Credit: Illustration by Amber Huff

Spring began so hopefully this past year, with COVID-19 vaccines ramping up and my inbox filling up with announcements of live performances returning in the fall. Back in May, I talked to Deb Clapp, executive director of the League of Chicago Theatres, about what she felt the major concerns facing their members might be as they geared up for a return to the stage and live audiences.

“I think most of all, what people are looking for is really good information and guidance,” said Clapp. “Every time there’s been an announcement [on reopening guidelines], mostly from the state, the city really hasn’t done anything.” She mentioned that the guidelines for restaurants seemed clearer than for performing arts venues prior to the planned Phase Five reopening date in early June. For example, Clapp noted, “There was a lot of confusion when the state was talking about moving to what they call the bridge phase, the 4.5 and whether or not social distancing would still be required [in theaters].” (The state guidelines for the “bridge” phase limited “seated spectator events” to 60 percent capacity, whether inside or outside. But as Clapp noted, the distance required between groups of spectators was less clear.)

In the absence of clear civic guidance, even as the city entered Phase Five, theaters made their own rules. One of the first live shows I attended, School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play at the Goodman, which opened in late July, did have audience members distanced by a couple of seats between “pods” of people who purchased their tickets together, and required masks ahead of the city mandate. The Goodman also eliminated concession sales to discourage people from removing their face coverings in order to eat and drink. Earlier that month, Theatre Above the Law’s production of Henchpeople, staged in the tiny Jarvis Square Theater with no distance between seats, required patrons to present proof of vaccination at the box office as well as wear masks at all times. PrideArts requires proof of vax, masking, and a temperature check at the box office for their current production of The Things I Could Never Tell Steven.

But as the toll from the Delta variant continues to climb, the League decided to take action independently of the city. Hours before the new city mask mandate was announced on August 17, the League unveiled the “unified COVID-19 protection protocols” from a coalition of more than 65 performing arts venues and producers across the city and suburbs.

According to the press release, “Specific protocols may vary by venue, but in general, patrons will need to be masked and fully vaccinated with an FDA authorized vaccine in order to attend an indoor performance and must show proof of vaccination and identification at their time of entry into the venue with their valid ticket.” However, some venues may still accept proof of a negative test instead of vaxxing: “Where negative tests are accepted, guests may provide proof of a COVID-19 PCR test taken within 72 hours of the performance start time, or a negative COVID-19 antigen test taken within 6 hours of the performance start time.” 

By contrast, The Broadway League, representing the owners and operators of 41 Broadway theaters in New York City, requires audiences to be fully vaxxed and masked, with the exception of “children under 12 and people with a medical condition or closely held religious belief that prevents vaccination.” Those who fall into those categories must present the same proof of a negative COVID test as required by the League of Chicago Theatres.

Things get further complicated depending on whether or not a venue is running on a union contract. Actors’ Equity developed several COVID protocols under the supervision of Dr. David Michaels, former head of OSHA during the Obama administration and a member of President Biden’s Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board. These protocols include everything from a “fully vaccinated safety rider” for nontouring productions to guidance on improved ventilation. The International Association of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE), which also represents stagehands in film, television, trade shows, and concerts, has developed its own exhaustive 27-page list of guidelines for reopening. 

Of course, for nonunion theaters in Chicago who operate on slim margins, often in small rented spaces, the protocols are fuzzier and budgets and staff to implement them are smaller. Not in Our House developed the Chicago Theatre Standards to address issues of unsafe conditions, practices, and outright abuse in companies (most notably the now-defunct Profiles Theatre). But finding scalable workable solutions to ensure safety for artists and audiences in the face of a pandemic that’s far from over leaves a lot of open questions. 

For some producers, the increasing number of COVID cases in the state has made them reassess opening in the first place. On July 27, Into the Mist, which had run as a streaming speakeasy/variety show through Evanston’s Studio5 earlier in the year, announced that they were going to take the production live and in person in September. Later that same day, the CDC announced new masking guidelines in response to the spread of Delta. By August 3, the company pulled back from the plans for a live show. 

In the postponement announcement, the producers noted: “We spoke with several knowledgeable physicians (including two noted immunologists), and they were in unanimous agreement: They believe this surge is going to get worse before it gets better, and if we were to proceed with our production, which is designed as indoors, close and interactive between performers and audience members (even with the audience masked), we would be putting people—including our cast—at risk and could be unwittingly hosting a spreader event, regardless of anyone’s vaccination status.”

Artemisia Theatre decided to postpone its Fall Fest of three staged readings of new plays by women, scheduled October 18-20 at Raven Theatre. Artistic director Julie Proudfoot noted that going into Phase Five meant “it really looked like a live event was possible. But I was also still concerned.” However, the Fall Festival, with its shorter run and limited rehearsal schedule, seemed like a safer option initially than a full production. “I thought, ‘This is doable, and I can keep everyone safe,” said Proudfoot. But when things took “a pretty onerous turn” and Proudfoot noticed the number of breakthrough infections being reported by friends on social media, the company reevaluated and decided to hold off for now. 

