What It Will Take for New York Theater to Come Back as the Industry and Community It Professes to Be
What we do in the remaining downtime of this shutdown will determine the health and future of the industry — (audio version here)
(Listen to the audio version of this article free on the Why We Theater podcast—on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen to podcasts.)
If you wanted to, this past weekend, you could finally dine inside a restaurant, attend an indoor catered affair, visit MoMA, catch a movie on the big screen, sit inside a coffee shop, or go to the gym—but you could not have enjoyed one of New York’s most quintessential experiences: live theater.
With President Biden’s declaration that all American adults 18 and over will be eligible for the vaccine as of May 1, we see the shore coming into view with indoor group activities and public gatherings in sight. As of March 15, in-person catered events can resume at 50 percent capacity or 150 people. As of March 19, indoor dining outside the city can resume at 75 percent and in the city at 35 percent. Television and film sets rebooted over the summer. The airline industry never even shut down. And yet, over a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, all of Broadway and nearly all of Off-Broadway remains dark.
The shutdown has devastated the industry. Aside from the party line “first to close, last to come back,” professionals and the public have heard little about what’s going on behind the scenes to actually bring theater back.
Though daily news keeps Broadway and theater in the headlines, little has been said about what is actually going on. Artists have been waiting for more than a year to hear from leaders, but their waiting has been in vain — until now.
Countless articles cite the decimation of jobs and an entire $878 billion national economic ecosystem and a $110 billion one in New York City. Headlines tout record-high unemployment rates and chronicle the overwhelming despair from the unmooring of a vibrant industry. While this is the brutal reality, the shutdown also offers the opportunity to rethink and rebuild.
“I’ve never seen a moment like this, where people are willing to just take a beat and listen, because there’s nothing they could do right in front of them,” says Damian Bazadona, President and founder of Situation Interactive, a digital marketing firm for Broadway and live events. “That, to me, is just a gigantic moment.” But that moment is fleeting.
As murmurs of a fall re-opening for select productions circulate, there remains much to accomplish — foundations that can only be laid during this closure — to ensure the safe and strong return of New York theater to better than it was before. This is the story of what has been done and what should be done before the lights turn back on.
Part 1: In the Dark
When will Broadway come back? As someone who worked on the inside of Broadway for the last half decade, this is a question I get all the time. But the more important question is how? Like the theaters themselves, arts professionals remain in the dark.
“I don’t feel like I know what’s going on in the industry,” says Clint Ramos, a Tony Award-winning costume designer and Tony-nominated scenic designer. “I don’t know what the Broadway League’s plan is. I don’t know what the LORT [League of Resident Theatres] plan is. I don’t know what the Off-Broadway League plan is.”
“A very small, tight-lipped group of maybe 50 to 100 of the most powerful and influential and ‘governing’ industry players have a sense of what’s being contemplated,” says a producer and general manager who has worked on Broadway and asked to speak anonymously for fear of jeopardizing future hiring by those players. “But even after a year — a year! — none of that is making its way to the thousands and tens of thousands in the Broadway ‘citizenry.’”
Amid overwhelming frustration, the loudest and most prevalent gripe is the lack of transparency. “If you want to create a situation where hyperbole and and misinformation starts, tell thousands of actors that are out of work that they’re out of work and the union’s looking into it, and then don’t do anything; or if you’re doing something, don’t tell them,” adds Broadway actor and writer Eric Ulloa.
So what is going on?
The Broadway League, the trade association made up of members who are theater owners and other unionized industry professionals, established multiple committees from the start. Back in April 2020, Broadway League President Charlotte St. Martin informed Deadline of 15 task forces: “We have touring task forces. … We’ve got government-relations groups. … We have nine marketing task forces, including the research one and the advertising one and the creative one and the digital one and the developing-partnerships one.”
The description is broad, but also incomplete — it doesn’t add up to 15. Still, this marked a crucial moment in which a leader shared information, four weeks into an unprecedented shutdown. Since then, St. Martin and her colleagues have not supplied further details on individual subjects, responsibilities, or actual tasks for these task forces. To date, none of these committees has published any progress report. In fact, there’s been debate about how many committees exist. Depending on whom you ask (and this reporter asked two dozen people on and off the record), the guesstimates range from 17 to 47.
According to a Broadway League spokesperson, there are now 42: twenty labor task forces, nine marketing task forces, five theater-owner protocol task forces, four producer-presenter task forces, three government-relations task forces, and one leadership council task force.
Sources familiar with the situation say the Broadway League committees are in the midst of planning a staggered reopening — deciding which shows will go first and which shows will continue to wait. Questions about auditions to fill now-empty roles and puzzle-piecing rehearsal schedules are topics of discussion. There are marketing efforts to hash out how to get audiences back. Terry Byrne, general manager of Off-Broadway’s Westside Theatre and former president of the Off-Broadway League (2018–2020), says the Off-Broadway League and its members spend their days reading research from the CDC and considering their own staggered calendar. “There’s a pool of people who regularly work Off-Broadway and everyone is demanding their attention at the same time,” Byrne says.
