Actors’ Equity President Insists Performers Not Be “Epidemiological Guinea Pigs” As Union Releases Guiding Principles For Broadway Reopening

Actors’ Equity Association

The reopening of Broadway theaters should not come without as much consideration for actors’ safety as for that of audiences, Actors’ Equity Association made clear today in a presentation by union officials and their public health safety consultant Dr. David Michaels.

Actors and backstage workers, said Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association, should not be treated as “epidemiological guinea pigs” in the reopening of Broadway.

The comment came as the union released a memorandum outlining four core principles needed to “support safe and healthy theater production.” The memo was prepared by Michaels, former head of OSHA during the Obama Administration, and shared with Equity members and Equity producers earlier today.

“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,” Shindle told reporters, “and the actors will wear masks and gloves and everybody will sit there looking at this piece of theater in a whole new way because they’ve done this creative staging, but we also want people to be safe when they’re not wearing masks and gloves…

“I do not think that making everything safe for the audience – although that is important – and leaving the the people on stage to be epidemiological guinea pigs is the right answer,” Shindle continued.

The union’s four principles for reopening – a first step in developing more detailed protocols for theaters to follow – include:

  • The epidemic must be under control, with effective testing, few new cases in the area and contact tracing;
  • Individuals who may be infectious can be readily identified and isolated, with frequent, regular and accurate testing with speedy results;
  • The way we audition, rehearse, perform and stage manage may need to change and the venues we work in may need to undergo changes in order to reduce the risk;
  • Efforts to control COVID-19 exposure must be collaborative, involving Equity members, employers, the union and all others involved in the production of theatre. There must be collective buy-in and ongoing evaluation and improvement of health and safety practices. 

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

In an hour-long Zoom conference with theater and arts reporters this afternoon, Michaels said the development of more detailed protocols is ongoing but that “it’s too early to do that yet.” He indicated that theaters and venues developing reopening plans on their own could use the four principles for guidance.

In a question and answer session, the unions execs and Michaels addressed a variety of theater-related reopening questions, beginning with the much-speculated-upon possibility of Broadway restarting in January. Though no one would commit to a date certain, McColl indicated that reopening the theater industry might best be handled in stages, rather than all at once.

One possibility that’s captured public and industry attention is the idea of selling virtual, as well as in-house, tickets, so that audience members would have the option of viewing from home. Shindle said she’s heard from subscription-based theaters across the country whose members are urging producers to provide the virtual option “so they don’t have to share an armrest with someone.”

“In my conversations with producers from little tiny 99-seat theaters in L.A. to Broadway, they’re all trying to work out the economics of it,” Shindle said, as well as the artistic demands.

Asked whether the union is concerned that casting directors could begin asking actors for their COVID-19 test findings or immunity results, both Shindle and Michaels expressed concern. “That’s scary to a lot of our members,” Shindle said, with Michaels calling potential discrimination “really problematic.”

The issue is particularly thorny given that two of the principles designed by Michaels call for effective and comprehensive testing and contact tracing, as well as the identification and isolation of infectious individuals within the theater community. Such identification and isolation would require frequent testing, “high sensitivity” tests to reduce false negative results, “high specificity” tests to reduce false positives, and quick turnarounds for results.

In addition to testing and tracing, Michaels’ recommendations include venue and production modifications to minimize coronavirus exposure, including social distancing and proper sanitary practices for auditions, rehearsals and performances. Venues and productions should also consider the hiring of additional understudies and assistant stage managers, and physical modifications to venues when necessary.

Developing more specific protocols for reopening is the next step for Equity, McColl and Shindle said, though neither the union execs nor their safety consultant provided a specific timeline. “We’re at a moment in which we’re just starting to leave our houses. We definitely recognize that these theaters want to plan, and we want to help as much as possible to get this industry back up and running again, but we’re working through it as quickly as is feasible to make sure that we don’t miss anything.”


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