Getting back to the theater, as safely as possible

As a theater critic, I’m prioritizing coverage of events that require Covid vaccination for all

5 minute read
A man holding a spray bottle walks down an ornately carpeted stairway, wiping the banister as he goes. He wears a face mask.
A Kimmel Center employee cleans a banister in the Merriam Theater lobby. (Image courtesy of the Kimmel Center.)

The deluge began about a month ago. After a period of relative quiet, my inbox awoke with season announcements, forward-looking statements, and invitations to live, in-person performances. Fall 2021 would be the triumphant return of an industry shuttered and sidelined for the better part of two years, and the mood felt more hopeful than at any time since the word “Coronavirus” entered the common lexicon.

Hope still leads the conversation today, though it’s now tempered with a healthy amount of trepidation. The recent surge of the Delta variant, which is more contagious and transmissible even among the vaccinated, has called into question whether it’s wise to resume performances in small, sometimes poorly ventilated spaces. Emerging evidence that Covid-19 vaccine effectiveness begins to wane after several months, with the news that most US recipients will be offered booster shots later this year, also raises ongoing worries.

Risk calculus

We all perform our own personal risk calculations when deciding which activities pursue. As an arts critic with no underlying risk factors for severe illness—as well as someone who loves the feeling of sharing an experience with other people—I cannot imagine, or professionally justify, fully avoiding in-person performances this fall. I also know that even if the vaccine’s protection diminishes somewhat over time, having received it still minimizes my risk of catching Covid, or of needing hospitalization if I do.

At the same time, I must consider the people in my life who are unable to take the vaccine due to age or medical status, as well as people with immune deficiencies, whom the vaccine cannot fully protect. While I have no time or sympathy for the willful refuseniks, the wait-and-seers and armchair immunologists, I am constantly evaluating how my actions could negatively impact those left unguarded through no fault of their own. My desire for normalcy—whatever that means now—cannot supplant others’ right to safety.

With that in mind, I decided that as things ramp up in the fall, I would prioritize covering events that mandate vaccination for audiences, performers, and staff. Although a perfect, no-risk solution doesn’t exist, this seems like the best option to keep as many people safe and protected as possible. When I tweeted about my feelings on this subject last week—and implored my fellow journalists to ask theater companies and publicists about their vaccine policies and Covid safety measures—the post garnered more than 100 likes.

A man sprays a cleaning mist onto the rows of red seats at the Academy of Music. He wears a face mask.
A Kimmel Center employee sprays disinfectant in the house at the Academy of Music. (Image courtesy of the Kimmel Center.)

Vaccines on Broadway

Vaccine mandates have become a hot-button issue in the theater community. The Broadway League, which oversees the 41 theaters in New York that are designated as Broadway houses, has required vaccinations for all artists, theater employees, and audience members through at least the end of October. The Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall have both temporarily barred children under the age of 12, who are not yet eligible for vaccination, from performances. In nearly all cases, masks are still required regardless of vaccination status.

These moves have not been without controversy. A small group of anti-vaccine activists picketed the opening performance of Bruce Springsteen’s Broadway engagement on June 27, claiming the decision to require vaccination violates their civil rights. (It doesn’t.) Page Six reported recently that Laura Osnes, a Tony-nominated Broadway veteran, was fired from a benefit performance in East Hampton, New York, for refusing to provide proof of vaccination.

In a statement posted to her public Instagram page, Osnes asserted that she left the concert voluntarily but confirmed she hasn’t taken the jab.

It’s the right of Osnes and the people protesting the Springsteen concert to remain unvaccinated, leaving themselves at an increased risk of severe illness or death from Covid, as well as a heightened risk of spreading the virus to others (which also boosts the odds of new Covid strains that could ultimately evade vaccine protection). But they don’t have the right to flout the rules in environments with clear, fact-based policies to maximize the safety of all involved.

Vaccines at home

In Philadelphia, several companies with rapidly approaching opening nights have made their Covid-safety policies public. The Philadelphia Fringe Festival, which runs from September 9 through October 3, will require proof of vaccination for all curated events. The mandate does not apply to independently produced performances given under the Fringe umbrella, but many have already signaled their plans to follow suit.

A nighttime shot of FringeArts’s brick exterior, with giant arched windows. A crowd of people socialize in front of the door.
Patrons entering FringeArts for festival shows will be required to show proof of vaccination. (Photo by Johanna Austin.)

“We believe that it’s safest for our community to be vaccinated,” Nick Stuccio, president and producing director of FringeArts, which oversees the festival, told me in an email. “Our decision helps protect our artists, staff, audience members, and the greater Philadelphia community.”

EgoPo Classic Theater will also mandate vaccination for its 2021-2022 season, and Inis Nua Theatre Company has reserved one week of performances for each of its three shows specifically for vaccinated patrons. During all other performances, vaccination status will not be checked. Tom Reing, Inis Nua’s founder and artistic director, did not respond to a request for comment about his company’s hybrid vaccine policy.

A few hours after news broke of the FDA approval of the Pfizer vaccine, the Kimmel Center campus announced that all of its onsite employees and patrons (including ticket holders at the Academy of Music, the Merriam, and the Forrest) will be required to show proof of vaccination. The Walnut Street Theatre will also require guests to be vaccinated (at least through October 31, 2021, as per its August announcement).

Other companies with productions opening in the fall—including the Wilma and Bristol Riverside Theatre—have not yet announced vaccine policies. That won’t keep my fellow journalists and me from inquiring, and at BSR, all that information will be made readily available alongside other relevant details about accessibility and ticketing. I’m glad BSR readers will be able to make informed decisions and avoid situations that may strain their own comfort level.

I long to be back in the theater, and I believe the industry’s return can happen safely, even amidst the Delta surge. Vaccines are the key.

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