Undoubtedly, there’s a lot theater owners and producers can’t do without a reopening date. And yet, there is still much they can.
The League spokesperson assures that these task forces “have been working with city and state officials as well as leaders in science, technology, and medicine to formulate the best plan to restart the industry” and “every path to safely reopening is being fully explored,” but details are scant.
“The Broadway League used to be called the League of American Theaters & Producers so technically, they are accountable only to their membership of producers, theater owners, and managers and not necessarily to the greater Broadway workforce,” the producer and general manager acknowledges. “But by definition, it’s the producers and the theater owners who largely define if, when, and how Broadway will return. So in addition to being the public face and the government-facing representative of our industry, the entire industry has no choice but to look to the League for information, for guidance, for signs of progress, for reasons to be hopeful (or not), for updates in general.”
The League did play an instrumental role in the historic passage of the Save Our Stages Act; a feat not to be minimized. And the establishment of 42 committees should be heartening, but without information flowing from them, it can feel like they don’t exist. As the producer and general manager says, “I think it’s fair to say that the feeling amongst much of the rank-and-file of the industry is that there has been a distinct failure of communication at a time when communication is so desperately needed.”
Similarly, entertainment unions have not sufficiently communicated with their membership about their progress — as indicated, in part, by the newly circulating petition to Equity’s leaders demanding a Town Hall. Equity has since agreed; it will take place April 8. In a statement (delivered prior to the petition’s spread), Equity tells this reporter, “Our staff is closely monitoring the latest science on a daily basis and doing everything in our power to ensure employers have the appropriate science-based safety protocols in place when work increases.”
Still, many actors and stage managers feel frustrated by these vagaries. “Why is there not a weekly or bi-weekly update that comes in the actual, physical hard mail that tells you here’s what’s going on?” Ulloa asks of Actors Equity Association. (The union did publish elaborate 2020 Safety Guidelines in November. None of the actors I spoke to were aware of it.)
Despite recent revelations about New York’s Governor Cuomo, in the early days of the pandemic, his press briefings were dubbed “must-see TV” and drew more than 4.7 million viewers through Facebook, Twitter, Periscope, and a livestream feed on the state’s website. Consistent, detailed information has been the great calmer in the chaos of the pandemic.
Information about COVID-19, viral transmission, vaccines, and safety protocols changes frequently and there seems to be concern among leaders that they could publish information that will change, so what’s the point in sharing?
To which actor and Broadway for Racial Justice founder Brandon Michael Nase replies, “Why don’t you let us decide if it’s pointless or not?”
In a recent Forbes piece, St. Martin said, “We never negotiate in public,” as negotiations about safety protocols, economics, and more are about to begin. Negotiating in public and keeping employees informed are not the same.
“The most fair expectation would be to periodically share with the public what you know, what you don’t know, and what you’re doing in the meantime,” says the aforementioned producer and general manager. “If they can’t draw conclusions or make definitive statements because there are still too many unknowns, then at the very least what are they studying and what are some of the nuances they are trying to tackle? Leaving everyone guessing and forcing everyone to rely on conjecture and rumor and hearsay is not productive either.”
As much as we still don’t know, there is a lot we do, a year in. We know the novel coronavirus spreads through aerosols and droplets. We know the key to indoor gatherings involves ventilation and filtration — the maximum amount of outdoor air brought inside and removing viral particles from said air. HVAC systems, MERV filters, and HEPA filtration are the new words of the day.
These “are issues that are indeed solvable irrespective of how and when Broadway comes back,” says the producer-general manager. “I’m struggling to understand why the New York theater owners haven’t been more vocal and out-in-front on this here, as well.”
Part 2: The Chicken or the Government
“It’s sad for me to hear that the network of freelance theater artists and craftspeople are feeling uninformed, and it’s a domino effect,” says Byrne. “It’s a direct result of: how do we communicate with people when we don’t yet know ourselves what will be required?”
Neither the governor’s office nor the mayor’s office has published guidelines (HVAC or otherwise) for operating any indoor venues at greater than 50 percent, let alone full capacity.
Yet, the American Society of Heating Refrigeration and Air Conditioning Engineers (ASHRAE) released guidelines for ventilation and filtration in October 2020, as well as systems evaluation guidelines.
Ventilation systems need updates because they were intended for thermal comfort (warm in the winter, cool in the summer) and odor reduction, says Brian Pavilonis, a certified industrial hygienist and tenure-track professor at CUNY School of Public Health. “[These systems are] not at all about controlling the spread of infectious diseases.” Now, they have to be.
Though Pavilonis concedes that experts do not yet know the exact amount of air changes per hour (ACH) necessary inside a building to render it fully COVID-safe, they know more is always better.
