Prop-Handling Rules? Trombone-Free Zones? A COVID Theater Think Tank Convenes to Plan Ahead

That ventilation system needs rethinking. Photo: Kozlik_Mozlik/Getty Images/iStockphoto

In the theater (as in most other businesses), everyone is desperate to know: When do we reopen? Broadway hasn’t announced anything official, though the Broadway League’s Charlotte St. Martin has hinted that most productions won’t be up again until next year. Off Broadway and regional theaters have started sketching out seasons — all of them far off — even though state authorities might keep them closed. Every decision seems to be made on shifting sand, with confusion over best practices, union buy-in, and government permissions all making the ground unsteady. There has also historically been a big communication gap between Broadway and everywhere else — even though commercial and nonprofit theaters share a knowledge base and constituency, they are rarely in consistent contact. So Matt Ross, a producer and publicist who works both downtown and uptown, put together a task force to get them into conversation. The COVID-19 Theatre Think-Tank (CTT) deliberately draws from as many of theater-making corners as possible, from stage managers to directors, from the Great White Way to regional theaters. Since March, the group has been in talks with public-health officials, pooling knowledge and letting epidemiology experts steer the conversation about what a post-shutdown theater might look like. Ross and one of the first additions to the group, Hadestown director Rachel Chavkin, spoke to me about the think tank and what it hopes to achieve.

Helen Shaw: How did the group get going?

Rachel Chavkin: Matt felt that a lot of people in our industry are very understandably focused on when, but that he was really interested in thinking deeper about how — with a smart group of people from all across the industry. And so this is a real mixture of regional and Off Broadway and Broadway workers. There’s, of course, a huge number of groups led by unions, also those led by the Broadway League. But what wasn’t happening as much was people talking across all the different worlds.

So Matt reached out to me and asked if I was interested in joining this group — colleagues I really respected — and it’s a group of about 25. At the first meeting, we decided we needed to talk with some people in public health, and we needed some legal advice. I ended up contacting my mother [Ed.: Chavkin’s mother, Sara Rosenbaum, is the founding chair of the Department of Health Policy at George Washington University], and the dean of the CUNY School of Public Health, Dr. Ayman El-Mohandes, is a longtime friend and colleague of hers. She thought he might be interested in the sort of questions that we were contemplating.

Matt Ross: It all started right around the time Governor Cuomo was starting to shift from triage talk to reopening phases. He wanted companies and industries to be thinking up plans and coming up with solutions and bringing those to the government — having those ready to go. The idea was taking that cue from Cuomo and saying our industry has a particular set of challenges we need to figure out. We need to really engage with public-health officials, not to dictate any sort of policy, but to figure out what those parameters are, what those risks are, and how we can mitigate them.

R.C.: We split into subgroups — some folks thinking about workplace safety, others thinking about front of house and audience. There’s also Organization and Economics, which has a lot of people from different nonprofit institutions. On his end, Ayman gathered an incredible group — he sent us the list of primarily doctors who we were going to be speaking with, and it was like Charlie’s Angels — expert after expert whose bio sort of blew us away.

M.R.: They’re like the public-health Avengers.

What surprised you in those early talks with the epidemiologists?

M.R.: The purely scientific perspective: They take a step back, and they look at the science — not what’s trending and all of that. Where we’re like “The vaccine is everything” — and of course a vaccine could be huge — they actually laid out for us a handful of different situations under which social distancing can be relaxed. They made me feel that treatment is equally or maybe more important. Also, we still talk about “when this is over,” though that’s not a great way to think about it. Talking to [the experts] takes away the romantic notion of “everything returns to normal,” but it does it allow us to think about where we can be productive and move forward. Mitigation comes up over and over again, and that has resonated for me. It takes it from something that is overwhelming us — overwhelming fatalities, overwhelming severity of illness, overwhelming contagion — and turns it into something that can come down through several different efforts. Only six weeks ago we decided completely as a society that civilians wearing masks made no sense, and now we’re finding the complete opposite, so you know it also just shows how quickly the science is moving and how much it can still continue to move.

R.C.: Masks also point to how incredible people are at adapting. Our industry presents some very specific challenges in terms of physical intimacy, and I don’t just mean kissing onstage; I mean the proximity of backstage and dressing rooms and the way we share props. The public-health folks have really underscored that it’s also about audience anxiety. Public health is ultimately where medical science meets human behavior, so public health is really concerned with how public communication shapes anxiety or comfort. At the end of the day, it’s the science of storytelling, specifically when it comes to how we are in public spaces together. That’s something CUNY folks have returned to again and again — that it’s both about what we need to do on our end in terms of risk mitigation, but it’s also about communicating to our audiences that we are in control of our space.

