Equity Reveals First Steps to Reopening Theaters + Concerns Over Health-Based Bias

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No theaters currently have union approval to put actors on stage, Actors’ Equity leaders said during a virtual press conference yesterday. Theaters won’t get such approval until specific infrastructures like testing, reliable data, and venue modifications are readily available.

“We have just one chance to get it right when it comes to reopening,” said Equity’s executive director Mary McColl in a message to sent to members minutes before the press conference. “That means letting the science guide us.”

To consider reopening, theaters will need to prove that the uniquely contagious coronavirus is under control in their community, the union emphasizes. Individuals who come down with an infection during a rehearsal or performance process will need to be isolated from the cast and crew. Further, temperature monitoring, symptom surveys, and regular testing will need to become commonplace in auditions, rehearsals, and performance runs.  

However, checking for symptoms alone won’t be enough. “Many people can be spreading the disease and have no symptoms and have no fever,” said Dr. David Michaels, who has been commissioned to advise the union for stage actors and stage managers on safety guidelines for reopening theaters and putting performers back to work after COVID-19 precautions shutdown theaters nationally. “We don’t have good tests to do this yet.” 

Michaels, an epidemiologist who’s now on faculty at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., is a former Senate-approved government official from President Obama’s administration. For eight years, Michaels served as the assistant secretary of the agency that crafts nationwide workplace safety protocols, the Labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, more commonly known as OSHA. 

When it comes to testing, the story doesn’t end with widespread access. The testing needs to be proven highly accurate, too: “We don’t want to have false-positives which will throw people out of the work they’re doing,” said Michaels. “That will obviously be a concern if we have a theater production and someone is in the cast [gets] a false-positive.” 

If an actor tests positive for COVID-19, “they’re going to have to be removed quickly from the cast,” said Michaels. 

When Backstage asked if Equity is concerned that such protocols could create a health-based bias in casting, president Kate Shindle responded: “I am very concerned... I started thinking about this when we started seeing preliminary guidelines for film and TV that speculated that perhaps people wouldn’t be able to work until they had antibodies. The idea that we’re walking into a new normal in which people can’t work in the industry unless they’ve been sick is scary to a lot of our members. Not to mention that if Broadway opens up later than some theaters across the country: Will the actors and stage managers who are still unemployed in New York be deprioritized because they come from a significant hot spot?” 

As to when line-item protocols will be released for hiring stage actors again: “It’s a little early to determine that,” said Michaels, repeating the popular refrain of government scientist Dr. Anthony Fauci: “You don’t make the timeline, the virus makes the timeline.” 

“Audiences want theater back,” said Shindle, underlining that elected union leadership relies on industry gigging, too. “Everyone wants to solve this problem. The concept of social distancing in the theatrical world is not something that we’re used to... We know that there may be different places that feel like they’re ready to open up at different times, but we have one chance to get the protocols right.” 

Although some theaters have submitted plans for the union’s review, Actors’ Equity is mandating that members not participate in any productions nationwide until there is a clear go-ahead from the union.

“I’m sure at some point, there’s going to be some fantastic director who wins a bunch of awards for staging an Arthur Miller play as a comment on living in the post-COVID age, and the actors will wear masks and gloves,” said Shindle before adding the need for people “to be safe when they’re not wearing masks and gloves,” while ensuring the actors on stage aren’t subject to becoming “epidemiological guinea pigs.” 

If you’re an entertainer recently affected by coronavirus, check out our COVID-19 entertainer resource page.