The most low-fi option: keep street-facing doors open for many theaters like Broadway’s Booth, Majestic, Shubert, American Airlines, Hirschfeld, and more. (News about opening Off-Broadway’s The Shed highlighted the building’s accordion walls and direct outdoor access.) Yes, you’d have to manage non-ticketed onlookers and street noise, but, as Pavilonis says, “We’re in a pandemic and you can get greater outdoor airflow with all your doors open. Things like that just might have to be tolerated for a while.”
Harvard’s T. H Chan School of Public Health indicates that, for classrooms, the target rate is 5–6 ACH and the ideal is 6 ACH, meaning all of the air in the room changes over six times per hour or every 10 minutes. Though children produce fewer infectious particles than adults, transmission risk increases over time. Therefore, theaters can learn from school-reopening recommendations.
On top of changing the air as much as possible, air must be cleaned. Filters abide by a MERV rating that quantifies “the capture efficiency of small particles,” Pavilonis explains. Right now, most commercial buildings operate at a level 8. ASHRAE now recommends a minimum of 13 with an ideal of 16, known as HEPA filtration. For duct systems that can’t accommodate HEPA, UV light in ducts can clean particles, or portable HEPA filtration can be placed around a venue. It’s worth noting that these ventilation and filtration levels are the same as recommended in Equity’s 2020 Safety Guidelines, but they have not been formally adopted industry-wide or publicly adopted by New York theater operators.
Suddenly, it makes sense why we keep seeing photos of nearly full airplanes without subsequent reports of flights as super-spreader events. “You have a lot of airflow,” says Pavilonis of planes. “A certain percentage is recycled, but it’s passed through HEPA filters. You know those air vents over your head? That’s a lot of airflow.”
Byrne says the Westside operations manager is working with their new HVAC company to determine possibilities for the Off-Broadway venue. “We’re sort of in the process right now of getting quotes and trying to figure out what we can do. Resources are always an issue — it’s the nature of the business — but we’re looking at it,” she says. “Before we reopen, we’re going to undertake a cleaning and sanitizing of all the units and the possibility of installing bipolar ionization devices.”
The likelihood is that other theater operators are examining these systems in their buildings — though the Shubert Organization, Jujamcyn, Roundabout Theatre Company, and Manhattan Theatre Club declined to comment on facilities matters and the Nederlander Organization did not respond to requests for comment. Records at the Department of Buildings do not reflect any permits issued or in process, which would cover major HVAC upgrades or changes, but might not reflect smaller items like filter changes.
Sharing this information would go a long way to a) inform arts workers about the conditions they need to ask about before they return to work and b) reassure theater artists and theatergoers of their safety if houses upgrade their systems. Perhaps theaters could post their ACH and filter level the way restaurants post their health grade. Professionals and audiences would have reason to feel reassured by this news (if it is indeed happening) even though New York theaters have not been testing grounds.
There is evidence that up-to-date ventilation and filtration makes a significant difference inside theatrical venues specifically. In South Korea, the theater industry never shut down. As many in the industry know, the Korean production of The Phantom of the Opera opened in Seoul on March 14, 2020, and Cats later opened a Korean production on September 9, 2020. Both are the subjects of the upcoming documentary The Show Must Go On by theater director and now-documentary-maker Sammi Cannold.
As she notes, the commercial Korean theater industry, specifically musicals, is only about 20 years old, which means the venues that host them were built in the last 20 years — many in the last decade. Their HVAC systems are fully updated (with strict protocols in place) and there has been zero audience-to-audience transmission in theaters to date and zero transmission backstage for both Phantom, which played to full capacity, and Cats, which has reached capacities as high as 70 percent.
“The reason I’ve been a broken record about this zero audience-to-audience transmission figure is that’s what makes me feel comfortable coming back to the theater,” says Cannold. “There is empirical proof that theaters are uniquely controllable environments. And not just in South Korea. In studies that are coming out of Germany about concert venues, in Australia. There is a lot of proof that if we follow the protocol, if we do all the right things, going to the theater is safer than sitting on the subway.
“Conveying that information to people is going to be what’s key and, to me, it has to start with theater workers, because if we don’t believe it’s safe, how are we going to convince our audience that it’s safe?” she continues.
Plus, the industry has an opportunity to impress upon government leaders that it is, in fact, safe to return at more than 33 percent capacity—which is permitted for Broadway and beyond as of April 2, but which The Broadway League has repeatedly conveyed is not financially viable. John Jay College devised and presented its own reopening plan; why can’t theater? We are in the unique position to set standards rather than wait for guidelines to follow.
What’s more, Gregory Kirsopp knows where to find funding for upgrades. The former assistant political director of the NYC Chamber of Commerce now works on the Broadway Community Project and remains tied to the Chamber as a consultant and in his role as PAC co-chair. He is also the son of two out-of-work Broadway stage managers and moderates a room on Clubhouse about Bringing Broadway Back from the vantage point of New York Power and Politics. The Chamber of Commerce is a nonprofit consisting of member businesses that provides resources and advocacy on behalf of its members. When it comes to facilities, “I would be remiss if I didn’t think that every chamber would be willing to take this up as a critical issue in advocating for additional fundings,” Kirsopp says. “We would be making these calls and talking with the government to get this done.”
