The Tony Award-winning actor Gavin Creel and some of his cast-mates, currently appearing in Waitress in London’s West End, have reached an “informal consensus” when it comes to protecting themselves from the 2019 novel coronavirus.
“We won’t shake hands or hug people at the stage door anymore,” Creel told The Daily Beast. “I would say that people are not panicking yet, but we do want to know what to do to stay safe and make sure audiences are safe too.”
A Broadway producer who is involved in multiple shows on the Great White Way this season and who requested anonymity told The Daily Beast: “I don’t sense panic. But it scares the shit out of me so much. You can’t even wrap your mindset around it. I would say we’re bracing for it in some kind of fashion. We’re waiting for the inevitable to happen.
“We have seen coronavirus affecting luxury items, like hotels and cruise ships. Of course Broadway will be affected, but as with any tragedy or adversity, Broadway will always bounce back. I remember those shows that closed after 9/11, but Broadway didn’t die. It’s a landmark, part of New York City’s landscape.”
On Monday, as cases of coronavirus began emerging in New York, the Broadway League—the national trade association for the Broadway industry, created in 1930—issued a measured statement. “The Broadway League is closely monitoring this evolving situation on behalf of the Broadway community,” the statement read.
“The safety and security of our theatregoers and employees is our highest priority. We are following the lead of our city, state and federally elected officials, as well as implementing strategies recommended by public health authorities in all of our theatres and offices. We remain vigilant, and we are prepared to make decisions based on current needs, as well as in response to changing conditions.”
Those working on Broadway await more concrete coronavirus-related direction and advice from the League and the theaters they are working within. (At the time of writing, there were 11 confirmed cases of coronavirus in New York state.)
The Daily Beast has learned that the League is currently meeting with representatives of Broadway theaters and theater organizations with a view to producing more specific advice and guidance for performers, backstage staff, and Broadway audiences as the presence of coronavirus becomes more pronounced in New York City.
A source with knowledge of the situation said they hoped the Broadway League would publish this advice by the end of the week, “so we can speak with one voice.” The Broadway League did not return requests for comment.
“Of course, I’m worried as a producer about tickets not being sold and people canceling their trips to New York City,” the Broadway producer told The Daily Beast. “But my main concern is for anyone involved in the industry being affected directly, and if people are affected, how does Broadway sustain itself? Theaters are petri dishes for three hours.”
The producer paused and laughed. “And if it’s not a great show, you’re really stuck. Sorry, I’m making light of it. The capacity seems so unprecedented. I would hope to receive an email from the Broadway League any day now.”
Some theater-makers, meanwhile, are thinking ahead to the possibility that coronavirus could make Broadway a no-go zone.
The playwright, screenwriter, and author Lauren Gunderson, who began a recent Twitter discussion about coronavirus and theater, told The Daily Beast: “If shows or productions are canceled, I wonder if there are ways we can be flexible and creative to continue storytelling if even if we can’t do it in person? I think of Audible’s really exceptional new play program that beautifully records theater for a listening experience.
“Could we do this for audience members who get sick or are self-quarantining so they can still enjoy theater? Could companies do this with play readings distributed via podcast? Filmed plays or play readings? Could our unions get behind these temporary measures so that relationships with audiences can continue and stories can continue to be told?”
“If the city is hurting, then the theater is hurting. Artists are often canaries in the coal mine.”
The Broadway League declined to answer Daily Beast questions around whether theaters or producers had been in touch directly to ask for guidance, or with concerns. The League also declined to offer any message to theater-goers nervous about coming to Broadway, and to performers performing on Broadway. It would not say if there were specific safety protocols that it was overseeing, or recommending theaters use around coronavirus to help protect Broadway performers, workers, and visitors.
The Broadway League would also not say if it was working on specific coronavirus guidance or best practice advice for theaters, and would not say when any such advice would be distributed to theaters, producers, and the general public.
The League recommended The Daily Beast reach out to individual theaters. But the three major theater groups in New York City—the Shubert Organization, the Nederlander Organization, and Jujamcyn Theaters—did not offer comment. The Daily Beast understands they are awaiting further guidance themselves from the Broadway League.
The most recently released show grosses and attendance numbers, released by the League, show a slight drop-off when compared to the same time last year. This is a traditionally quiet time of year, beached between the audience-heavy periods of Christmas and the imminent deluge of starry spring openings heralding Tony Awards season.
