The famously-bustling Times Square has been desolate and empty for 15 long months—but Broadway stages are finally turning the lights back on. The COVID-19 pandemic shuttered theatre doors in March 2020 and like many of the city’s cultural and artistic industries, New York’s theatres saw significant losses.
Actors and stagehands were suddenly without a job and many shows announced permanent closures. Theatremakers reimagined their art through digital platforms, often producing compelling new experiences for audiences online, yet many struggled without in-person connection and collaboration. And while the pandemic was upending life as we knew it, widespread protests over police killings of Black people were forcing a collective reckoning with racial inequality, prompting the We See You White American Theater movement to demand long overdue change.
Now that summer 2021 is almost here, New Yorkers and tourists alike can look forward to returning to the theatre, thanks to dwindling infection rates and a largely successful U.S. vaccine rollout. The first show back, Pass Over by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu, is scheduled to reopen August 4 and long-running hits like Hamilton, Lion King, and Wicked are selling tickets for September performances.
But reopening is complex, and there are still a lot of details to work out.
“When we get back into the theatre, things will look and feel different. Theatre is very complicated: We have 14 unions, we have the front of house—the concession stand and ticket distribution—we have the house, which is the patrons, and we have the back of house, which encompasses backstage and the dressing rooms,” said Jack Caravanos, a clinical professor at NYU School of Global Public Health who has served as a special advisor to the Broadway League, the national trade association for the Broadway industry.
“The requirements are going to vary between the three areas of the theatre, and unions are actively negotiating protocols. It’s a moving target that’s shifting every few days,” he continued.
With public health guidance and cultural expectations evolving rapidly, questions remain: What can theatres do to keep their audience, cast, and crew safe? How might longstanding theatre practices adapt and change after one of the most disruptive events in history? And how can the theatre industry be more inclusive and attract diverse theatregoers moving forward?
Faculty from NYU’s School of Global Public Health, Tisch School of the Arts, and Steinhardt School of Culture, Education, and Human Development gathered as part of a June 2 panel designed to address these topics and more as we approach the date of Broadway’s reopening. NYU News spoke with Jack Caravanos, Donna Walker-Kuhne, and Laurence Maslon to discuss historical precedent for the shutdown, the biggest public health challenges Broadway faces, and strategies for attracting multicultural audiences to the theatre.
💉 PUBLIC HEALTH AND KEEPING THEATREGOERS SAFE
Do you think vaccines should be mandated for Broadway shows?
Caravanos: A vaccine is the ultimate protection we have. So absolutely, I believe vaccination should be mandatory, especially of the crew and the actors and the stagehands and performers. I would also, at this point, restrict sales to vaccinated people first, and then observe as time goes on to open it up further. I know it sounds a little harsh, but I do believe that would be the best.
What are some of the challenges associated with a vaccine mandate?
Walker-Kuhne: There is a population that is fully aware of what the vaccine is and they've made a choice that they do not want to receive it. Does that prohibit them from working? Does it prohibit them from engaging with this community? That’s something we are going to have to grapple with very soon.
If you’re not vaccinated, some organizations will give you the option of providing proof of a negative test within the past 72 hours. That can be a bit laborious because you have to keep getting tested to be able to come into work. We will have to navigate questions of freedom and personal choice as those choices may have nothing to do with religion or health. But how will that decision prevent you from entering the workforce?
What about for audience members?
Walker-Kuhne: The idea of having completely vaccinated ticket buyers is going to be a significant challenge—particularly for groups. You usually have one group leader who purchases the tickets: Will they be responsible for making sure all the people in their group are vaccinated? Who wants to do that? Those issues affect a production’s bottom line and I don't think this is going to be smooth. I think there’s going to be a lot of controversy. I speak to group leaders all the time and frankly they're tired of corralling their friends to agree on a date, and then coordinating money, and adding another thing to that list will be prohibitive.
What about other public health measures like masks and social distancing?
Caravanos: If you asked me this question weeks ago, I would say masks will probably be required, or at least strongly suggested. But we are moving so quickly, the numbers are dropping so quickly in terms of the disease rates, that I think by the time Broadway comes along we'll probably see a “no mask” policy.
A vaccine is the ultimate protection we have. So absolutely, I believe vaccination should be mandatory.