Part 3: A Cocktail of Solutions
Since the beginning, hope has been riding on the vaccine. But even the most effective inoculations don’t eradicate the risk of all illness—not to mention uncertainties regarding variants, spikes, and future pandemics experts say are on the way. Now is the time to prepare.
While ventilation and filtration are one, albeit crucial, piece of the puzzle, “the only way to proceed safely is a cocktail of solutions,” says Cannold. “There’s no silver bullet.”
“The issue is, we can’t get people to just wear masks at Trader Joe’s,” says actor Amber Iman. “Can we get people to wear their mask and do what is asked of them?”
Again, Korea offers hope. Company members check their temperatures multiple times a day, submit daily track-and-trace forms, and wear masks everywhere except for their hotel rooms and once they are in make-up. They are prohibited from visiting certain high-risk areas of the city and eat in green rooms equipped with Plexiglass-bordered stations—all of which they contractually agreed to.
Jess Burns, company manager of Cats’ South Korean production, certifies that compliance has never been an issue. Company members understand that their employment is on the line, and patrons understand the art form itself is on the line. Taking a page out of Korea’s handbook, mask-wearing and other safety protocols can be contractually obligated for employees; mask-wearing can also be mandated for audience entry.
Right now, Equity’s 2020 Safety Guidelines prohibits the use of mass transit, as well as intimate staging and stage combat. What’s compelling about Korea is that although the cast lives in a hotel and travels to work by tour bus, they’re not really in a bubble. Their crew of 60 consists solely of locals who live throughout the city and use mass transit. What’s more, Phantom never eliminated kisses and, as Burns says of Cats, “There is a full cat orgy in the show in the Jellicle Ball when they’re sweaty as all hell and they’re all just on top of each other.” And still: zero transmissions.
Audiences wear masks, get temperature checks, complete forms to verify they have not left the country in 14 days, and follow a one-way traffic system to and from their seats. The continued health of the Cats company and their audiences to this day — even without the vaccine — bodes well for a city like New York.
“I feel like some governments are kind of assuming it is [difficult] just because it’s a group of people in a room. It’s not the same” as other settings, says Burns. “It’s a completely controllable environment.”
Skeptics argue that using Korea or Australia, where COVID case rates are exponentially lower than the U.S., isn’t a fair comparison. That may be true on the whole, but there are useful similarities.
“In Korea there have been mass outbreaks traced to nightclubs, churches, preschools, you name it. There have not been mass outbreaks traced to audiences in theaters,” Cannold urges. “That, to me, says, when your city opens up its restaurants at full capacity that is more dangerous than sitting in a theater.
“We can’t just do exactly what Korea did and expect that everything’s going to be fine because the case numbers are different,” Cannold agrees. “But I think that the lessons to be learned from Korea and other countries now can be adapted to our specific circumstances.”
One adaptation, in particular, can reduce a step, and therefore, costs to producers. Some Korean theaters have antiviral misters in doorways to spray down patrons as they enter; a crew regularly deep cleans by misting seats or fogging the front-of-house area. Pavilonis cites this as unnecessary and potentially harmful.
“We don’t know the long-term health effects of people being exposed to that,” he says. “It’s a respiratory virus produced by people that are infected, so I don’t know what a mister is going to do. It’s not being transmitted on people’s clothes.”
In terms of aerosols or droplets left behind, “after about three to four hours there’s no longer a risk of those particles still being viable,” says Pavilonis. “You have a nice 24-hour window to your next show.”
Misting and fogging house seats is more performative than effective. Bathrooms and door handles may be the only spots in need of misting because of the fast turnaround time between uses by different patrons. In that case, the Pittsburgh-based company Aeras could be a useful solution. The company manufactures drone and handheld misters, the latter of which could prove useful for bathrooms and door handles. Per Kirsopp, Aeras has pledged to provide these tools at cost to theater operators, in addition to a 10 percent donation to any Broadway organization.
“We just want to go back to work at this point,” Iman says. “We know that there will never be a return to before, but if we could just start it…That’s the thing it’s like, can we just even start to try?”
As Burns sees it, we can do more than try: “It is absolutely doable to put a show on in the middle of a pandemic. The Koreans have proven that it’s completely doable.”
Part 4: In the Wings
When it comes to safety backstage, there’s a lot more to talk about than sanitation and air quality.
For years, performers put their physical well-being at risk. While there have been extreme cases of physical injury (Spider-Man Turn Off the Dark and The Little Mermaid come to mind), there are also everyday strains that chip away at the physical well-being of performers and crew.
