fbpx We Can’t Build an Equitable Theatre While Ignoring COVID | HowlRound Theatre Commons

We Can’t Build an Equitable Theatre While Ignoring COVID

Within the last six months, I’ve heard of over a dozen shows that canceled performances due to a positive COVID case within the cast and/or crew. I started listing them, but why single out those shows? My theatremaking friends in different cities have noticed the same. It’s happening on Broadway, in regional theatres, in storefront theatres. This is an industry-wide problem.

Still, I hear people say we are “post-pandemic.” While I personally know theatremakers who care about COVID in 2024, I’ve seen little widespread acknowledgment of the problem. The only major discussion of COVID I see from theatres today is to announce a performance was canceled.

Our industry is not an outlier in its silence. There is a massive dissonance within the United States around COVID. In the first four weeks of 2024, over two thousand Americans died of COVID each week, and at least one thousand have died of COVID each week since. Yet, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reduced the recommended isolation period of a person with COVID from five days to one day–even though the science hasn’t changed. The public health emergency for COVID ended in May of last year, taking the funding with it. I previously got PCR tested weekly in my city and received two KN95 masks and two rapid tests. Since May, I have only been able to get free rapid tests from my local library intermittently—sometimes they’ve only had expired tests, and sometimes they’ve had no tests at all. We have less resources and guidance than we had for most of the pandemic thus far. When theatres produce shows with little acknowledgment of COVID and no advertised precautions, they are acting in alignment with the United States government. Some theatremakers will think that is fine. But many of us have claimed that we want to be different; we have the capacity to do so much more.

Do we care about collective care, or do we not?

I am a theatremaker who has dreamt of something different than the status quo. I am one of many. In 2020, we loudly proclaimed a desire for something better. We See You, White American Theatre was created, with a list of demands to develop “a new social contract for our work environments that cares for and sustains our artistry and lives.” Many theatres and artists amplified these demands as something to work toward. Theatres all over released statements explicitly calling themselves anti-racist. Some opened their spaces for people to use during protests on behalf of victims of anti-Black violence. There was a swelling of energy around building a more equitable theatre that cared for all. Four years later, it feels like most theatremakers have lost that energy.

The stark difference between how the theatre industry showed up in the early stages of the pandemic and what we are (not) doing now was a primary focus of the conversation that I had with playwright and translator Caridad Svich. She has been continuously banging the drum for COVID precautions in whatever avenue she has access to, including social media. She often quote tweets information about COVID with “theatre, are you listening?” I wanted to amplify what she thinks theatre needs to hear.

“Do we care about collective care, or do we not?” Caridad asked. The two of us shared how we were baffled by the lack of care from those who claim to be committed to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). “You can’t be talking about DEI and then doing exclusionary practices that harm your community,” she said.

COVID harms all community members. Being vaccinated against COVID-19 reduces risk of being very ill or hospitalized, but it does not provide full immunity—especially as the virus spreads, mutates, and creates more immune-resistant variants. How ill you get while infected is not the only concern; there is also the worry of developing long-term symptoms or long COVID. There are a variety of statistics that scare me—one study found that one in seven Americans had developed long COVID by the end of 2022.

The impacts of long COVID on theatre workers, Caridad reminded me, are what the theatre industry is least prepared for. “If one in seven of your audience and one in seven of your arts workers have long COVID, how are you going to take care of them?” she asked. “What type of work are you going to make and how will you make it accommodate their needs? You can’t.” Continuing to spread COVID amongst our casts and crews increases the chances they may be less able to create theatre in the future.

A woman performs in front of audience members wearing masks.

Candace Taylor in Effervescent Encounters at JACK. Choreography by Candace Taylor. Photo by Whitney Browne.

Ignoring COVID can cause lasting harm to all of our audiences and arts workers. Additionally, the COVID pandemic intersects with social justice issues that many theatremakers have said we care about.

Black people, and other communities of color, are disproportionately impacted by COVID. Despite being more likely to take precautions than white people, we are more likely to end up in the hospital or die from the virus. We cannot build an anti-racist theatre while freely spreading COVID, knowing that Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) are being harmed the most.

The lack of COVID precautions is a disability justice issue. There are some people (immunocompromised people, pregnant people, the elderly, etc.) who are at a much higher risk of negative outcomes. If you are not among those groups, it may seem reasonable to sit in a crowd where no one is masked for two hours, because you’re not worried about the impact of being infected with COVID. However, there are millions of immunocompromised people in the United States, and for many of them, that risk is far too high. Theatres that are not proactively preventing COVID are shutting these people out. Ignoring COVID is in direct opposition to building an anti-racist, accessible theatre field.

