As we start looking at “re-opening” our economy, there is a lot to unpack and figure out. When you look specifically at show business, it gets even more complicated. We work in an environment that requires close contact, touching, even kissing. We share tight quarters, eat, drink, and sometimes live together (anyone do a bus and truck tour lately?).
There are many front of house issues that need to be addressed, but as a stage manager, I’ve been ruminating on what adjustments we may need to make behind the curtain in order to re-open in a responsible and functional way which is no easy task!
The ten items below are food for thought. It's not a top ten list, but rather, ten ideas for how we can return to work in the theatre in the COVID era. I’m not a healthcare professional, but as a stage manager, these are the ten ideas that are top of mind, so we stage managers can take care of our company and get the best show possible onstage every night.
Let’s dive in and see what COVID life backstage could look like:
1. A new member of the management team will need to be created to manage company health issues & concerns. They could function like a cross between the child wranglers & physiotherapists we already use, but with the proper medical training. They would be part of the management team and have their own duties as Healthcare Manager. These would include temperature checks, testing, maintaining medical records, insure PPE was stocked, manage cleaning/disinfectant regimes, etc… as these duties CANNOT be the responsibility of stage management.
2. Temperature checks at the top of every call: rehearsals, half hour, etc… and anyone with a temperature is sent home. Crew, actors & musicians may all need to be called in earlier to allow time for this to happen before the top of the calls. And definitely no sharing the same pen/pencil on the callboard for the sign in sheet! As you may guess, this will mean…
3. We need much more understudy and swing coverage. Both will have a increase significantly to insure the show is covered properly. Every show will be slightly different, but we cannot leave stage management and dance captains to consistently put a show into crazy combos. Strict minimum coverages must be enforced and stage management must be consulted to determine these numbers. This decision can't be left to creative team and producers alone.
4. Testing: early and often. A confirmed negative test would be necssary prior to anyone’s first day and the company would be tested regularly on a rotating basis. Like scheduling fittings, SMs and the Health Manager would schedule time for every company member to be tested. (Perhaps bi-weekly or monthly.) And the full company would be tested again prior to going in to tech, as that is when social distancing becomes the hardest on cast, crew and musicians. If anyone tests positive, the whole company must be notified and quarantined until they can all get tested. Hopefully, this can happen quickly (we need rapid tests!). But it’s not outside the realm of possibility that a positive test in the company would necessitate a short shut down of the show, so that the theatre can be totally disinfected: dressing rooms, costumes, props, etc…
5. No more full company meet and greets. It’s just not a good idea. Although a lovely formality, it’s not necessary to bring all those people in to a rehearsal studio. The rehearsal space will be a place for essential workers only. Even my production props person shouldn’t enter. Just drop off the new rehearsal props, the health manager can disinfect them and then the props can be brought in to the rehearsal hall. The Opening Night Party may also be a thing of the past, “happy opening, here’s a gift bag and flowers, go home and sign in to the virtual party at this link….”
6. And only virtual production and design meetings. Since rehearsals will be closed to only the essential team: cast, SMs, MD, director & choreographer those lunch time or post rehearsal meetings will have to go online. Designers, prepare to share your screens! And if the director wants to come backstage and give notes after opening, think again: zoom again, because there are no backstage guests, before, during or after the show.
7. Auditions?!?! As a stage manager working mostly on Broadway, I’ve rarely been needed at auditions; however, I know that isn't always the case. I can’t imagine seeing a scene like the opening of All That Jazz or A Chorus Line happening until COVID is history, so it’s video submissions for auditions. I’ll leave the details on how this all happens to the casting directors, but that is going to be a whole new world too.
8. No sharing headsets, belt packs or mics. Everyone gets their very own set and they get cleaned on a regular schedule. Some companies have been doing this, but now it should be mandatory and keep all elements separated i.e. bagged for safety., so we don't see this picture ever again.
9. We’ll need a new section on our rehearsal & performance reports to input temperature checks and testing results and/or the health manager will have to submit daily reports with this information. This information should not go to a huge distribution list. Every investor and intern doesn’t need company health information. Privacy issues will need to be addressed.
10. The is the most obvious, but... we're going to need a whole heck of a lot of hand sanitizer, wipes, masks, gloves, etc… I can see scenarios with dressers changing gloves after every quick change, props crew changing gloves for any prop handoffs, and the whole crew in black facemasks (new for each performance). And what about PPE for the musicians? Do they all need plexi shields, like the drummer usually has? Or will we separate the orchestra even more, so they don’t all play in the pit. For example, at The Lion King, where a portion of the orchestra is in a dressing room hundreds of feet away.
I'll add one additional thought to the mix... Imagine a world where the whole company of a show goes into quarantine two weeks prior to starting and they stay isolated from the outside world all during rehearsals and through opening night. Imagine your entire company at the Edison Hotel and they only travel to/from the rehearsal hall & theatre. Even fittings are done in the studio. Meals, laundry, everything is provided so no outside germs can get in, thereby isolating the entire company during the crucial creative time building the show. Every show will feel like a tour that doesn't go anywhere, or an out of town tryout, or like going on location to shoot a movie! Say goodbye to your friends, you're off to do a show!
There are no small amounts of possible scenarios and what-ifs. These are very important issues to address, but not the only ones, and we will need the help of scientists and medical professionals to do so. “The Show Must Go On,” is a popular refrain, but if we are ever going to get our shows back up, we need to consider all of the above and more. Can/should shows be restaged with social distance guidelines? Can we add gloves to period costumes? There are more questions than answers right now, but this is the time our industry needs to be asking them and working together to solve.
Stay safe. Stay healthy.