“What’s that Elaine Stritch quote, ‘It’s not the work, it’s the stairs’?” Ulloa says with a knowing laugh. Anyone who’s visited backstage at a Broadway house notices, the dressing rooms are up — sometimes 10 flights up. Rubber and duct tape encase the steps to prevent slips and provide padding to go easier on the joints. There are low-hanging ceilings wrapped in foam, in case you miss the clearing distance.
“Theaters backstage have mold,” says Ulloa. “Wouldn’t now be the proper time to take care of that so we’re not just accepting that actors will get sick?”
While most Broadway theaters are wheelchair accessible for patrons (though still not all), most backstages are not. The same is true for many Off-Broadway houses. When Tony Award winner Ali Stroker made her Broadway debut in Deaf West’s Spring Awakening, the Brooks Atkinson Theatre addressed the issue. Must theater owners wait for Stroker or another actor in a wheelchair to star in a show for its host venue to become accessible?
These are big renovations that theaters don’t have the time to consider when mounting eight shows a week, nor do they have the time to shut down a venue for the months it takes to complete such overhauls. And yet, we are now in that shutdown. According to American Theatre magazine, regional theaters in Chicago, Birmingham, Alabama, Lawrenceville, Georgia, San Diego, and more have pushed ahead with facility expansion and improvement. On Broadway, the Department of Buildings shows no permits in process or issued. We have the time now. And we can get the money.
“[The Chamber of Commerce] can take it up as a mantle a hundred percent,” says Kirsopp, “but I think there’s also a necessity for influential sects of the industry, like the unions, to also take it up as a mantle. The padding on the stairs, that’s totally something the union should be advocating for and whether it’s looking for government funding and partnering with the Chamber to then advocate for this at a federal, or local, or state level, or whether it’s just saying to your owner ‘This isn’t cutting it anymore; we need an upgrade,’ there are different routes [to funding].”
When you talk about upgrades on Broadway and off, there’s also one area where every single person wants to see change: bathrooms. “We kind of just white-knuckle through it,” says designer Ramos. “It’s a culture of scarcity.”
Ramos also wants to think expansively in new areas. “Are we also prepared to have nursing rooms for mothers? Is every backstage actually equipped with that? Do we have a room that’s not the lobby or a designated space for affinity spaces?” he offers.
Some of this comes down to real estate. Unlike theaters around the country, in New York City, you can’t invent space where there is none. Some of it has to do with landmark status (a title many Broadway theaters hold) and limits to changing the edifices. But theater is in the business of imagination. If we dare to ask these questions, the most innovative artists in the world might create solutions that defy common logic.
Part 5: Safety in Every Sense of the Word
“We always say ‘safety first.’ That is the motto,” says Ramos. “That’s just not physical safety. That’s societal safety.”
While the entire globe has experienced the collective stressor that is the pandemic, it’s likely that arts workers disproportionally experienced traumatic stressors that threaten their survival. With the loss of work, artists like Iman have been unable to pay rent — favoring food and medical expenses. “I’m just hoping and praying I don’t get an eviction notice.”
The trauma also goes beyond survival to self-identity. “This thing has broken people’s spirit,” she continues. “For so many actors, our purpose is tied to our employment. And when we have not worked for a year, you’re like, how — what — how do I do this?”
After so long away from work, from communal spaces, from the physical toll of rehearsing and performing, how is the industry preparing to reacclimate its workforce?
“You’re telling me, in six months I’m going to be in a physical room with 30-plus people and no one’s going to be traumatized and no one’s going to be like, ‘I need a break’ or ‘Can I wear my mask?’ or ‘I just don’t feel safe’ or somebody is going to quit because it’s too much too quickly?” Iman asks with incredulity. “I can’t even start to think about the amount of therapy we need — the amount of trauma counseling we need — to physically go back into a space.”
A safety committee established by SDC, the union for Stage Directors and Choreographers, brainstormed ways in which to lead rooms delicately and sensitively. But directors can only do so much.
This is solvable. Productions, particularly on Broadway, hire physical therapists for dance-heavy musicals and physically demanding plays. Acclaimed vocal coach Liz Caplan serves as vocal supervisor to particularly taxing shows. Why not do the same for mental health and hire a psychotherapist or social worker for every production?
“Especially with some of the subject matters from shows, that should be a resource that’s provided,” actor and BFRJ founder Nase says. Post-pandemic, ensemblists, stage managers, designers, everyone should have the option of this resource, regardless of show subject matter.
It comes down to a newfound culture of health. Pre-pandemic, as Burns points out, “Unless you’re about to die, you have to turn up to work. It cannot be that.”
Tony-winning sound designer Jessica Paz hopes that this extends to creative staff upon return. While actors have understudies, standbys, and swings, and productions have multiple stage managers, designers have no such backup. “I have an associate, but if I’m sick and I don’t come in, then all of the responsibility falls only on my associates shoulders — you don’t have an associate and an assistant.” There’s no protocol or infrastructure for that right now and clearly there needs to be. Could you imagine if you had a fever and you went to work?