At the beginning of the pandemic, the theatre industry was forced to adapt. We did so beautifully! People became experts on Zoom and created interactive virtual shows. Theatre was streaming on demand. Caridad’s play Theatre: A Love Story premiered at Know Theatre in Cincinnati, Ohio in February 2021. Described as “a play-conversation and art installation,” this digital performance piece was a “trans-media exploration” that blended theatre and film and was presented live. It was created in collaboration with Pones, a local dance company. Caridad told me about shooting in different locations all over the city and what an exciting experience it was. She said that with that hybrid season, Know Theatre trained their audience to see theatre in a different way.

A group of performers act in a mirrored box.

Elizabeth Molloy, Nathan Tubbs, and A.J. Baldwin in Theatre: A Love Story by Caridad Svich at Know Theatre of Cincinnati. Directed by Daryl Harris, Brant Russell, and Tamara Winters. Scenic and lighting design by Andrew Hungerford. Costume design by Noelle Wedig-Johnston. Choreography by Kim Popa. Choreographic collaboration by Pones. Sound design by Douglas Borntrager. Prop design and scenic art by Kayla Williams. Cinematography by Ryan Lewis. Stage management by Meghan Winter. Technical direction by Henry Bateman. Featuring Music by Yheti.

This type of ingenuity was everywhere in the earlier stages of the pandemic. Not only was a lot of exciting art being created, but access expanded. People in different cities and countries were seeing a variety of shows from their own homes. I’ve heard that time be referred to as “the great equalizer.”

This has largely gone away. Of course, virtual theatre existed before the pandemic, and it’s still around. But the commitment of the wider theatre industry to provide that type of access is gone. The theatres local to me, which had hybrid seasons in 2021, are now fully in-person. Your options are to sit in a theatre for hours or not see the show at all. Why? So many people shared how happy they were to be reaching new audiences. Does that no longer matter? 

The limited amount of virtual and hybrid theatre is one way the theatre industry is not adequately responding to the pandemic. Even within in-person theatre, there is much more we can do as artists and administrators.

I spoke to Azure D. Osborne-Lee, a theatremaker and interdisciplinary artist, about how he has been navigating the pandemic. Azure has stepped up and started their own grassroots distribution of resources. He has consistently purchased high-quality masks with his own money to share with his community. This was important to him because cost can be a barrier for many, and “people who are poor deserve to have high quality masks.” Azure has also distributed tests and advocated for air filtration.

A person sits on a Zoom camera in front of a series of posters.

Azure D. Osborne-Lee sitting in front of a wall of COVID advocacy posters, modeled after ACT UP posters, created by X user @_copy_of_a_copy.

Any time he is invited into a space as an artist, he asks about COVID precautions and urges them to be implemented. “Organizations need to be taking responsibility,” he told me, so he takes his role as an administrator or consultant very seriously. “What are you doing?” he’ll ask those in power. “You need to be leading the way.”

Theatremakers also have power in our storytelling. Right now, there is minimization from government officials about the risk of COVID and disinformation from federal agencies about the best steps for prevention. Many people are unaware of the risks and think they are safer than they are. As artists, we could create stories that cut through the propaganda and tell the truth, which is something some theatre artists have previously considered to be an important role of our work.

“What does it mean to be making theatre?” Azure asked. “Shouldn’t we be setting the tone culturally?”

There are people who are not going to the theatre because it isn’t safe. If there were widely advertised mask-required performances, this audience would see that their presence at shows is valued

What We Should Do

No matter your role within theatre, there is something that you can do. My conversations with Caridad and Azure informed the following recommendations:

Mask-Required Performances

I believe that requiring masks for audiences is the most important precaution theatres can take—which is not what many want to hear. However, it’s necessary. Many shows have COVID safety officers on the production team, which is great. But all the precautions for casts and crews won’t keep them or audiences safe if the artists must share air with people taking no precautions during performances. Even testing, although useful, cannot be a replacement for masks. Rapid antigen tests, which is what the majority of Americans have access to, miss many infections—especially in the early stages. Testing negative on a rapid test does not mean someone is not infected with COVID, which is why wearing a mask keeps everyone safer.

A 2020 study showed that if 80 percent of Americans wore masks, COVID infections would plummet. That study didn’t even specify a type of mask. Wearing a KN95 mask or N95 mask was found to be 48 percent more effective than a surgical or cloth mask, and these masks reduce the odds of testing positive for COVID by 83 percent. These are numbers that could change the course of the pandemic.

“The very least people could do is put a mask on,” Azure told me. Seeing a play is one of the places where it is easiest to mask, as you’re mostly sitting the whole time.

In order for audiences to wear masks, theatres must require them and provide them. That can be challenging, but not impossible. Azure is a board member of JACK in New York, and connected me to speak to the director, Skye E. Kowaleski. JACK has had mask-required performances since 2021. No matter the guidance from the government, they remain consistent. Messages about masking are on the website and in pre-show emails. When a patron arrives at the theatre, the box office manager states the policy, and if the patron doesn’t have a mask, they are given one.

