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Challenging the COVID Status Quo

As a disabled performer, the ongoing COVID pandemic and the industry’s removal of precautions and lack of care has impacted me significantly. I recently spoke with Claudia Alick and Jon Jon Johnson, two theatremakers in similar positions, to learn how they’re navigating the moment. 

Ezra Tozian: So much has changed in our lives and industry since COVID entered the scene. With most people doing everything they can to pretend it’s 2019, what changes have you made in the past four years to continue interacting with theatre?

Claudia Alick: I was already negotiating the inability to be physically present in a theatre and trying to find ways to get access as an audience member and a producer. Then 2020 hit, and it was like a miracle. I was inside theatres all over the country. Everybody agreed that their needs were bound up in mine. Then 2021 hit, and everybody was like, "We're done now. We're going to go back to what we were doing. You're going to be fine, girl." Now, my relationships with theatre institutions in physically shared spaces are rare. I have to be a producer so that I can control the level of COVID safety precautions. My theatre practice has become deeply digital because physically shared space is dangerous now.

Jon Jon Johnson: I've had to shift what my expectations are. Going into rooms, I think, "What am I risking?," which is a question that was always in the back of my mind while sharing space. “What psychic damage am I going to take today from being a Black, Indigenous, person of color (BIPOC) in a predominantly white industry?” This just feels like an extension of the age-old conversations that BIPOC and gender-diverse people have had in theatre from day one. The cognitive dissonance we encounter of people who were, just a year ago, saying, "COVID is bad!" now saying, "Whatever, I got an audition. My career is more important than my health.”

Ezra:  That’s the biggest shift I’ve had to acclimate to—the loss of my theatrical community. Almost everyone I knew stopped caring. I was very active before and consistently fought for others, but when I needed them to fight for me, they all left. Now, I’m getting used to working in survival mode: “What basic necessities do I need and what am I ready to have conflict over?” I can’t simply focus on my audition or performance; I have to also focus on what everyone else is doing because there are no protections in the space.

Claudia: I am so infuriated by the theatre professionals who decided to not build the future, to turn their back on the hard and necessary work of building the thing we need right now. We were in the middle of building a bridge in 2021, and they decided, “I don't want to build this bridge anymore. How about I dismantle it?”

I’m also frustrated that the digital spaces for collaborative cultural producing and exchange are being defunded and dismantled. It was a very exciting time in 2020, 2021, where I was asking “What is the theatre we can make from a distance?” To me, that's how you make national theatre. How do you make theatre where we're all coming from different places in this country? It was so exciting when we had the platforms to do it, and it has been frustrating to build sandcastles and see them get washed away by an ocean of denial.

Ezra: I’m often speechless at how much gaslighting we have to put up with. There’s this continuous denial of all the data that’s out there.

Jon Jon: I have conversations about what's legal to do since the federal mandate went away. Where I work, we cannot require masking because it’s potentially exclusionary to people who are anti-vaxxers on religious grounds, which is legally discrimination. So, what is the world in which we can build individual, consent-based culture? Like, "Hey, I'm going to mask. I need you to mask before we have this meeting." What are the things that I can ask for before people start to recoil because it feels unreasonable? I've been testing the waters there, and I'm curious to see how I build on that. 

What are the ways you are trying to push for change?

Let's change everything so that they’re not leaving us behind. Because if they leave us behind, there's no more theatre. 

Ezra: Mainly educating and advocating. I’m reaching out to theatres like, "Hey, can you live up to your accessibility missions? Can you provide mask-required performances? Even just one.” As an artist, I need to be able to see shows. I need to be able to participate. Theatres aren’t looking at it like that. It feels like, for anyone to listen, you have to be in a leadership position. I can say this all I want as an actor, but I'm relying on the “generosity” of leadership to do the right thing.

Claudia: It is beyond disgusting that individuals are expected to advocate for individual solutions to a global pandemic. I'm a cynical, bitter, cranky person. I am not going to call your theatre and beg to get in. How dare you? I will not watch your play. Go out of business! Isn't that awful? That's where I'm at. The theatre company that offers me a mask-mandated evening, I can say yes to that. "Here's a night you can come, Claudia, and we will create conditions of not killing you so you can enjoy this play." I'm going to buy that ticket.