I can feel producer antennae perk up at the added expenses. But producers must invest in their people to equip them to deliver their best work. And it’s to their advantage. Increased mental wellness could mean actors call out less frequently, stay with the run of a show for longer, or simply bolster allegiance to the entity that takes care of them.
“Clearly it is a commercial venue. Nobody’s arguing that,” says Ramos. “We live in a capitalist system, but within that, how are we protecting the bodies that we’re employing?”
Which brings us to another type of safety that should never have been ignored.
Artists of color — Black artists, Indigenous artists, Asian artists, Latinx artists, and beyond — carry real fear about returning to work. “We don’t feel supported. We don’t feel affirmed. We don’t feel seen or heard,” says Iman, who is also a founding member of Broadway Advocacy Coalition. “In so many ways, we just don’t feel safe.”
She fears returning to rooms with white producers, directors, and choreographers who have been called to task. She fears what will happen when racist behavior targets her and her peers. So Iman has shifted her energy to foster community and create safety in numbers when she returns. But artists should not be left to fend for themselves.
“When we talk about the show must go on, we have to disrupt that. The show must not go on if we are being harmed, if our welfare physically and emotionally and psychologically is at risk,” Ramos urges. “I would really love to see both the Broadway League and the theater owners actually have a stance on that.”
A plan to return is incomplete unless it includes direct action for the plight of marginalized people. Industry leaders have the opportunity — while still shut down — to conceive, communicate, and enact a plan.
Nase wants to see “protocols for when I experience racism — not if, when” in place before returning to work. To date, Equity and its companion unions have not outlined a reliable process for members to report racist incidents nor a regulated process to discipline offenders.
Equity does have a hotline that members can call to file a complaint. But that is insufficient. “A friend of mine [told me], ‘I was doing a show and I got death threats and when I called Equity, they were like: Why are you calling us? You should call your agent,’” Iman confides as just one example.
“I think [Equity] should say, ‘We can’t do this on our own,’” says Nase, who formed Broadway for Racial Justice last summer. In the span of four months, BFRJ established its own hotline to report racial trauma within theatrical workplaces. Staffed by trained experts, BFRJ’s hotline provides an outlet for BIPOC callers to reach BIPOC advocates. Protocols establish consistent dialogue when answering calls and clear guidelines for resolutions to misconduct. Nase would love to formally establish a relationship with Equity where the union not only directs callers to the BFRJ hotline, but helps fund it.
For the industry at large, “I want to see something that says: this is the way things were operating, and these are the changes we’ve made to move in a direction where we can operate to form a community — because we’re not a community,” says Nase.
The industry, so often referred to as a community, needs deep and focused repair. “How are we looking at the ecosystem backstage and looking at representation there?” Ramos asks. “We need a plan. What is the plan?”
Though IATSE (which in theater represents behind-the-scenes technicians and artisans as well as front-of-house personnel) published a statement in response to We See You White American Theater’s demands, members have not heard an action plan. Ramos “yearns” for mandatory anti-racism and anti-bias training backstage. He wants Local One (the local New York branch of IATSE for stagehands and crew) to make hiring practices transparent.
Nase would like to see Communal Space Agreements — and collaboration in creating those agreements — become industry standard. These social contracts set the rules of the space, from rehearsal room to theater. (Think of the posters that tout expectations and values on the walls of your grade-school classroom.) As Nase notes, “Rehearsing a show is an educational space; it’s the exact same thing.”
And yet, this works only to a certain degree unless the intention behind it is genuine. “None of the changes are made because people’s hearts and minds have been changed,” says Iman. “They are only being changed because people’s bank accounts have been challenged. So naturally you just don’t feel good about it.”
Intention is the seed of art. Artists more than any other population — the people whose job it is to feel — can feel when actions don’t match intention. But, perhaps as a start, these actions can at least indicate an openness towards inward reflection and a signal of listening.
“Can we get to a point where we’re all feeling safe where we’re all feeling like we’re being heard and we can get back to creating art?” asks Iman.
While neither the Broadway League nor Off-Broadway League is a governing body (reminder: both are trade associations made up of members and member organizations), both have the power to create standardized practices and advocate for their incorporation in the collective bargaining agreements.
“The Broadway League is that negotiating body with all  of these unions,” Ramos notes. “If we really believe that this is important — surely this can be part of those negotiations.
The future of New York theater depends on this. If leaders do not provide safety to its employees in every sense of the word, artists simply will not return to work.
“All of this is because we love the theater, not any sort of desire to burn the house down,” Ramos continues. “When you love something or somebody so much, you want them to be the best that they can possibly be. So I ask the people in power: what is preventing us from being our best selves?”
Part 6: Our Best Selves
What do we want theater to look like — specifically Broadway and Off-Broadway?
From Situation President Bazadona’s view, “This is a moment to reset [Broadway’s] relationship, in rekindling our relationship with the local community, which I think we’ve destroyed.”
