Union Insists Actors Shouldn’t Work Till Epidemic ‘Under Control’

Union Insists Actors Shouldn’t Work Till Epidemic ‘Under Control’

Theater in America should not resume until there is fast, reliable testing for the novel coronavirus and widespread contact tracing, the labor union representing actors and stage managers said Tuesday.

The union, Actors’ Equity Association, has barred its 51,000 members from in-person auditions, rehearsals and performances since April 24, and made clear at a news conference Tuesday that it is not ready — or even close to ready — to lift that restriction.

Asked about the handful of professional theaters that have announced intentions to try to hold performances this summer, including Barrington Stage Company in western Massachusetts and the Muny in St. Louis, the union’s executive director, Mary McColl, said, “we’re not at a point where we have approved any plan yet.” What that means, she added, is “that members should not go to work.”

The union has hired an epidemiologist, David Michaels, who led the Occupational Safety and Health Administration under President Obama, to help it develop a list of conditions under which its members will return to work. McColl acknowledged that “all of our members are unemployed,” but said theater needs to be safe before they can return.

The specific protocols are still being discussed, but on Tuesday the union outlined four “principles” that must be satisfied: that “the epidemic must be under control, with effective testing, few new cases in the area, and contact tracing.”

The union said it would also insist that theater not resume until “individuals who may be infectious can be readily identified and isolated.” Changes might be necessary to performance venues and working conditions, with union members and theater producers collaborating on efforts to control the spread of disease.

McColl and the union’s president, Kate Shindle, said they were not ready to approve work by Equity members in any corner of the nation, in part because they do not believe that testing is yet reliable.

“We can’t have a handful of people going to work in one place if we don’t have developed, thoroughly vetted safety protocols that can be rolled out across the country,” Shindle said. “An individual member can be presented with a plan that may say there’s going to be more hand sanitizer, there will be no communal coffee pot, there will be no communal water cooler, and everybody has their own hanger on the coat rack, just to try and cut down on things.

“I feel like our members are going to be asked to evaluate on the spot whether that makes it safe,” she added. “The reality is, that’s not our field of expertise.”

The union leaders also expressed concern that much of the industry seems focused on audiences, but that there is less discussion about safety for performers, who often work in very close conditions both backstage and onstage.

“Almost all of the conversation that I have seen about theater is focused on when audiences will feel comfortable coming back,” Shindle said. “The needle that we have to thread is being able to tell stories onstage while keeping people safe.”

She added, “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, 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.”

It’s not clear how much Equity’s concerns will slow down the resumption of theater in America, because that timetable is already quite slow: many states are not yet allowing live theater, and across the country professional theaters, including the commercial producers on Broadway, now believe they are not likely to resume until early next year.

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