We see a show and later learn that it had to close abruptly. We can empathize with the actors’ disappointment and distress because we can visualize their faces and recall their voices. But how has the pandemic impacted those we see only briefly in the lobby as we enter or don’t see at all? How are they managing this crisis? I talked to stage managers and front of house staff at large, medium, and small Chicago theaters in late December and early January. When we talked, some theaters had canceled productions for the second time since the initial lockdown in 2020, most temporarily and due to staff or cast testing positive. Others remained open or were about to open. As we talked, it was clear to me that they saw their futures as both very promising and very uncertain.
“We’re canceling tonight and shutting down the theater.”
Christine D. Freeburg (stage manager, Steppenwolf Theatre): We had a staff meeting the week before we closed [Bug]. Someone had been talking about [COVID] during tech, but I really didn’t know what they were talking about, and I just sort of ignored it. Then David Schmitz, our then-executive director, said, “With a show of hands, how worried is everybody about this virus that’s happening overseas?” On a scale of one to five, it was like twos and threes.
Not long after that, I got a call from our production manager when I was on my way to Steppenwolf who said, “We’re canceling tonight, and we’re shutting down the theater.” I called everybody, and they said, “Well, look, we’re on our way; we need to pick up our stuff, anyway.” So, we all arrived at the theater and sadly cleaned out our dressing rooms, made sort of a closing toast because we were scheduled to close that Sunday, anyway. It was really sad and really, you know, scary.
Maegan Burnell (freelance union stage manager, previously on Cinderella and currently Groundhog Day at Paramount Theatre): At the time, I was working on a production of Grease at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire. We were three days away from our closing when we were sat down by the executive director of the theater and told that that Thursday night would be our closing night. We were just four performances away [from the end of the run], but it still stings.
Abigail Madden (managing director, A Red Orchid Theatre): We were right in the middle of our run of Do You Feel Anger? We had to cancel our last week and a half of performances, and then ended up having to cancel the third show of the season completely. It seemed very abrupt. Until last week, we still had the costumes from that show hanging in our administrative office. They’d been there for the past year and a half while we were in flux, working from home. We didn’t really get to say proper goodbyes.
Alden Vasquez (stage manager at Goodman for more than 30 years; now freelancing): We were in our fifth preview for School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play. We were called into a meeting in the green room. Because we were in previews, Lili-Anne Brown, the director, was there, and then Adam Belcuore [casting director] came down and gave the news to the cast. It was the hardest thing for me to witness because we had a cast of very young ladies, most of them in their 20s, and this had been their big break. They were on a Goodman stage in a really good play. So, when Adam gave them the news, it was just devastating to them. They were just stunned. Tears, disbelief. It was hard for me as a human being to watch the disappointment on their faces, but I had to put on the “stage manager face” and get them and the crew ready. It was “half hour” when they were told. By the time the meeting was over, it was 15 minutes.
I was very proud of them. After coming out of that meeting, with tears and hugs and devastation and disappointment, they went on stage and did their job, and they did nothing on stage that would indicate that this was over.
Jim Jarvis (vice president, programming and sales, Paramount Theatre): We ended up going from 274 full- and part-time employees on March 13  and by May 13 we were down to 12 employees. I happen to be one of the people who was left as part of that 12. Unfortunately, I had to make calls and say, “I’m calling because we’re furloughing, you guys.” A lot of the staff that I work with live close enough where I could actually drive to their house and stand across from them and say it in person. [Pauses] I’m getting teary-eyed right now because it broke my frickin’ heart to do that to everybody.
Burnell: It was a weird feeling closing and seeing other theaters closing and wondering what is this going to do to our industry, to us? To live in this uncertainty. I think when the first shutdown happened, we all kind of thought, two weeks and we’ll be back. But we lived in the uncertain nature of like, but is that true? And then two weeks go by and you don’t come back, and three weeks go by and you don’t come back, and we kept getting notifications from our upcoming gigs, saying, “Hey, we’re just not sure.” It was very hard, very hard. We were in unchartered waters.