For better and worse, Broadway has become a tourist’s market. From 1999 to 2019, attendance by domestic tourists doubled. In the most recent season, locals made up only 35 percent of Broadway audiences. “If you look inside of a theater [and see] who actually attends, it’s not necessarily representative of the communities in which we’re literally placed,” he says.
In a pandemic world, the great tourist appeal has flipped from strength to vulnerability.
Broadway, in particular, must re-localize. “What are the types of relationships and partnerships and things need to get in to do it in a sustainable way? And I’m not just talking Broadway Week, I’m saying more holistically: How are we integrated into schools? How are we integrated into the local communities? How are we getting out into the boroughs?”
TDF hosts the Wendy Wasserstein Project, which, since 1998, has paired public high-schoolers with theater mentors to see six shows a year. The nonprofit also forged Create New York, a multi-year partnership program with community centers in the five boroughs to bring residents to the theater and art back to their neighborhoods. The Broadway League created Broadway Bridges, to get every New York City public school sophomore to a Broadway show. But Bazadona wants more.
“What I would want to do is carve out a five- or 10-year deal right now with the public school system,” he says. “My moonshot would say: we’re going to take about 2 million seats — which, by the way, is what was going dead every year even in our heyday — carve those seats out and do a deal with New York City Board of Education where all students see at least one, maybe two shows a year, connecting them to the city. That is 100% doable.”
According to Bazadona, this creates three longterm wins: 1. It exposes youngsters to the acquired taste that is theater over time; 2. It introduces new career possibilities to the next generation (and public schools are key to a diverse future workforce); and 3. “It just creates amazing, better human beings, which makes our community stronger and better.”
A stronger relationship to the local community can also establish future financial stability and expansion.
The lack of financial support from the government during this yearlong shutdown did not have to be a foregone conclusion. But it demonstrates a lack of emotional connection to the arts. To ensure our future, Bazadona notes, “we need to be way more important in people’s lives and have more touchpoints with them.”
Part 7: New Age, New Stage
Lucky for theater, the pandemic illuminated the problem and the solution. Forced into the virtual realm, the industry has found myriad ways to create these additional touchpoints — and I’m not just talking about Zoom readings.
Podcasts, live YouTube Town Halls, prerecorded artist Q&As, and Clubhouse concerts are all digital extensions of live performance that can and should continue when theater returns in order to cultivate emotional investment and boost revenue. “You go see one show, you leave it, the odds of you going back a second time are not high,” says Bazadona. “But the odds of me selling you three, four, or five extended virtual events at a fraction of the cost that are slightly different and iterative and just interesting are very high.”
The creative foundation is there. The practicality in technology is not. Every virtual event and add-on needs to be ticketed on the same platform and in the same way as the ticket to the live event. Technology must streamline the experience and ease friction to the point of purchase. Anyone who’s entered a Broadway digital ticket lottery knows the confusion of signing up through multiple social channels or Google or SocialToaster (after creating a new account) and navigating five different platforms for one lotto entry you hope went through.
Why not build a dropdown on Telecharge and Ticketmaster with options: Orchestra, Mezzanine, Balcony, Lottery, Post-show Talkback?
There’s also one big advent theater should be readying for: streaming.
In 2015, BroadwayHD launched the first streaming platform for theater in the U.S. That year, the service became the first ever to livestream an Off-Broadway show (Daddy Long Legs) and the first ever, in 2016, to livestream a Broadway show (Roundabout Theatre Company’s She Loves Me).
Though Broadway has said over and over it will not open at the currently authorized 33 percent due to finances, one-third in-person capacity does not have to be the total capacity. (Nor does the 75 percent marker Charlotte St. Martin floated in a recent NBC interview.) Digital audiences can help make up the difference of socially distanced capacity, and, later, offer additional income at full capacity.
In fact, socially distant seating suits the setup for a stream or capture. When filming a livestream or capture, cameras and equipment require seat-kills anyway.
“I would love to see live-streaming be part of the business going forward and we’ve been saying that — Stew and I — since we did it with She Loves Me five years ago,” says Bonnie Comley, co-founder of BroadwayHD with her husband, Stewart F. Lane. “It’s additive to the business going forward.”
In addition to making up for lost revenue, streaming (whether live or captured) addresses the persistent accessibility problem in theater, especially Broadway. When Broadway shut down March 12, the average single ticket price to a show was $104.58. “Who has [that] for one ticket?” Comley asks.
Take it from this former habitual rusher: when you lower the ticket price, people get in line.
Say you sell live-stream tickets for $30. Not only does this democratize accessibility, it also lowers the barrier to entry for those who can afford full-price tickets but don’t want to take that level of financial risk on an unknown entity.
Though I regularly hear people balk at the price of a Broadway ticket, I have never heard anyone think twice about spending $100 on a ticket to the top tier of Madison Square Garden to see Ariana Grande or Billy Joel. Why? Because they know what they’re getting. In the music industry, albums don’t make the money — tours do. Albums are the best marketing for those tours.