I think social distancing is a thing of the past. But I think limiting people coming in and out—as far as density, crowds, lines, and staggering the groups—is a good practice.
These are historic, landmarked buildings with tiny bathrooms. We know how difficult the bathroom situations in these theatres are, and that's going to have to be resolved some way. Some people are talking about intermission-less performances, which is also very difficult to do.
Public health protocols are going to be very variable, because some shows are small with three or four actors, while others are gigantic productions with singing and dancing and a lot of aerosolizing of particles. So these guidelines are going to be different between venues, including off-Broadway and Broadway.
How else are theatres working to improve safety?
Caravanos: Some theatres are posting signs about improved ventilation—100% fresh air coming into the theatre, as opposed to recycling air.
There's hope that as we progress, new technology and methods will be developed to make things even better and safer. For instance, there is a new antimicrobial air treatment that is being studied. It's not yet approved in New York State, but other states have adopted it.
The good news is there's a lot of energy and excitement in developing new technologies. People are coming forward to figure out how we can have many layers of protection—not just masks, not just social distancing, not just disinfection or ventilation.
🚪 GETTING SHOWS READY TO REOPEN
Has Broadway ever experienced a disruption like this before?
Maslon: This is utterly unprecedented. During the 1919 pandemic, there were some theatre closures, and since then, there have been musician strikes, blizzards, and 9/11 when Broadway took a pause—but they just pushed a pause button until the world sort of got back together.
This is different. The world has gone on during these 14 months but theatres have been stuck in amber. The logistics are going to be extremely complicated when theatres reopen this fall. It's going to be like an airport on September 14: You're going to launch 15 jets simultaneously, they have to be cleaned, they have to be staffed, the runways have to be coordinated. But this is unprecedented: there is no roadmap because no one has ever done this before.
What kind of shows will people want to see when theatres reopen?
Maslon: That is an eternal Broadway question, it's an eternal pop culture question, it's an eternal entertainment question, and if we knew the answer to “what do people want to see and how much are they willing to pay for it?” and bottled it, there would be a line of producers and marketers stretching from West 45th street all the way down to Battery Park City.
That is going to be very complicated because the world has changed so much. Not only in terms of Black Lives Matter and the #MeToo movements, but how are people going to feel now about certain subject matters? During the depression, Broadway broke into two tributaries: One was entertainment, where you had Cole Porter’s Anything Goes and Jim Durante, and on the other hand, you had Enlightenment and the Federal theatre Project, Clifford Odets, and The Cradle Will Rock.
So that is a very big question that will take many months to sort out. The audience has changed. Are there any Manhattanites left who have not seen Phantom of the Opera? It will be a real bracing round in mid-September to find out what people really want to buy tickets for, especially with what will likely be a huge diminishment of the tourist audience on Broadway.
What will it take for shows to be ready to reopen come September?
Maslon: One thing that is complicated are contracts. It’s been 14 months, people have left the business, people have started families and don’t want to return to the fold, actors may no longer be right for parts, and contracts have to get re-upped anyway. I know the general managers that are hovering around trying to launch two dozen Broadway shows between now and 2022 are having to negotiate many different moving parts. I can't emphasize it enough: This is unprecedented. If a show stops for three days, fine, but if a show stops for 14 months, it’s difficult.
A show like Hamilton—which has to re-emerge on Broadway as a major box office draw—also has five national companies and an international company. Where are they getting their actors if the cast that stopped on March 13 isn't going to show up for work? Are they going to go to touring companies? And if they decimate the touring companies, who is going to fill those ranks?
In addition to the health and equity issues, it's simply a people power issue. Broadway isn't just a bunch of shows—it is ostensibly the highest marker of commercial theatre in America. Those shows have to come back at the same level of excellence with which they exited stage right in 2020.
🎭 EQUITY IN THE THEATRE
How does theatre need to change in order to address inequality in the industry?
Walker-Kuhne: In terms of building the show, we need to ask who is in the room, who makes the decisions, how were the budgets designed, who is on the crew, and how do all of these components build in diversity, equity, and inclusion? Unless someone is leading that initiative, it will not happen.
It is the responsibility of our producers, our theatre owners, and our general managers to look at how we are building equity, diversity, and inclusion in our work and then do it—boldly and dynamically.
