Updated: Mar 23
I’ve often compared Theatre and Sports, and more specifically football. But not just because I love both theatre and football! I event wrote a blog years ago about how our actors are like the athletes, and the support staff, designers, and creative team, all function as various coaches & coordinators, while the team owner and the lead producer are almost identical. At their essence, sports and theatre are both visceral, emotional, and communal experiences that exist in the moment.
However, one way they are very different right now is that professional football is coming back this season! There are two approved AEA productions starting up, but these are far from the full season the NFL will have in just a few weeks. Has the NFL figured something out? What is the secret recipe they are using?
After all, both theatre and football involve performers in close proximity sweating near or all over each other, right? This is one of the major hurdles when we think about theatre coming back. How can you do Moulin Rouge without belting out those power ballads in each others face, right? Picture Odell Beckham, Jr. getting tackled at the 5 yard line by Josh Norman and you know these guys are definitely spraying each other with sweat and saliva! Yet, there is a plan in place to start throwing long bombs and running quick slants.
As I started reading about the NFL and the NFL Players Association agreement, I couldn't help, but think these are some good ideas and there are some things we can learn and perhaps use as a road map to bring our theatres, and even Broadway, back! To paraphrase a popular quote: "Good artists borrow, great artists steal!"
Testing, testing, testing
This is of utmost importance and other sports leagues set the bar with aggressive testing when they started up. From July 13 – 20, as the NBA was gearing up for their season in a bubble down in Orlando, they gave 346 tests. None were positive. The NHL gave 2618 tests for their 800 players and two were positive. (1)
Before physically appearing for work, NFL players will receive a test, then quarantine for 2 days and then have a second test. If both are negative, then they are cleared to go to work and start training. Players will then be tested daily for the first two weeks of training camp, if there are fewer than 5% positivity rate, testing will move to every other day. (1)
For players that test positive, they need to be isolated from the team for 10 days following their first symptom and 24 hours without a fever and players with no symptoms can return after five days (if two follow up tests are negative) 1
The NFL will be testing over 3000 people, including players, coaches, support staff and the expectation is that initial test results will return 1 – 5% positive. Although many players have raised concerns about their personal health and the health of their family, none have officially withdrawn from the season… yet. (1)
If you’d like to read more details, check out Jene Bramel’s full articles on footballguys.com on June 30th & July 21st.
Other mitigation protocols include "...daily temperature screening, symptom monitoring, social distancing and masks. The league will use an Apple Watch-like proximity tracking device to identify which players, coaches and staff might have come into contact with someone who tested positive. The device will deliver, with a “very fine degree of precision” who was exposed to whom and for what length of time." (11)
Testing in the theatre will be paramount as well. To do the type of testing regimen the NFL is doing is thousands and thousands of tests a week. 32 teams and an average of 100 tests per team, that 3200 tests per team at least every other day. If testing is 3 days a week, that’s nearly 10,000 tests a week!
On Broadway alone there are 41 theatres. Each company of actors, crew, FOH staff, & stage managers, could be about 100 people for a large musical. Smaller musicals and plays though will have a much smaller company, maybe just a few dozen. So we won’t need 10,000 tests a week, but each show will need enough to cover each company and that could still add up to thousands of tests a week! The NFL has it's own test supplier, BioReference Laboratories, which says will not impact the availability or expediency of public testing.(11)
Sounds like a theatre producers should start talking to labs, right?
Travel & Venues
NFL teams will have away games that involve travel to difference cities across the country. Each city will probably be in different states of infection that has to be accounted for in the health and safety plan. For the theatre, except in the case of touring productions, plays and musicals will not have to deal with these concerns. The health of whatever locality a theatre is in will determine a lot of the safety protocols for the company.
New York has been opening up with with some success, but also some elevated infection rates more recently. If it continues to decline and not spike, that would bode well for theatres to be able to open. AEA’s four guidelines are very clear on that “the epidemic must be under control, with… few new cases in the area….” before AEA will approve contracts for their members of professional actors and stage managers. This is why two theatres in the Berkshires have been able to open, and you can bet
AEA is not approving anything in Florida any time soon.
Most stadiums are open air, but most theatres are not. Therefore, air handlers, air movement, and filtering will be very important for people both onstage and offstage. Andrew Lloyd Webber has been testing out some air cleaning devices from Korea in the UK (2) and the Covid Theatre Think Tank has been studying airflow in theatres (4), so if we can solve these issues, that brings us even closer to opening back up.
What about the Fans and Audience?