“I love theater. I love a live audience. But I’m not going to risk it,” said Proudfoot. 

An informal social media survey of theater artists I conducted last week provided an insightful range of ideas on what would make them feel most comfortable in returning to live performance. 

Laura Fisher, one of the founders of Not in Our House, sent a comprehensive list of what she’d like to see producers provide on the audience side, including (in no particular order, she cautioned): proof of vaccine; masks; no drinks/food concessions sold; opening the house early enough so that the lobby isn’t overcrowded; curtain speeches that empower ushers (or other staff) to enforce the rules; notice on ticketing services and box office of the rules and the ticket buyers’ agreement; no talkbacks; no long shows.

For performer and crew safety, Fisher suggested: cleaning protocols for dressing rooms (she added that she’d be willing to pitch in on developing that); masks offstage, as is common in film and TV production; testing of cast and crew twice a week; limiting extra activities; understudies that are prepared so that actors can take time off if exposed (and not just symptomatic); protocols discussed and consented to before signing on; limits on who’s in rehearsal.

Dawn Xiana Moon, founder and producer/director of Raks Geek and Raks Inferno belly dancing and fire dancing troupes, expressed appreciation for the League’s guidelines, but noted, “Testing is extremely useful, especially at scale, but a 72-hour window leaves a long time for someone to be infectious without knowing it,” adding, “And no test is 100 percent accurate, so COVID tests are calibrated to err toward producing false negatives rather than false positives.”

Moon began producing shows again in June. “I decided to require proof of vaccination plus keep the venue at no more than 50 percent capacity (i.e., 60 people). As a cast we decided we all felt safe with this protocol, and I’ve been checking in with everyone before taking gigs at venues we have less control over. We also have a window open, air filters, etc. when people are in the space.” 

But she added, “As a performer, I don’t want to work with anyone that’s not vaccinated—what we do requires close contact and we usually can’t be masked the entire time, and especially with Delta, even going into the same room an infected person was previously in can be enough to cause an infection. COVID is airborne, and Delta is much more contagious than the original strain.”

That level of contagion has left some wondering why producing live at all right now is worth the risk. Emma Cox, managing director for Kor Productions as well as the founder of her own independent production company, said, “I’m really angry. Really, really angry.”

Cox noted, “I believe the current situation brings to focus a very important point within our community, one that has been slowly building to a climax pre-pandemic: producers in this city seem to be extremely comfortable with sacrificing their own industry members in the pursuit of profit, with little thought about those being directly exposed to harm or risk.” Cox further noted that “insurance premiums are skyrocketing for personnel and venue rentals alike,” which places an additional onus on smaller companies with tighter budgets. 

“Currently, the greatest financial risk any production company could take at this time is attempting to launch an in-person production, one that could close at a moment’s notice without any form of return,” said Cox.

Indeed, it’s not hard to see growing concerns over the safety of reopening with Delta on the rise as a large piece of a growing movement demanding safer and more equitable working conditions for theatermakers—a movement that has come into sharper focus during the pandemic shutdown.

From the We See You White American Theater BIPOC Demands focused on racial justice and equity, to On Our Team organizing for designer pay transparency and equity, to the apparent sidelining of Broadway producer Scott Rudin after years of stories of egregiously abusive behavior, theater artists seem to be saying, on the one hand, that they will not stand for business as usual. 

Yet there is also a palpable longing for, and joy in, the return to live theater, which has been apparent at the handful of productions I’ve attended so far. (Full disclosure: I surveyed all the Reader contributing theater and dance writers to assess their comfort with attending live performances; most responded that they would be OK with it, depending on a variety of factors such as vax requirements for patrons.)

As we gear up for many more shows opening in the months ahead, I can candidly say that I too am conflicted about what we’re doing here, and have Delta anxiety.  

So far, I am unaware of any theater production having served as a “spreader” event, at least in Chicago. But that certainly doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, or couldn’t happen. On the other hand, theaters that require proof of vax seem to be doing more than what a lot of bars and restaurants ask for (and of course people are taking masks off and on in those establishments). On the other, other hand—if theatermakers and audiences are OK with assuming the risk, along with accepting the protocol requirements, does that mean we’re free of responsibility for what could happen, even to people who weren’t at the theater? After all, people from out of state come here and see shows all the time. 

I honestly have no clear answers. I do know that another shutdown could well be disastrous for companies that managed to survive the last 18 months. And I suspect that increasing the vaccination rates earlier this year would have saved a lot of fear and uncertainty. 

Get the shot. Wear a mask. Assess your risks. Take care of each other.