“If I could stream the opening night of a Broadway show, I can’t think of a faster, better way to have the entire nation, the entire globe be aware of your show on Broadway than by streaming it live on a website, like BroadwayHD,” says Lane. “This is the biggest commercial you could get.
“When we do any sort of surveys, any sort of exit polls for the in-cinemas that we did [pre-pandemic], these people [were] saying, ‘I will absolutely go buy a ticket after this,’” Comley adds.
“Up until now, most shows [had] to wait for the idea to seep through to the rest of the nation. When you do get to the Tony Awards, most of the people watching haven’t seen these Broadway shows yet, right? This way, it would resonate a lot more for them,” Lane continues. “Because like watching movies, you see the movies before the Academy Awards, not necessarily afterwards.”
This could be a boon for Off-Broadway, as well, as regional houses have seen. “I think most theaters would be ignorant to get rid of that and not realize that they have a huge opportunity for larger audiences,” says Ulloa, whose musical Passing Through debuted March 15 on Goodspeed’s new streaming service Goodspeed On Demand. “It builds quite a base.”
The lower ticket price undoubtedly creates accessibility locally and abroad. Though the added benefit of expanding geographical reach is a compelling one.
“If you look at the universe of who is streaming, it’s everyone,” says Comley. “There’s more people with cell phones streaming their entertainment than there are people with indoor plumbing around the world.”
So even when the world opens up, “It would open up the possibility for people who could not otherwise afford to fly to New York and pay for tickets to see the show and all of the expenses that come along with that, hotel, eating out,” says designer Paz. “A lot of people in this country can’t afford to do that.” It also keeps the proverbial doors open for theater lovers unable to get to a theater or sit in an auditorium due to physical differences.
The ability to livestream from a theater is not new. The widespread practice? Completely.
Some say the unions will never agree. But they already have. Comley and Lane got all 17 unions (including additional for film) on board in the past and now use those agreements as templates. “Everybody that created the show is compensated in the way that their unions and everybody has agreed to in advance,” Comley explains.
“I actually think it’s a no-brainer. If the contracts are negotiated right, then everyone wins,” Ramos says. As Paz puts it, “Why would anybody be against making more money?”
Now is the crucial time to set up the infrastructure for such a venture. For long-running shows that could stream regularly (say once a month) or for subscription houses that regularly rotate the shows on their stages, it could be worthwhile to bring in cameras and create a static setup.
Regional theaters, like Center Theatre Group in Los Angeles, have bought equipment to outfit their stages with cameras and add a TV studio. Venues at New World Stages and 767, both run by the Shubert Organization, have been outfitted for virtual productions. And Byrne says the Westside Theatre is absolutely open to the possibility.
Live-streaming, in particular, offers a few added benefits: the music rights are covered (for a capture, that is an extra cost) and there’s no post-production editing. A capture that audiences can stream on-demand offers different benefits: presenters wield more control over the final product and time zones won’t affect viewership.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all,” says Comley. But incorporating a budget for streaming or a digital capture into the capitalization for a show is a practice Comley and Lane want to see to fruition. That cost varies widely depending on the quality of the recording. “You can equate these digital captures in a sense to movies: you can shoot a movie with a cell phone or you can go in and do a $100-million movie.” The point is to think of this before opening.
“If you’re doing a musical, most producers bake into the cost of that show is a cast-album recording and everybody knows what it is,” she says. “We want that kind of enthusiasm around the capture.”
Streaming, live or not, presents the chance for major growth, which is desperately needed after more than a year of lost presence and revenue.
“When you create more virtual stages, you create more space for more content, more writers, [and] it becomes less of a limited-capacity business. And that’s the whole problem to me. The problem in all this is we’re in a limited-capacity business,” says Bazadona. We can be in a growth business.
Part 8: The Bottom Line
“The world we knew is now gone forever,” David Kessler, author of Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief, told Brené Brown in March 2020 on her podcast Unlocking Us. “We talk about 9/11. Do you remember what the airports were like before 9/11? We are going to talk about, do you remember what the world was like before the pandemic?” The truth is, we can’t go back to before.
That’s good news for the future of theater.
Theater is a craft of imagination, an outlet for challenging the status quo, an oasis for empathy. If we use this downtime right — to build lines of communication, mandate an environment of transparency, update theatrical edifices, require physical, mental, and emotional safety in the workplace, deepen relationships with local communities, minimize financial and geographic barriers to entry for audiences, lead with daring — the theater that returns from hibernation will look wildly different from what it was. It will live up to its own definition and be better for it.
Arts workers are resilient and inventive, but they need reassurance and guidance. Leaders: You have an army of advocates with the time to raise funds, petition government, and help you in this change if you communicate your needs and deploy them.
Follow Ruthie Fierberg on Twitter (@RuthiesATrain) and Instagram (@ruthiefierceberg). Follow her podcast Why We Theater on the Broadway Podcast Network. Subscribe to her newsletter at ruthiefierberg.com.