M.R.: Sometimes when we’re talking to the experts, we’ll be kind of floored — but then we’ll look back at it and realize they didn’t actually tell us anything we didn’t already know, but because they communicated in a really specific, concise, and clear way, it felt empowering. That’s a good learning experience: It’s not about good news or bad news; it’s about the power of information and feeling like you have a grip on what’s going on, even if what’s going on is difficult.

Preparing to return to work at Hudson Scenic, a big Broadway shop. Photo: Courtesy of Neil Mazzella

R.C.: We can take the time to be thinking about airflow studies, and we’re talking with the CUNY folks about time-and-motion studies that analyze the activity of a backstage. That’s going to be overlaid with testing coming more and more online, which is going to be overlaid with less of the virus out and about, which means obviously fewer transmissions. It’s all very interwoven.

M.R.: There are studies going on around the world — some are choir studies, which I think have been more public, and also some studies of what happens when you blow through an instrument. I believe one just came back about particles expelled from the end of brass instruments, and it was not what they expected! It was far less than they thought. Something theater does extraordinarily well is track both onstage and offstage choreography, so we have the tool kit ready to go. Our industry has amazing PSMs [production stage managers] and production supervisors and technical directors and running crews, and so we can actually look at how people move. We obviously don’t have the power to open or close theaters, but we can provide tools. Our goal [as a think tank] is to be a resource for our industry.

R.C.: And to be clear, there’s a number of different groups that we know of doing this kind of work — like Diane Paulus and A.R.T., for instance.

Right now, if someone says, “Okay, I want to use them as a resource,” what are you providing?

M.R.: Because anyone who works in theater can tell you each backstage is different, there’s going to be unique analysis required for each space. So right now, if someone were to approach us, what we can offer now is to become one of those early test cases, to run an air-flow study, to run a time-and-motion study. Findings about how air moves through a theater will help people who need to look at their HVAC system, for instance.

So are you going to do an airflow study on a specific theater and then release the results?

R.C.: Ultimately, it’s going to take money, right? And we’ve been working in an advisory capacity with the CUNY folks for some time, and we’re beginning to move to the stage where now actually we need funding, whether that’s in the form of a grant or what. We’ve begun talking about whether that’s pursuing support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which is one of the most important foundations supporting public-health studies in the country, or whether that’s funding from the NEA, since ultimately these studies are going to hopefully be of use field-wide. We’re going to be mounting asks. And I know Westport Country Playhouse is doing a deep look at their HVAC systems. So, again, I don’t think we’re unique. We are a group of allies working among other groups of allies, ultimately focused on the same goal of keeping our workers safe.

How do people learn about your findings?

R.C.: It’s a small industry, and so people should email Matt!

M.R.: I would completely agree, and I would be thrilled to engage with anyone who wants of discuss it.

R.C.: What I think is helpful now about our group to other people who are trying to problem solve is actually the basic model of reaching out to a school of public health in your area. Again, I’m not claiming that we are singular. I know decisions are not being made in ignorance.

Some theaters have talked about opening in March 2021, and certainly there have been a lot of people saying theaters will reopen in January. The Broadway League announced that refunds are being offered through September 6. Yet those dates are never attached to any reasoning. If public health is 50 percent public communication, are there any recommendations you would make about transparency? About linking season announcements to explicit contact with public-health experts?

R.C.: I don’t want to make a recommendation. I would say I was really impressed and moved by how the Guthrie handled its announcement. I felt it was delivered by a human storyteller in the form of the incredibly sensitive Joe Haj; it was linked to poetry, and I felt that he spoke to his listeners as adults. I would point to that as like a model and high point. I think about our current [federal] administration and a lack of information that I am sure is grounded in maybe not wanting to scare people, but again I think that people have to be informed. That’s my personal answer to the question, and I am not speaking for anyone else — it’s important to say I’m not speaking for my union, which I serve in an official capacity.

M.R.: Admitting what we don’t know can also be a powerful thing. I’m quoting a doctor when I say, “We don’t make the timeline; the virus makes the timeline.” So when people are in a position where they need to announce some sort of date, it’s a challenging thing to do.

R.C.: Our field is a thoughtful field. That question you asked about what has been surprising: One of the first things Ayman said to us, which has really stuck with me, is, “We are a very optimistic society, so we don’t know how to deal with sadness. Western societies don’t know how to grieve.” There needs to be both space for grief, and we need to see our federal government meet the very particular needs of the live-entertainment industry because it is a billions-of-dollars-generating industry. We generate culture! We generate gravitational poles that restaurants want to be built in and parking garages need to serve and M&M stores want to open up nearby. I have been dismayed by how hard our industry has had to fight to get included in the different CARES legislation. But we are workers. We are American workers.

A Theater Think Tank Tries to Plan Ahead