When the curtain came down on March 12, 2020, few could predict how irrevocably changed the theater world would be. COVID-19 cases have dropped since the height of the pandemic and subsequent surges, but the entertainment industry is still navigating uncharted territory, with Off-Broadway’s brightest working hard to stay afloat amid tiny budget margins, small casts and sometimes uncooperative audiences.
Large-scale cancellations due to COVID have waned, but there are still incidences of emergency substitutes being called to perform last minute – with some drafted in from unlikely sources. After COVID-19 rendered one of the principal cast members unable to perform, Scott Elliott, Artistic Director of The New Group joined the cast of THE SEAGULL/ WOODSTOCK, NY to keep the limited run on schedule.
Scott, also the director of the production, stepped in on the morning of the next performance: “I went on with a half hour of rehearsal,” he told W42ST. “But the cast and crew were amazing and really got me through that first one. I got more comfy and found it quite enjoyable as the week went on.”
He described the experience as “humbling”, and said he felt “the audience’s support and generosity,” adding, “I just wanted to do a good enough job to maintain the integrity of the show and to not screw up the other actors. As the producer, I was very happy to not have to cancel a week of sold out shows.”
Scott is not the only non-cast member to step into the breach when needed. At a recent performance of A Strange Loop, writer and director Michael R Jackson took the lead role, while director Casey Nicholaw covered a role for the weekend at Some Like it Hot.
The Broadway League dropped its mandatory mask requirement in July of 2022, but live theater still faces the challenge of keeping patrons and company members safe — and shows running. Currently, the Broadway League and Actors Equity Association allow producers to make audience and backstage masking decisions at an individual level, and testing requirements are linked to the CDC’s risk assessment. If there is an outbreak in the cast, testing and masking are required more regularly for two weeks.
It’s still a big issue, says Aidan Connolly, Executive Director of Hell’s Kitchen’s Irish Arts Center (IAC), a multidisciplinary cultural center that stages theatrical productions, music, dance, events with food and beverage hospitality as well as a wide range of classes. While public health has improved from the theater’s first building reopening in December 2021 — “we practically needed hazmat suits on everybody,” he recalled. “When Broadway dropped masks, we did not feel that we could drop masks at that time,” added Aidan. The IAC has now moved to a mask optional model and they still maintain select mask-required performances: “We felt it was important to sustain at least some level of mask requirement as a means of additional accessibility,” said Aidan.
For others, trying to maintain restrictions has been a rockier road. At W42nd Street’s Signature Theatre, Executive Director Tim McClimon said that when the theater programmed selected mask-mandated performances for immunocompromised audience members — complete with signage, provided masks and usher reminders — many who attended refused to comply.
“We told people when they booked their tickets that they were going to a mask matinee, and when they got their reminders, they were told they were mask mandated,” said Tim, “and still we had vast numbers of people show up without masks. We gave them masks, but it’s not economically sustainable going forward — and we found that a lot of people just took their mask off once they got into the theater.”
Signature has decided to make their next show “masks optional but strongly encouraged” for audience members because, as Tim put it, “we don’t want our ushers to have to be the mask police — it’s a constant struggle and I don’t want our ushers to be put in that position.” It’s a problem that many theater ushers faced as audiences push back over theatrical etiquette and safety measures. Tim added that the organization will make adjustments should a rise in cases occur, and “we will change with the times.”
At some independent outlets with razor-thin budgets, mask mandates are the only way forward to ensure that shows — and theaters — stay open. “For our productions, it is devastating to us financially if someone were to get sick,” said Christina Perry, Director of Development at the Chain Theatre, an Off-Broadway house on W36th Street producing intimate, critically-acclaimed new works. When the Broadway League dropped its mask mandate, “No one gave us a heads up that it was happening,” said Artistic Director Kirk Gostowski. “These huge budget multi-millionaires set that standard that now trickles down to us — and we are the ones that will be devastated if something happens. They can have 500 understudies for every show.”
The Chain allows mask optional one-night rental productions but maintains a mask mandate for their full season shows, though they acknowledged that compliance can be difficult. “It’s very hard to enforce,” said Kirk, “as soon as the lights go down, there’s somebody sitting right in front of us coughing the whole show.”
One of the biggest cottage industries to come out of the pandemic was the robust COVID-19 testing facilities set up to support the thousands of cast and crew members passing through Midtown’s stage doors each day. At the height of the pandemic, Carrie Rachel Dean, Director of Onsite Operations for Broadway’s testing center, Mobile Health was preemptively testing hundreds of company members each day as well as conducting emergency labs in the case of last-minute positive tests. Now the agency functions primarily as a confirmation service, where actors and crew members are sent should they test positive on a rapid test conducted at home or at the theater.
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“The primary change is that we’re not being used for daily testing,” said Carrie, adding that they still conduct pre-employment testing for new casts and companies expected to gather in a space together for the first time. Cases have declined since the peak of omicron cancellations, she said, and “it’s been a while since we’ve seen a lot of positives in one show.”
She attributes the ability for theaters to keep running to the power of testing, noting that “even at the height of things, our positives were always lower than the city average because testing works – if you can test that person right away and isolate them, then you can protect the rest of your people.” She predicts that while we’re likely moving more towards a “self-monitoring” phase of COVID management: “We still have vulnerable populations and I can’t imagine when we’ll see COVID-19 to be just like the common cold.” But in a city – and theater community — as densely packed as New York, “the perseverance of our fellow New Yorkers is the reason we stamped it down the way that we did – I was proud of the way that people looked out for each other. It’s great to see Broadway feeling like the Broadway of pre-COVID and knowing that productions are taking care of people.”
Aidan from the Irish Arts Center agreed, adding that regardless of what curveballs may come next, the theater community will step up to the plate. “If you get a really hard problem,” said Aidan, “putting the discipline and process and collaborative nature of the performing arts industry around it is probably a good first step to solving the most tricky logistical problems.”
And though Broadway, Off-Broadway and the rest of New York’s theatrical community may continue to face new challenges, if the UK production of The Bodyguard‘s recent “mini-riot” audience meltdown is any indication, the industry as a whole will long be working hard to keep the curtain up.