In 2019, in the week ending March 3, the total gross on Broadway was $27,159,271, with an audience number of 245,565. For the week ending March 1, 2020, the total gross was $26,109,896, with an audience number of 244,515.
What might be informing the all-around industry reticence is the big business of Broadway, and how any generalized panic around coronavirus might imperil that business. For now, the message from all quarters is that it is business as usual.
One influential theater-land veteran said that all Broadway theaters were thoroughly cleaned and disinfected between performances and that these cleanings would become more stringently carried out.
The source said they would like more direct and specific guidance from the Broadway League and that while audiences were still coming to see plays and there was no sense of panic, “that would change if one incident should happen”—as in an incidence of coronavirus directly linked to a Broadway theater. The source had heard of ticket cancelations by some Chinese tour groups.
There was not only nervousness—the source said—about theaters becoming “petri dishes,” as the producer put it, but also around how performers and the public should interact at the stage door at the ends of shows. All theaters planned to have “more Purell” on the premises for the public, the source said.
Brandon Lorenz, spokesman of Actors’ Equity, which represents 51,000 actors and stage managers nationwide, told The Daily Beast that members had contacted the organization with concerns.
Lorenz said Actors’ Equity had given out general advice—around flu shots, and proper practices around hand-washing—and pointed them toward resource guides from the CDC and local health departments. “People want to know if there is a plan for it should the situation become more exacerbated,” Lorenz said.
“Nothing is more important than ensuring everyone is safe at work, and the best way to remain safe in the workplace is to focus on the facts and not fear,” Lorenz added in a statement. “We have shared guidance with staff, posted resources for members and are having the appropriate internal conversations about maintaining business continuity if an outbreak becomes more severe.
“We have also initiated conversations with major Equity employers and other labor leaders around maintaining a safe and healthy workplace. We will continue to monitor the situation, seek guidance and best practices from the appropriate health authorities and share additional information as warranted.”
Gunderson told The Daily Beast that she was “not concerned at present.” She saw two Broadway shows last weekend. “But the global situation is very concerning and, to quote a lot of sources, seems like a when not an if. I have heard a lot of measures being taken to prevent people’s exposure but it’s all from friends who work in corporate America—working from home, canceling conferences and meetings over 25 people, encouraging teleconferences and virtual meetings.
“What I’d love to see from theaters around the country and Broadway is to make it easy for people to stay home if they, or someone in their house, are sick. This means easy ticket cancelation and rebooking. We want to make sure sick people feel like they aren't being punished for being sick but encouraged to return when they are better or vaccinated.
“We want to keep our relationships with audiences strong and respectful while being realistic and safe. We need hand sanitizer and virus-killing disinfectants everywhere. How can we limit human interaction through the theater-going experience? For smaller regional houses, do we need ushers to hand out programs and guide folks to the seats?”
Gunderson is married to a virologist who specializes in pandemics. She said he was “very concerned that this is going to disrupt a lot of lives in a lot of ways. I of course think of the theater community because we specialize in bringing people together. It’s our ancient power and what makes us so essential and foundational as an art form.”
The director Kate Hamill, presently helming the critically acclaimed Dracula at the off-Broadway Classic Stage Company, told The Daily Beast: “It's very early days and we do not know what is going to happen, but people are concerned. My mom is 75 and lives in assisted living, and my fundamental concern is for her and people like her who are most vulnerable.”
Hamill said she was concerned for artists “because what’s going to happen if coronavirus does have a big economic impact in New York? If the city is hurting, then the theater is hurting. Artists are often canaries in the coal mine. A lot of theater artists make a living through freelance work, and it’s not work that you can do via telework. There is concern, because a lot of people supplement their theater work through other freelance gigs in food service or in-person customer relations. Coronavirus could impact a lot of people. People working in theater are certainly aware that we’re very vulnerable to the economic impact of this.”
The impact of closing schools or changing school schedules would impact all parents, including those working in the arts, Hamill said—in terms of not being able to put their children in school, and also for those who supplement theater work through teaching, “if classes start getting canceled.”
Gavin Creel, backstage between scenes during that night’s performance of Waitress, told The Daily Beast that he hoped “we get the right advice at the right times. After mass shootings and terrorist attacks, the Broadway League and theaters have looked after us with such grace and care. At the right moment I expect them to assess the threats and do the same again. I’m pretty confident they’ll be on top of it.”
Creel paused and took a deep, theatrical breath. “Now, sorry, I’ve gotta go and sing a song.”
The show must go on—for now at least.