I am also creating the safe spaces I need to witness theatre, to participate in theatre, to make theatre. I've got digital co-working and socializing spaces we're producing in. I'm going to institutions and saying, “You have to not do this anymore. Hire me to do a training. Let's figure out how to do this.” Let's change everything so that they’re not leaving us behind. Because if they leave us behind, there's no more theatre.

Ezra: Exactly! That's what’s blown my mind recently: that theatres don't realize they’re creating their own demise. So many of us are either becoming disabled, becoming more disabled, or dying from COVID. What future are they seeing when there are so few people left to do it, in-person, the traditional way?

Jon Jon: I'm trying to meet everyone where they are. I’m such a proponent for hybrid workspaces or fully remote whenever possible and I am encountering people who say, "I need to be in the office. I don't work well at home.” What do you do when you encounter someone who says, “My needs are not your needs. My need is to be in-person, my need is to not be masked,” or “My need is to not worry about testing?”

Claudia: Performances of supremacy culture will always come with justifications and scripts for why their bad behavior is actually okay and why you should stop trying to interrupt that behavior. It's the same thing with dismantling racism. People have so many reasons why it's so difficult to hire Black people and stop being racist. People are like, "Oh my gosh, I would really love for us to not be ableist, but it will cost some money.” Generally, after two or three exchanges, you can debunk most of those boilerplate arguments.

My biggest challenge right now is deciding that I want to be in loving community with people who are actively endangering my life with nonsense lies. I have to do a lot of deep breathing and trying to be my best self and lean into the future of us doing this well together, but I get angry.

Ezra: The hopeful part of me says, “Eventually, everyone will understand. Eventually, everyone will process their trauma from quarantine and they’ll start to believe the data. It has to happen,” and it’s frustrating when it doesn’t. I'm still working on how to work through people’s uninformed opposition without saying “What you're saying is complete bullshit” because that's not going to be helpful to someone who believes that they shouldn’t have to wear a mask. 

Two people in stage blacks wearing masks stand backstage.

Ezra Tozian and Moira O'Sullivan in Dream Hou$e by Eliana Pipes at Long Wharf Theatre. Directed by Laurie Woolery. Scenic design by Stephanie Osin Cohen. Costume design by Haydee Zelideth. Lighting design by Jason Lynch. Sound design by Paul James Predergast. Projection design by Mark Holthusen. Stage Management by Jason Waddell. Assistant Stage Management by Kevin Jinghong Zhu. Assistant Direction by Alexis K. Woodard. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Jon Jon: I think there is some level of governmental, systemic support that needs to happen for people to take this seriously. There are anti-vax folks who will sue on religious grounds. Will they win? Probably not. It doesn't matter. They've sued the institution, and the institution has to take time and money out of their already fragile, post-lockdown budgets. They think they have no support; therefore, they can’t give us support. They get really uncomfortable when we ask for it. I work in human resources, and it's really hard to be like, "I can't give you the thing you're asking for because if I mandate it, someone could sue us."

Claudia: I want to interrupt that train of thought because I don't think we should be producing in ways that are more dangerous to people because we're afraid the worst people in our community will sue us.

Jon Jon: Oh, no, I'm agreeing with you. I'm trying to provide the context for why some of these decisions are happening and my frustration with that. I think one of the things that we're all encountering is, what is the endgame? Since we can't see an endgame, we can't find ways to make progress and step forward. That's something that I'm encountering deep frustration for. Since we see no path forward, we have no courage to even attempt one.

I think that's one of the ways in which the community has to heal before they realize how much they're being harmed by COVID. So much of what I'm encountering right now is, if I don't preface these conversations with "I have an unpopular question," then I watch everyone around me shut down and dissociate. I'm like, "Why don't you want to talk about it?” It feels like fight or flight and I'm watching people freeze. It’s like, here is the actual factual data on what's happening to your body, to the community, to people with this disease.” People are like, "Cool." You watch them read it, but you watch them not comprehend. I'm like, "Wow, you didn't hear me. You deleted everything I just said, and I watched you do it."