On a personal note
Stephanie Pecharich (front of house manager, Paramount Theatre): There were no vaccines, yet. My family got COVID at the end of November last year . My daughter picked it up at high school. She ended up in the ICU for a couple nights. It was devastating. I got really, really sick for about ten days. My husband got it, too. My boys got it. Tim Rater, our CEO, would check in on us, making sure that we were OK and leaving care packages on the porch. It felt really good to have someone like him checking and making sure that I was OK. That helped.
Jennifer Aparicio (freelance AEA stage manager and production manager for Teatro Vista): I lost all income. I was officially unemployed because that was all I did. I mean, I would babysit, but even that kind of went out the window because families were starting to be cautious, and people were working from home, so they didn’t need caregivers. As a union stage manager, I also lost my health insurance because, with the union, in order to get your health insurance, you have to work so many weeks, and it accrues over the course of 12 months. Because I had not worked in 2020, I had no insurance for 2021. And that was basically the case for everyone in the union. I ended up doing Obamacare.
Vasquez: I learned to be a landscaper. I have a friend who taught me how to plant bushes, and I learned how to put in a patio. I did demo on sidewalks and planted trees. We also had about 20 clients where once a week I would go around and cut their grass and use the leaf blower and tidy up. I was lucky I was able to work outside.
Caitlin Body (freelance stage manager, currently working on Wellesley Girl, Compass Theatre): A lot of stage managers started to go online. We have a lot of Facebook groups for us where we can go and talk to each other. I was meeting stage managers that I’ve heard of around Chicago, but never really had the chance to meet since it was always “go, go, go” all the time from one production to another. In 2020, as one stage manager of color, I knew maybe two or three others in Chicago who were stage managers. And it wasn’t until we all started being in Zoom rooms that I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’ve never heard of you and yet you’ve been working here for like ten years!” So, I made a lot of good stage-manager friends, and not just in Chicago but I feel like around the world. It’s a really amazing community, and that’s probably what got me through most of 2020.
Madden: Not only was I maneuvering being the leader, with Kirsten Fitzgerald, of a small nonprofit and all that it entails, I was also making sure that my small team was taken care of emotionally as well, because there was a lot of emotions running high. And added to that, I was pregnant for most of 2021, and then having a baby during COVID—it was an interesting experience, to say the least.
Rita Vreeland (stage manager, Northlight Theatre): Part of our job is to have one foot in the management world and one foot in the creative world to try to keep people’s confidence up. It’s not an official part of the job; it’s what we want to do. We want to help everyone feel comfortable coming to work. It is a very hard time to feel confident about anything in the arts right now, to be honest, a tough time to project confidence.
Freeburg: The goalpost just kept getting further and further away. And I thought, “We’re never coming back. We have this beautiful new theater [at Steppenwolf] that we just built! How are we not going to use that?” I was just holding onto [the belief that] live theater cannot be dead, this cannot be the end of live theater, we’ll figure out a way to do it, even if we have to sit in little bubbles or livestream it every night. This is not the end of my industry, but it may be the end of my industry as I know it. And I’m going to have to learn some new skills and start figuring out how to do it in a different way. But this isn’t the end, we will figure out how to come back.
“We did not want to close, again.”
Jarvis: Early on Tim [Rater] had started asking, “What is life going to look like after we return?” Chances are we’re going to have to be wearing masks. So, we started talking about different protocols way back when. What do you do to enforce them? And how do we get the messaging out? We looked at every single thing. The box office director and I sat down, and we started [working out] the socially distanced seating arrangements inside the Paramount with six feet in every direction. We’re an 1,800-seat venue. I think [we ended up with] a maximum capacity of 425 people that we could have fit in at the time.
We had been literally working on all that for almost, I don’t know, 16 months before we opened Kinky Boots [August 2021]. The goal was to keep everybody as safe as possible on all sides of the stage. After so many of us being out for 17 months, we did not want to close again.
Pecharich: When we did our scheduling for the very first Kinky Boots, our first night back, I was like, I’ll do that one! We have a bartender-and-usher meeting before we open the doors to get everybody set up for what they need to be doing. They’re part of our front line, and they’re amazing people. It was very powerful. I actually broke down in tears. I probably never cried so much at work. I cried while the show was going and at the end of the night. I was so happy to be back.
Freeburg: Just the idea of going back for the first time in 18 months was terrifying because I thought, “I have to remember how to do my job!”
