Editors note: Earlier this week, IATSE president Matthew Loeb informed President Joe Biden that the union’s members “stand ready to help build vaccination sites across the country, or to convert existing entertainment venues and convention centers into vaccination sites in order to get shots into the arms of Americans as rapidly as possible.” The Broadway League also promised support for the effort, joining other owners and operators of live venues in offering locations and staff to assist in the vaccination process.
In this exclusive column for Deadline, Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association, pledges support from another theater sector: The actors and stage managers in her union, she writes, could put their highly specialized skills and talents to effective use in the drive to provide Covid-19 vaccines to as many Americans as possible, as quickly as possible.
Vaccinating America is a Massive Production. That’s What We Do.
In a year of heartbreak, you learn to steel yourself against another round of bad news. Even so, learning last week that New York City would have to cancel two days of vaccine appointments due to federal mismanagement of the supply struck a harsh blow. This came on the heels of weeks of confusion caused by inconsistent messaging as to who is eligible for vaccination and a registration system too complicated for all but the most technically proficient to navigate. If the statements made by governors nationwide are any indication, New York is certainly not unique in needing stronger vaccine infrastructure and distribution strategies. I know I wasn’t alone in recognizing that the theatre community can provide necessary reinforcements.
Earlier this week, our IATSE colleagues called for converting live venues into vaccination sites and employing union labor to set them up. They’re right, of course – our theaters and arenas are, by design, centrally and accessibly located, and capable of moving thousands of people through their doors quickly and smoothly.
But I would push that call further by echoing a message that is reverberating through our membership because its truth is so immediately clear: if you want this done quickly and correctly, Equity can help.
Equity has two categories of members. First, our stage managers, who ensure that theatrical productions run smoothly, safely and on-time. They are experts at designing and executing processes that take into consideration diverse and sometimes conflicting needs, and they ensure that those processes happen flawlessly at performance after performance. As actors, we literally put our lives into our stage managers’ hands every time we step onstage with thousands of pounds of scenery flying over our heads, and I would absolutely trust the health of our nation to their leadership as well.
Second, Equity’s actors, both chorus and principal, are expert communicators. We know how to make someone else’s words, choreography and staging seem spontaneous and authentic, whether it’s our first performance or our thousandth, and we are uniquely accustomed to interacting with the public (offstage, many of us run businesses of our own). Together, stage managers and actors can help manage the chaos that comes with pop-up vaccine distribution sites.
Our collective industry depends upon promptness, attention to detail, adaptability, creative problem solving, taking initiative and being self-starters. That’s why so many stage managers and actors, the vast majority of whom have been unemployed since March 2020, have trained as census workers, poll workers, COVID compliance officers and more.
We are a ready workforce, and we will remain so as long as it isn’t safe for large numbers of people to gather indoors. Like everyone else, I want the pandemic to end, and that’s just not going to happen unless we improve our rate of vaccination. But as an actor, and as president of a union representing more than 51,000 theatrical actors and stage managers nationwide, I spend my days at the heart of an industry that ground to an absolute halt nearly 11 months ago. And until we drastically improve vaccinations and make theatre safe again, we will not fully restore our economy.
Think about it: performing arts centers serve as fiscal hubs of cities large and small across America. Without vaccinations, without theaters able to open and thrive, we will not bring back the restaurants, bars, hotels, parking garages that depend on those audiences. The more we all pitch in to accelerate vaccine distribution for the most vulnerable among us, the sooner our arts workers – and, equally important, our audiences – will be able to get back to doing what we do.
I applaud President Biden for quickly invoking the Defense Production Act to amplify our vaccine supply chain. And I urge consideration for what would effectively be a 2021 iteration of the Works Progress Administration, which put millions of job-seekers to work on projects that substantially benefited America in the post-Depression era. Our industry will be among the last to return. In the meantime, we want to help our country triumph over this pandemic.