Since I started my first Broadway show in 1993—where my goal was to bring in African American audiences, which has been what my team has been hired for for the 22 Broadway productions that we've worked on since—what has always been missing has been equity. My hope is that we will use this opportunity to listen to the diverse voices of the global majority, to the black and brown people that are in this industry and aspiring to be in this industry, and then take action to respond to the demands of the We See You White American Theater movement, and inequity more generally.
How are theatre companies responding to these demands?
Fortunately, I am a part of several theatre companies and their boards which are taking these active steps and it's hard work. It means looking at how we allocate our budget, who we hire, who is in the room, how we are appointing leadership, and at our pipelines and mentorship opportunities. These are the essential elements that indicate change, and so sure, we can put a bow on it and say “Oh yes, everything is great, you know we're so happy to be back and selling tickets,” but I will tell you, the global majority is paying close attention.
If we're to be courted as audience members, there has to be significant changes that are extremely transparent. I read so many letters from actors who say they felt uncomfortable working on a production and that this is their dream, so how do we change that environment? We have to build a culture of diversity, equity, and inclusion at every level. It's not overnight, it is long term, and you have to lean into the uncomfortable—but without that, things will remain the same, and we will have missed a moment for transformation.
In partnership with the Republic Records Action Committee, Black Theatre United (BTU) – a coalition of acclaimed Black actors, directors, musicians, writers, technicians, producers and stage managers who are using their voices and platforms to effect change – released Stand For Change. The group’s theme song (and accompanying music video) was written and produced by members of NYU Steinhardt’s Department of Music and Performing Arts Professions (MPAP) community.
Why are we seeing such a groundswell of support now when these issues have existed throughout the history of theatre?
Walker-Kuhne: The governance of this is really what's important and I believe the governance is coming from these coalitions and advocacy groups that are forming. They're demonstrating a power that we hadn't seen before. What I've observed is a revolution of uniting together, using our voices, using our artistry to say, this is the kind of experience we must have to do our work and to bring in our community.
At the end of the day, the gatekeepers want to make back their budget and they want to see a proliferation of resources that come out of these productions. To generate sales and move forward, we need to see this kind of action in place. Statistics show that it's still under five percent of global majority audiences overall attending Broadway shows. If we want to increase our profit margin, there's more than five percent global majority just in New York alone. How we engage them has everything to do with how we respond to building diversity, equity, and inclusion from the ground up in these productions. Who is ready to make that investment will be quite obvious in the months to come.
🎟️ HOW TO MARKET SHOWS TO FUTURE AUDIENCES
What are some of the challenges for stakeholders working to attract in-person audiences for their productions?
Walker-Kuhne: There's definitely some reluctance to return to the theatre. As a marketer, I hope there will be a bold message that gives audience members the assurance to know they will be safe. It’s not enough to say “there'll be some people wearing masks and you'll be okay.” Marketers need to talk to audiences about the science of public health in a way that’s accessible and reassuring. There's still some concern about safety and the messaging needs to be really clear, consistent, and creative. If we’re talking about reopening in a few months and with tickets already on sale, that messaging needs to start now.
Maslon: If the Phantom of the Opera people are smart, they'll bring the Phantom out to say “I have to wear a mask in the theatre but you don't”. What happened in Duffy square when Broadway came back after 9/11, there was a TV commercial and every actor on Broadway—Nathan Lane, Carol Channing, Tommy Tune— they were cheek to jowl and said “Broadway is back, come see us”. People were afraid to come to the theatre district. It took that kind of village working together to bring everybody back. Broadway is not free, it can be several hundred dollars for a family, so you have to prove that it's safe and that the product on stage is worth paying that money.
When people come to see a play and they leave and there’s the star standing outside the theatre—like Hugh Jackman holding onto that red bucket [for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Red Bucket Follies' fundraising initiative]—that is an extra incentive and Broadway Cares, for example, knows that. They mobilize, not only the acting community, but the theatricality of the acting community. Would you have something where the cast of The Lion King gives vaccinations after a show? I don't know, but I'm saying it's incredible, that ability to harness the magic of Broadway. Maybe that magic has to be deployed in a way that's inventive and safe and maybe there’s a way to mobilize the thrill of the Broadway experience to make people safer.