how theaters will allocate additional resources to providing the kind of coverage, in terms of understudies and swings and subs, that we probably should have always had, but is more difficult to achieve because they know our people will go to work under all kinds of distress. I feel we’re in a bit of a new normal in which, when you’re sick, more people will think you should stay home and not bring that to work. 

Pandemic aside, has the situation illuminated any ways the industry can be made better or safer for actors? 
I think there are definitely ways to do that. We have to take a look at things like auditions. We have to take a look at how many people are in a room at one time given the fact that this virus is probably going to be with us for awhile. I think we have to take a look at safe and sanitary practice backstage, which we already enforce pretty aggressively, but making sure that people have adequate space in dressing rooms, for example. Now obviously, theaters and producers are working with a limited amount of space so it makes it a complicated problem. The night before everything shut down, the last thing I saw was “The Inheritance: Part 2” and it was amazing, a really brave group of performers. But, people crawling through the audience or whipping up peanut butter off the floor where someone else chokes it out—I’m definitely not faulting the production because it was staged before all this happened and I thought it was really well done, but it really threw me and [drew me to ask] the question, “How we can possibly create space between people onstage when we’re worried about an epidemic?”

Will anything about the union be changed as a result of this situation? 
The union’s core functions of making sure that the employer provides a safe and harassment-free workplace and that people are able to go to work and do their jobs will remain very much the same. But I’m sure there will be conversations about things like understudies or the ways in which we negotiate those types of things that will adjust. But, we don’t know what we don’t know yet and to me, leadership, especially in a context like this, is taking your best guess based on the available information, and then if the information changes, you adjust your strategy. I think Equity can benefit from this horrible event, because unions are about being in it together and if anything, we see evidence on the news every single day of people doing kind things for other people and being supportive of other people just because it’s the right thing to do. If there’s anything positive to be taken away from a really difficult time it's that that’s kinda where we are right now as a culture, the vast majority of us at least. That solidarity will help us as Americans, and that solidarity will help us as union members.

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