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Daniel Craig, Hugh Jackman, Matthew Broderick, SJP and even Mayor Adams have tested positive for COVID-19, and as Broadway balances a full-on spring season with the rise in cases, the industry is relying more than ever on safety and testing services. Step into the spotlight, Carrie Rachel Dean, Director of On-Site Operations for Mobile Health, who has taken a leading role in testing for more than 30 theaters, including Shubert, Nederlander, and Jujamcyn.
Like many before her, Dean came to New York with a dollar and a dream. “I moved to New York to sing and act a million years ago,” she said. Fate had other plans and now she’s in the COVID-protocol spotlight in an unforeseen way: “I have been joking for almost a year — wow, this is not how I imagined making it to Broadway.”
Dean joined Mobile Health at the start of the pandemic in 2020 with their testing regimen kicking into gear in September 2021, working with productions such as POTUS, Funny Girl, A Strange Loop, and The Little Prince in testing all cast members twice a week (per Actors’ Equity requirements) as well as regularly testing the crew and front of house staff depending on the theater’s requirements: “It varies from house to house and vendor to vendor. It’s at minimum once a week, and most theaters are still doing testing twice a week — at the height of the surge we were doing three times a week,” she added.
At Mobile Health, Dean and the rest of the team were charged with the unique task of not only managing the testing structure and operational logistics, but also of managing the pricing of a service that had never before been a factor in previous Broadway budgets.
“As Broadway was coming back and talking about coming back, they were trying to figure out — ‘How do we make testing the easiest and most accessible for all of our people, whether they are ushers or lead roles? How do we keep it equitable and easy and flexible?’” said Dean.
While at first they considered working out a general agreement with The Broadway League, “we ended up realizing that individual contracts with the various houses and productions was the easier way to go,” she said. Mobile Health uses a cumulative testing price across all productions. Dean added: “It was a way to keep the process fair to all productions — if you’ve got Hamilton money [Hamilton run their own testing] or A Strange Loop money, it doesn’t matter — you can afford to take part in the program, and if you’re a tiny cast that’s okay, because you’re going to be able to take advantage of the volume of the rest of the industry — that was the idea behind the model.”
At the start of the omicron surge, Dean recalls the minute-by-minute tension of waiting for rapid PCR results (Mobile Health uses a 30-minute rapid PCR test called an Accula) to determine whether the curtain could rise. “I was home for Thanksgiving, and that was really the first night of the surge. We had a show that literally had an audience seated and we had two Acculas still running at 7:55pm. And if either one of them popped positive, they were going to have to call the show. That’s my first memory of the process being that intense — and little did we know that it was the beginning of the surge,” she said.
While the show in question did go on that night, “we’ve had times when patrons were seated in the house that they had to call the show off,” Dean said. The number of positive cases to trigger a show cancellation varies depends on the size of the cast and crew, as well as the number of direct interactions that company members have with each other, masked and unmasked.
The existence of standbys, swings, and understudies is also crucial to whether a production can stay open in the face of positive cases, added Dean: “How deep the bench is on swings and understudies seems to have an impact as well — if you’ve got a couple of folks who can go on and they both are negative, then you’re in good shape. If you’ve only got one, that changes things.” In star-billing dependent shows like Plaza Suite (which recently canceled performances due to positive tests from leads Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick), there often isn’t another option. “You knew it was just a matter of time,” said Dean. “They live together, they work together, they’re unmasked all the time — there was no way she wasn’t going to also test positive,” she added.
Stars like Broderick, Craig, Jackman and Parker have reacted with flexibility and grace, said Dean, recalling that after testing positive Jackman “was posting lovely messages on his Instagram because he knew that you bought that ticket for him,” she said.
However, having witnessed firsthand many last-minute replacement calls come through, Dean emphasized the vital role of covers available to step in at a moment’s notice, “it’s been really cool to see swings and understudies get their due. It’s the ultimate ‘show-must-go-on’ moment.”
Before working with Mobile Health, Dean was a freelance event planner: “Then I ended up event planning for a company that did marketing for trade shows and for the gaming industry,” she recalled.
She was living in New York and working for the marketing service when the events of 9/11 significantly altered the landscape of New York’s trade show and event landscape. “The company I was working for just couldn’t stay in New York, and so they left. I volunteered with the Red Cross at the World Trade Center site, and while I was there I got to know some of the community that had formed around the time of the attacks. I planned a Halloween party for one organization, a Christmas party for another organization, and a day at Jones Beach for another — and somehow, I accidentally started my own event planning and consulting business. It wasn’t intentional. It’s just kind of how it happened,” said Dean.
As someone with an artistic background, Dean values the incredible amount of time, care, and teamwork that it takes to ensure the success of a Broadway show — a process that she is now proud to carry forth. “It has been a very personal and very special thing to be a part of, and my whole team feels that way.” The stakes of keeping Broadway humming are especially high for her team, many of whom are fellow theater artists whose jobs evaporated in the pandemic.
“It’s very personal,” said Dean of her team’s mission to keep Broadway going in the face of uncertainty. “We’re all really invested and pretty emotional about the fact that we get to do this, and get to be a part of helping Broadway come back.”
Additional reporting by Sarah Beling