Burnell: For me, it was a bit like riding a bike but having to put the training wheels back on. It took a couple of weeks before I could say, “Ah, yes, I remember how to do this.”
Vreeland: In September  when I came back to rehearsal, I felt so hopeful and so positive, like this was a rebirth of this industry, and that things were changing for the better and that we all knew what to do [about COVID].
Freeburg: It’s now part of the Equity contract that you have to have an independent COVID safety manager who takes care of all of that COVID stuff.
Jarvis: We test three times a week and the COVID safety manager is responsible for taking the tests and then getting the lab results, contacting the vice president of production and the CEO if we have anybody test positive. They’re also watching to make sure that all the protocols are being met during rehearsals, which is a whole different ball game from what we do in front of house.
Vasquez: The Christmas Carol people, in past years, would bring doughnuts and munchies. All that changed. I’m known to bring birthday cakes, which was a big disappointment for me. We just could not do it anymore. And lunch hours, we had to be spread out and couldn’t eat in the rehearsal room. All the children in the show, including Tiny Tim, had to be 12 or older because when we started, younger people couldn’t get vaccinated.
Vreeland: There are no dressing-room visits, there are no stage-door visits, nothing like that. All our spaces are for just our production group, which includes our staff, designers, management, creatives, the cast itself, understudies.
Jarvis: We knew we were going to take flak [from the public for our patron protocols]. And I will say when we announced them, it was a firestorm for a while. I literally had people calling telling me that there’s no proof that this vaccination works, that you can’t force somebody to put a chemical into their body. I was called un-American. I had a person tell me that I needed to be stopped as quickly as possible. We were getting calls from around the country, people who weren’t even our patrons but were calling us to tell us what we’re doing is unconstitutional. It was tiring for everybody.
We got tipped off that somebody was orchestrating a huge antivax, antimask demonstration at our first preview. The police had contacted us and said they were monitoring it. There ended up being about 40 people out front, and it was a peaceful protest. When they were done, they had their kids take sidewalk chalk and write antivaccine and antimasking messages on our sidewalk before they had left.
Later, I walked out of my office and did a double take. Bless his heart, Tim Rater, our CEO, was out there himself, cleaning off the sidewalks.
Pecharich: Once people are inside, a problem for us is the mask patrol. Sometimes people don’t want to abide by keeping their mask up. We started with signage that said, “Please wear a mask.” We ended up changing the wording to “Masks are required.”
Because we are doing the right thing, people feel safe to come here, so they get involved if there’s a problem. One time I had a woman who I had asked to pull up her mask. She turned to me and said, “It’s not in the Constitution that I have to wear a mask.” Well, a woman on the other side of her turned and said, “It’s also not in the Constitution that you have to stop at a red light. It’s just doing the right thing.”
Jarvis: For Cinderella [opened November 10, 2021] we identified the fact that one of the challenges was when people, for various reasons, might not have a vaccine card, like maybe they got the tickets as a gift and didn’t know. They show up and they’re getting turned away at the door because they don’t have a test. So, we worked with Northshore Clinical Labs and set up a remote testing site for our patrons near the theater. They did over 1,100 tests [at last count]. Once we got set up, the turn-away rate dropped to almost zero. Knock wood, we haven’t had any case traced back to attendance at Paramount.
Pecharich: It’s mostly very rare, though, to deal with a belligerent person or someone that we would even need to discuss having to ask them to leave. And when people do want to argue with us, I always say, “We’re not singling you out. We don’t want to make things difficult for you. We’re just trying to stay open. We’re just trying to keep this alive for everybody and keep everyone safe in this very difficult time in this world.” That is our bottom line.
“I’m watching the industry change.”
Vreeland: This is kind of the biggest takeaway for me as an artist and a theater practitioner: for the first time in my life, I’m understanding and feeling sympathy for these folks in coal country who’ve devoted their lives to working with fossil fuels. They say, “This is my job. And this is my life. I don’t want to pivot to green energy.” I get it now. I didn’t get it before.
