Bob Goepfert: Actors’ Equity And Social Isolation | WAMC

Bob Goepfert: Actors’ Equity And Social Isolation

May 31, 2020

NEW YORK, NY - There seems to be two types of practices to protect yourself from Coronavirus.

One is social isolation, where you lock yourself in a safe place and avoid all contact with outsiders.

The other is social distancing where you stay approximately six feet from other people, wear a face mask and any other protective gear you believe will keep you safe.

Sadly, there is a third alternative - social madness where you mingle at mass gatherings of strangers with no face mask or other protection.

While attempting to find a way to reopen theaters, producers have ignored the third option. They have opted for social distancing.

Indeed, theater companies have been struggling to arrange seating arrangements where no other person is within 6 feet of you. Intermissions are not happening, and entrances and exits have been added to avoid large, congested gatherings.

On the other hand, Actors’ Equity, which represents over 50,000 professional actors and backstage workers, appears to support social isolation.

Earlier this week, Actors’ Equity held a press conference, which I attended through Zoom.

It was clear the union feels that while justifiably trying to focus on the safety of the audience, the needs of the actors and backstage workers have not been given the same attention.

Their goal is to protect actors whom they see as having different safety needs than do audiences.

Trying to illustrate the difference between actors and those with traditional jobs, Kate Shindal, the president of Equity said, “In a regular job you are not expected to kiss a fellow employee. For an actor, it’s a requirement.”

Equity’s executive director, Mary McColl, added, “Backstage areas are narrow and dressing rooms small. Actors often sing, and when delivering lines they must project and speak loudly.” She pointed out such procedures have been proven to hasten the spread of Covid-19.

In finding a way to protect union members, Equity set up four rigid principles. McColl insisted, Equity’s rules are “science-based.”

Guiding the formation of this science-based concept the union has hired epidemiologist Dr. David Michaels, to oversee their policy making. Michaels was the Occupational Safety and Health Administrator for President Obama.

Michaels offered four principles that Equity has accepted as conditions to permit professional actors to return to the stage.

Few, if any, seem attainable in the near future.

First and foremost, they demand the epidemic must be under control, with effective testing and few new cases in the area. They also insist on contact tracing.

The second area revolves about testing that offers “swift” results. In Equity’s words “individuals who may be infected can be readily identified and isolated.”

The third concern addresses auditions, rehearsals, performance and stage management. It implies social distancing will be mandatory on stage, backstage, in rehearsals and auditions.

The fourth principle was a call for commitment and solidarity.

These are rules that will not be measured case-by-case. They will be in effect at every professional theater in the country.

The Equity solution of not permitting actors back on stage until the epidemic is under control and frequent testing that offers swift results is not, at this time, doable. It seems a case of keeping actors off the stage indefinitely.

McCory’s statement, that says, “Any employer who wants to begin theatrical productions needs to have a comprehensive plan in place that protects not just the actors and stage managers, but ensures that everyone who works in the theater has a safe workplace,” is a goal a union should have for its members.

However, when the head of a union who admits to 100% unemployment for its members, adds, “It is unclear under the current circumstances how that can happen. Equity will use all of our available resources to ensure that no one is asked to work in an unsafe environment,” I read that as closing live theater for the foreseeable future.

It would seem, to me, a more productive stance for the union would be to work with producers who also care for the safety of its workers as well as the audience.

I personally am in a very vulnerable category for Coronavirus, yet I shop for groceries, and other basic needs on a regular basis.

Granted, I don’t kiss the checkout person, but I do overcome fears of vulnerability because I believe total isolation will take a toll on me in other ways.

For actors, who usually earn non-acting income in the now almost non-existent food service industry, that toll is a near-total lack of income.

I believe actors should not be treated recklessly on stage. But there should be a safe way to save an important economic driver and an art form that soothes the soul.

Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.