EXCLUSIVE: For theater actors, a car and driver is generally a perquisite reserved for bankable stars.
In this pandemic, the labor union Actors’ Equity Association considers private transport a basic necessity.
“Mass-transit will not be used and if needed, dedicated transportation arrangements will be arranged by the employer,” Equity announced last week in a post on its website that details safety protocols for indoor productions with an audience. Equity, which represents actors and stage managers, lists just one “dedicated transportation arrangement” (presumably in addition to walking, biking and operating one’s own vehicle): a private car service with a driver who’s masked and gloved.
During the highly contagious Covid-19 outbreak, which has killed 525,000 people to-date in the United States, unions can’t be too careful about protecting their members. But some in the industry say Equity’s costly provisions will deter nonprofit companies and commercial producers from presenting theater before live audiences until the pandemic ends, especially while limits on congregating indoors crimp revenue. Theaters in New York state can’t go beyond 33 percent capacity should they choose to reopen, beginning on April 2. At that level, operating losses are usually unsustainable.
The car service requirement could add tens of thousands of dollars to the cost of a production, depending on the size of the cast and length of the run. Equity said the ride-sharing companies Uber and Lyft aren’t an option — either as transportation to and from the theater, or to the three Covid tests the union requires before in-person rehearsals can begin. Equity insists that private cars be configured for social distancing and frequently cleaned.
Once an entire cast has been fully vaccinated, “the procedures and protocols listed here can be modified per further discussion,” Equity said. (The U.S. will have enough vaccine for every American adult by the end of May, according to President Joe Biden, although actual vaccinations will likely take longer.) Equity’s rules, which were updated on March 3, are based on principles developed for the union by Dr. David Michaels, who ran the U.S. Occupational Health and Safety Administration under President Obama.
Equity said that it “updates its guidance in accordance with new research and industry innovation.” The Broadway League, a trade association of theater owners and producers, said Broadway will reopen over the summer at the earliest, although many producers see autumn as a best-case scenario. Off-Broadway companies, which have smaller venues and lower costs, could restart earlier.
The union’s “minimum safety recommendations” suggest that the industry will look very different from a year ago, before performances were suspended as the pandemic took hold.
Audience members will be required to wear masks, according to Equity, and ushers will be trained “on how to enforce proper mask-wearing amongst patrons.” Eating and drinking inside the house will be prohibited, even during intermission.
If actors sing onstage, they must be 12 feet apart, with plexiglass barriers between them. Other actors can’t face the singers during the singing. There won’t be in-person press events, backstage tours or signing autographs at the stage door.
Immersive live theater, increasingly popular pre-pandemic, is a no-go. “There will be absolutely no interaction between the actors and the patrons,” the union said.
Actors must be put up in hotels if they don’t live alone or if other members of their households regularly venture out. If producers put up actors and stage managers in housing, the apartments must adhere to strict ventilation standards, like the theaters themselves. Venues are divided into “high-touch” and “low-touch” areas. Some areas are cleaned once a day, others many times a day.
All of the efforts are overseen by one or several so-called Infection Control Specialists, who can’t be a stage manager, and must be onsite for rehearsals and performances.
Equity spokesman Brandon Lorenz didn’t return a call and email for comment.
The protocols won’t be an issue for at least one upcoming show. Blindness, Simon Stephens’ recorded adaptation of Jose Saramago’s dystopian novel, begins performances on April 2 at the off-Broadway Daryl Roth Theatre. The pre-recorded “experience” is narrated by Juliet Stevenson and doesn’t employ any other actors.