After 25 years of stage managing in Chicago, I’m watching people having to pivot, and I’m watching the industry change. I’m watching people become Zoom stage managers or remote project managers or doing corporate work online, and suddenly I am a coal miner, saying, “I do not want to pivot.” I got a degree in this back in the last century. I came to Chicago as a 22-year-old kid, and I worked my way up, and now I am almost 50 years old. I do not want to change my job. I belong in a booth with a headset on, calling hundreds of cues. I belong in a rehearsal room with a director next to me, helping execute their vision. I belong in this office making this calendar for these actors that are going to show up on Tuesday and need to know where they’re supposed to be. I want to do live theater in a live room with a live audience with live actors. I sound so crabby right now. I’m sorry.
Burnell: There’s been a call for a lot of changes in our industry that are good. There’s a saying, right, that the show must always go on. Well, does it need to? I am finding that we are leaning in towards taking care of each other and ourselves more. That’s my experience. There’s a lot of stage managers and performers who were not standing up for themselves before.
Aparicio: I don’t want to sound negative about it, but it was like taking people for granted, you know, like, “Oh, well, they’re gonna come. They’re gonna be here.” I think that the mentality of “the show must go on” was very firmly ingrained in everyone, and all this is having people rethink that a little bit.
Freeburg: That is a big change to our industry that I really hope that we continue. Taking care of each other is ultimately what it comes down to.
Vasquez: I think that’s the new norm now. “The show must go on” is no longer viable.
Body: I honestly think it’s because we romanticized [that idea]. I also feel it’s very American, in a sense: “We will do whatever it takes to get this done.” And then forgetting that we also need sleep. I think it’s a mentality that’s breaking. Now it’s: No, you need to take care of yourself.
Burnell: It’s hard. Some of the conversations are hard, but I’m seeing that people [in management] have been open to it, which I think is incredible.
“It’s just not the same world.”
Vasquez: When we [reopened School Girls] in July , we spent hours of rehearsal asking each cast member about their experience over the past year and what they went through. It was a very eye-opening experience. Being African American actors, being women, they were going through COVID and the racial upheavals [after the murder of George Floyd] and also the theater going through its changes with diversity and “We See You, White American Theater.” I mean, they went through all of that in that year. That first day back was a very emotional day. I sometimes live in my own little bubble and the blinders are on, but that opened up my perspective a lot.
Shane Calvin (youth leader at Circles & Ciphers and stage manager for A Breath for Humanity, Perceptions Theatre): Perceptions is a new, Black-founded theater company that’s located on the south side. They [were founded] in 2020 and for now they’re doing everything on Zoom. Breath for Humanity is a play about protest, prisons, and the pandemic. It is about the literal pandemic that we’re living in, and how us living in this pandemic is opening our eyes to all of the other pandemics that have existed throughout American history since colonization, from racism to homophobia, transphobia, and sexism and all of the isms and phobias that you can think of, and why. Pretty much the pandemic put a pause on everything, and it forced us to sit and reckon with where we are as a country. You know what I’m saying? It’s like we’re really paying attention to things that matter.
For myself, I’ve found that I don’t want to just work, I want to be productive and be a part of and contribute to creating a functional, sustainable community. That’s really what I want. And that’s what I feel like I’m doing. I didn’t feel like I was doing that before. I was miserable before.
Body: When George Floyd happened, and then later in 2020, a couple of colleagues and I tried to start Stage Managers of Color—Chicago. Our intention was to have a place where people in Chicago who were stage managers of color could come together and talk about problems we might be facing or just have someplace that you could go and know that there was not going to be a presence in the room that you felt you had to cater to. We wanted to have a place where anyone of color could come and ask questions and know that there was no judgment.
Burnell: I just don’t think we can ever go back to doing theater the way we did in February of 2020. It’s just not the same world we’re in, anymore.
Freeburg: I don’t know if it was because we knew this company already, but [when we reopened Bug in November 2021] all of that BS small talk that you usually have, we skipped right over that. I don’t know if it’s because “time is too short,” but we were having really deep conversations that maybe we wouldn’t have had two years ago. You’re like, “How are you? No, really; how are you?” And someone would tell you how they really were: “I’m stressed out about this. And I’m thinking about that.” It felt like we had been through this trauma, all of us together but all in our different ways, so we delved right into the meat of any sort of conversation.
Maybe it’s because there’s not much to chitchat about because the world is such a shit show right now anyway, but I do feel like we have been through something with this group. We crawled our way, and we survived, and we made it through, and we’ll move on to do another show.