In a July 1st article on CBS Sports, John Breech wrote: “According to the Athletic, the NFL is currently considering the possibility of having fans sign a coronavirus liability waiver before they would be allowed to attend a game. By signing the waiver, fans would agree not to hold the NFL responsible if they were to catch COVID-19 while attending a game. Basically, fans would be forfeiting their right to sue the league and would be assuming all health risks that come with being in a stadium during a global pandemic.” (5)
This is a similar idea to what President Trump did for his rally in Tulsa and the Independence Day celebration at Mount Rushmore. I’m not advocating the value or principal, but this legal protection gives team owners peace of mind to reopen without threats of lawsuits. This waiver, I’d hope, would be combined with other audience health requirements, like required masks and temperature checks. Theatre owners and producers could do the same thing at the point of sale, so that when someone buys a ticket, they sign the waiver and are advised of the health policies.
Mr. Breech continues in his article to say, “The NFL has also decided that each team will be allowed to set its own stadium capacity. Teams will be asked to set their capacity based on local health protocols and policies, which means some stadiums could have a capacity of zero -- if a state bans large public gatherings -- while other stadiums could have their capacity set at 50 percent or more.” (5)
Just like NFL owners, theatre owners would set their capacity based on the facts on the ground in their area. One of the big challenges for our industry will be making the audience feel safe coming back to the theatre. At The Phantom of the Opera in Seoul, for example, the audience is not socially distanced from each other, but the first couple of rows in the house were removed to increase the distance from the actors onstage. (3) In NFL stadiums, the first few rows of seats will be tarped over for the same reason. (5) Another similarity!
Economics are important. Our society in the USA is based on capitalism, so products need to make money if there are to survive and succeed. Broadway and regional theatres alike, have to make money to pay their staff! The profit motive is powerful, but cannot be the only factor considered, as without health and safety safeguards, there won’t be a product to be performed! Football, like theatre, is a product for people to consume and enjoy and people really want to come out and enjoy their sports and theatre: for our souls, spirits, and our livelihood.
The NFL is a big money business. “The league has estimated that if fans aren't allowed to attend games in 2020 that NFL's 32 teams would collectively lose out on more than $3 billion.” (5) That’s a big number.
However, the theatre and specifically Broadway are also big money generators for the broader economy as well.
In Matthew Wexler’s The Broadway Blog on March 26, 2020, he quotes Charlotte St. Martin saying, “losses will soar to approximately $1.5 billion, and near $2 billion if spring approaches without the curtain rising once again.” (6) Ken Davenport in a 2017 blog post said, “New York City benefited to the tune of 12.6 billion dollars thanks to Broadway.” (7) This is echoed in Ginger Adams Otis’ article in the New York Daily News on March 25, 201, saying, “The theater industry that dominates Midtown brought more than $12 billion into the city in 2016 alone.” (8)
She goes on to say, “All told, there are 87,000 jobs directly related to the theater industry, Broadway League officials said.” (8) These numbers are certainly comparable to the economic impact of professional sports like the NFL! On Sept. 16, 2019, cyberbooks.co wrote: “The [National Football] League supports about 110,000 jobs in NFL cities— not just tailbacks and punters but hotel workers and sports-bar owners. Overall, the games add about $5 billion to the broader economy in NFL cities, according to an analysis prepared for the NFL Players Association by Edgeworth Economics.” (9)
Compare that with what Henry Rosoff from Pix1 wrote on May 12, 2020, that Broadway, “gave a more than $14 billion boost to the local economy, and helped support 97,000 jobs," (10) and you can see that again, the NFL and Broadway have similar affects on their local economies.
The challenge, as Mr. Rosoff goes on to say, is that Broadway is “heavily reliant on tourism, and social distancing in the older cramped theaters will be a challenge.” (10)
The Show Must Go On
If professional sports can figure it out, so can the theatre. We are part of an industry of creative problem solvers who know how to collaborate to get things done. We may need to lobby for assistance from local, state, and/or federal assistance to get started, but there is a roadmap in place to learn from.
The NFL will have some bumps and have to adjust, as will theatres when they also start to open. The NFL road map doesn't solve everything, we travel very different streets, but they do show us some positive signs, even if you have to squint to see them. Producers, Theatre Owners, Theatrical Unions, and audiences, can make it happen, together. Then we can all celebrate touchdowns, as well as curtain calls.
Wear your mask, maintain social distancing, wash your hands, and take of yourselves and others.
1: Footballbuys.com, Jene Bramel
4: Covid Theatre Think Tank: https://www.covidtheatrethinktank.org/
6: The Broadway Blog, Matthew Wexler: https://thebroadwayblog.com/broadway-multi-billion-dollar-loss/
7: Ken Davenport, Producers Perspective: https://www.theproducersperspective.com/my_weblog/2016/04/what-was-broadways-economic-impact-to-nyc-in-2014-2015.html
8: Ginger Adams Otis, NY Daily News: https://www.nydailynews.com/new-york/broadway-feeds-billions-nyc-economy-runs-union-staff-article-1.3009328
9: Cyberbooks.co, sept. 16, 2019: https://cyberbooks.co/nfl/
10: Pix 11, Henry Rosoff, May 12, 2020: https://www.pix11.com/news/coronavirus/potentially-huge-economic-impact-on-broadways-summer-closure