Ezra: It’s also because they don’t think it relates to them. They think, "Oh, well, that's what you're coming up against. You're disabled, so of course you have to take precautions, but I'm not disabled." When it's like, "No, actually, everyone needs to worry about this." If you haven’t gotten long COVID yet, you’re very lucky. Eventually that luck will run out.

Claudia: They often have us spinning our wheels which is why I want to do projects that are like, "Okay, how about I divest from any institution that is producing on the conditions of death?" That might mean for two or three years I'm “missing out.” Maybe there was a really fun, cool thing that happened, and somebody at some professional theatre convening says, "Claudia, did you go to the blah de blah?" I have to say, "No, I didn't because they were producing that in the shape of death." Then five years later, a lot of those people aren't around anymore, because that wasn't a smart thing for them to do.

Jon Jon: Yes, and we need all modes. That way when people are like, "Will you do the labor of educating me?" I'm like, "Oh, not only have I. So has this person and this person and this person." That's why I like having multiple avenues, one being an Asshole Whisperer. I really excel at that. I also need people like you and Ezra to be like, here's some data, and also here's a fuck you. If you're not going to listen to one, we have provided three wildly different modalities for you to latch onto. If you're choosing none of them, where does the fault lie? That's the critical thinking I want people to engage in.

I think five years from now when enough people have been disabled, then they might start listening. Then it'll be fifteen years of conversation, and then I'll be dead.

Claudia: Oftentimes, keeping up the status quo requires lying to yourself and telling yourself the story that previous unsuccessful practices will suddenly become successful for you.

One of my modalities is the cigar-chomping producer. I like to look at your budget. I like to do a five-year forecast. This is not about you being a good person or being kind to a community. This is about you existing five years from now. Do you want to have an audience? Do you want to have performers? Do you want to have artists who can work? This is what you got to do.

Jon Jon: Yes, that is where my bitterness comes in. I think five years from now when enough people have been disabled, then they might start listening. Then it'll be fifteen years of conversation, and then I'll be dead. I’m tired of yelling at people to see my humanity. I'm trying to have grace like, "I understand that you have inherited these beliefs from a capitalist system that views you as nothing more than a profit machine. I understand that. If I can have grace for your humanity, I demand that you have the same for mine."

Theatre has been so historically exploitative and extractive. We exist in an industry that says our careers are more important than our health, than our personhood. When I talk about what changes I want to see in the industry, I want a redefinition of what success is.

A selfie of two people wearing masks standing in an airport.

Jon Jon Johnson and Dan Pyuen at Pax U. Photo by Dan Pyuen.

Claudia: It was a light bulb moment for me in my early twenties, like, I'm grateful that I was able to have goals, attain them, and quickly realize, oh, they told me a lie. They told me this was freedom, but you’re still shackled. I want to say yes to the idea of manifesting your own visions of success, and that's what I've been doing. In the last four years, I have produced some of the most exciting, cool pieces of cultural performance that included live exchange. I've been producing on multiple platforms for two decades now. I love that we can get to each other through these digital waves.

I'll also name that I'm pleased to have a more honest relationship with some of my colleagues in the theatre field. It broke my heart, but it was deeply useful to understand what relationships had been authentic and what relationships had been people smiling in my face and saying any old thing. The good thing about having life-and-death needs is that you get to know who's going to meet your needs and who's not, who's going to help you build, and that lets me understand who I should be investing in to build the new future for all of us. 

Jon Jon: A lot of my successes come from expansion because of lockdown. I know so many people are in this trauma state of “Lockdown really isolated me,” and I don't know, I fucking expanded. I let myself out of the fetters I had placed myself in. You don't have to be stuck in the same modality that has not served you.

Ezra: That time was an expansion of what theatre could be, what theatre should be, how we should be treating ourselves and our peers while creating art.

A person in a black mask presents an award onstage.

Ezra Tozian presenting at the Helen Hayes Awards in Washington, D.C. Photo by Shannon Finney.