Three audience members in masks sit in a decorated room.

For JACK, mask requirements were an easy decision. Their mission is to “fuel experiments in art and activism…to bring about a more just and vibrant society.” This mission has fueled them to serve as a space for mutual aid distribution, and they have distributed tests intermittently throughout the pandemic. JACK leadership knew that to be aligned with the organization’s values, they would have to require masks to create a safe environment for all.

As they have already curated an audience that knows their mission, most of the members understand the mask mandate. But still, audience pushback exists. There have been a few patrons who have left because they didn’t want to wear a mask. And that may happen at your theatre.

But I’ve known theatres where audiences didn’t want to engage because of too many curse words, because of colorblind casting, because the theatre programmed more new plays than classics. In those experiences, the artistic leadership accepted losing those audience members, understanding that those people were not in alignment with the theatre’s mission.

Could we reach that understanding when it comes to mask-required performances? If we want to create an anti-racist, accessible, equitable theatre, can we be okay with losing audience members who don’t align with those values?

There is also an audience to be gained. There are people who are not going to the theatre because it isn’t safe. If there were widely advertised mask-required performances, this audience would see that their presence at shows is valued.

Both Azure and the JACK leadership shared that it is so much easier to get someone to wear a mask when you provide one. Increasing the budget to buy masks may be a concern. But as Ezra Tozian pointed out in their recent Medium article, “A New Conscious-ness: “Theatres are collectively losing hundreds of thousands of dollars due to postponements and cancellations.” What is cheaper in the long run? Plus, providing masks may not be as expensive as you think. You can buy six hundred KN95 masks for less than forty dollars.

Clean the Air

COVID is airborne and can linger in the air like smoke for hours. You can make a difference by cleaning the air. If someone in your audience has COVID but you have high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filtration in the space, you are doing a lot to prevent further infection. A study showed that having two HEPA air filters close to an infected person reduced the chance of exposure by 65 percent. Layers of protection are the best, as we learned from the swiss cheese model earlier in the pandemic. Utilizing air filtration and masking can reduce the chance of exposure by 90 percent.

With this in mind, we need to have conversations about air quality in our theatres. We need to be transparent about where we are currently and make plans to improve if needed. This is not only important for COVID prevention. Air pollution has been plaguing certain parts of the United States for a while. This past summer, many more of us felt the impacts of poor air quality as a result of the Canada wildfires. As the climate emergency worsens, you are investing in the health of your audience and arts workers by cleaning the air.

Creating an equitable, anti-racist, just theatre industry isn’t and won’t be easy. We do it because we believe it’s worth it.

Advocate

I know not everyone reading this essay has the positional power to require masks or upgrade air filtration. But you likely have more power than you think. Be the voice in the room speaking up. I am a playwright who recently secured mask-required performances for my shows after asking about COVID precautions. Use your platforms, like Azure and Caridad. Ask about COVID precautions before signing a contract and be clear that you find them necessary.

We work in an industry where we are encouraged to say yes to any opportunity, as Sara Bozin recently highlighted in her essay. But we must be willing to advocate for what we believe in. When you advocate for COVID precautions, you are making the experience safer for BIPOC and disabled audiences, for the artists you are working with, and for the artists who will come after you.

I’m not suggesting it is easy. If theatre returned to taking COVID seriously, we would be doing what the vast majority of the country is not doing. Our audiences might be shocked and we might receive pushback.

But tech week isn’t easy. Running a show with hundreds of cues isn’t easy. Creating an equitable, anti-racist, just theatre industry isn’t and won’t be easy. We do it because we believe it’s worth it.

“We all owe it to each other to care for each other in this way,” Skye from JACK shared. If you want to build an equitable theatre industry that practices collective care, advocate for COVID precautions and urge your peers to do so too.

Bookmark this page

Log in to add a bookmark

Comments

2
Add Comment

The article is just the start of the conversation—we want to know what you think about this subject, too! HowlRound is a space for knowledge-sharing, and we welcome spirited, thoughtful, and on-topic dialogue. Find our full comments policy here

Newest First

Thank you, Taylor, for this compassionate, practical! and powerful essay. I'm with you as a daughter and helper to my elderly mother and a member of the Asian American community. Many of our elders not only are wary of Covid-19 but anti-AAPI violence that our communities have experienced during this time. As a theatermaker and producer, providing masks and tests is one of the many easy ways we can make it easy for artists and audiences to stay healthy. I'm with you about our national indifference to the impact of Covid-19 on vulnerable populations and communities of color. Thank you for your care, education, and advocacy!