Claudia: Maybe this is the moment for the entire theatre field. I feel like there's a lot of good outcomes if we can embrace some different ways of producing and making this work. I also think that when you have to be COVID-cautious in your planning, you're thinking about everything. If you slow down to talk about how we are keeping it safe for us during COVID, you're going to slow down and think about safety for everything.

Jon Jon: Yes, COVID is just the newest spike in the wheel for what justice and sustainability look like in workplaces. I can feel it. I know these changes are coming. I'm trying to find ways, especially because I work at a huge institution where culture change takes so much time and effort that I'm like, "What is the sustainable approach to this?” Trying to balance the entirety and wholeness of my own person with the entirety and wholeness of an entire community while trying to then juggle the entirety and wholeness of an entire industry in the midst of a pandemic is a lot to do. I want it done. I’m impatient.

Claudia: I think that there is a mythology that we need to be patient, that this takes time. It's not true. What did 2020 show us? It showed us you can change everything incredibly quickly. Unfortunately, we also saw that you can dial it back almost as quickly. You saw folks who had the market logics, had all of the reasons and motivations to do the smart, good thing, and they still reinvested in inaccessible old models that leave a bunch of people out.

There was a time when everybody smoked inside bars and restaurants. Everyone was like, "My right to pour smoke into my waiter's face, if I don't have that, I will never go to a restaurant." That wasn't the case. I suspect that if we had maintained masking mandates, it would have been fine. These are all narratives that we're telling ourselves.

Ezra: I’d love for us to discuss what protections we use in our day-to-day lives that might be helpful for people who either don’t know where to start or don’t know what options they have.

Jon Jon: I use a nasal spray and mask. I think that is the bare minimum. I want to highlight that because I feel like people think it must be really laborious to take COVID precautions, but it's so easy actually.

Ezra: Yes. For me, aside from staying up-to-date on vaccines, I mask using KN95s and N95s. When I head to New York City, I bring my personal air purifier and buy a Quiet Car ticket to minimize exposure. Folks may be coughing, but they’re not talking! I’ll usually stop in-person auditions in November and start up again in March; nasal sprays (I recommend Xlear, Covixyl, or Bendetine); CPC mouthwash if I know I’ve had an exposure. I also test any time I have a symptom outside of my norm, even if I think it’s just allergies.

It's not about perfection, it's just about trying, and I wish people would embrace that.

Claudia: I live an almost completely quarantined lifestyle. Now, I have a literal quarantine residency because I don't want to be all by myself, so come live with me for a week. We're going to make art together, but you're going to test yourself for three days before you come into my house. You're not going to go to a dance party where you're open-mouth-breathing in everybody's faces the night before you come over to my house. There's agreements.

I do the nose spray when I'm in a shared space. I got so many masks, y'all. I got that fancy Flo Mask. I got the SIP mask where you can put a straw through it. I got different colored masks to look cute with my outfits. I got myself that portable air filter, and I love it super hard. Also, when I have been producing in spaces—they got extra HEPA filters so that we could be there together. I got me some Stoggles for traveling. Also, I got some Lumify eye drops. I got a bunch of different things.

Jon Jon: The thing I appreciate about this conversation is that we've hopefully opened doors to other modalities, to other ways of thinking, and saying like, "Hey, it's okay if you want to continue to be in your modality, but that does mean you lose access to me. I am setting my boundaries with you. You don't control what boundaries I set.” Just reminding people again and again that you don't have to be trapped in the current mentality you're in.

Ezra: Yes, you can change it at any time. People don't learn to speak up or fight for themselves or others immediately. It takes a lot of practice. Sometimes when you're restarting protections, say you decide to start masking again, you might forget two or three times like, "Oh, I left my mask at home. I need to remind myself to bring it, maybe put it somewhere else.” It's not about perfection, it's just about trying, and I wish people would embrace that.

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Air quality will be more compromised with rising fires and pollution; investing in appropriate filtration in indoor spaces is a practical necessity that can support more audiences and artists to have safer air together.  Thank you all for your tips and real talk!

It is a relief to see theatre artists speak about Covid and the need for our field to be accessible. Even though I have switched industries, partially due to inaccessibility, I am thankful for every choice you make to protect yourselves and others.