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New Actors' Equity COVID-19 rules challenge Cleveland-area theaters

photo of Mell-Vonti Bowens performing in "The Exonerated,"
Steve Wagner
Mell-Vonti Bowens performs in "The Exonerated," a docudrama about six wrongly-convicted individuals, now playing at the Beck Center for the Arts.

New COVID-19 guidelines from the national labor union Actors' Equity Association have some Cleveland theaters scrambling as they return to the stage.

Cleveland Public Theatre even ended up postponing its fall show.

“We just felt overwhelmed very honestly,” said Raymond Bobgan, the theater’s executive artistic director.

At the end of September, Bobgan and other theaters working with Equity members received notice of updated COVID-19 safety rules requiring testing all staff and actors three times a week. Theaters had a two-week window to implement changes.

As a smaller theater that casts actors with day jobs, the additional time and resources for Cleveland Public Theatre to comply on short notice gave Bobgan pause. He also said he had to quickly consider things like, how would this affect theater staff, how would they obtain and pay for tests and should they use up a large quantity of tests in the community?

“When it comes to these kinds of large-scale decisions, we have to hit pause and ask, 'Are there unintentional consequences?'” Bobgan said.

Steve Wagner
Cleveland Public Theatre
Jess Moore, Tina D. Stump, Enrique Miguel and Jimmie Woody as seen in a 2020 production of "Breakout Session (or Frogorse)."

He ultimately decided to postpone Cleveland Public Theatre’s fall show, “Breakout Session (or Frogorse),” which is inspired by Cleveland’s Consent Decree with the Department of Justice calling for changes to policing. The plan is to now present the work in March of next year.

“This is really hurting us. It’s hurting the project,” Bobgan said. “The play is going to be awesome this spring, but, yeah, this is not an easy decision."

Two other area theaters, Dobama and Beck Center for the Arts, are forging ahead with the new guidelines.

“It’s a lot of extra footwork for everyone to do,” said Scott Spence, artistic director at the Beck Center in Lakewood.

Spence is also the theater’s COVID-19 compliance officer, a role that is another union requirement.  

“Every theater has, you know, one or two people who are overseeing that,” he said. “But, you know, again, it's a budgetary concern. So, I'm kind of doing double duty.”

Actors may also end up doing double duty, filling in if someone tests positive, Spence said.

Last week, the Beck Center opened “The Exonerated,” a docudrama about six wrongly-convicted individuals.

“It's very scary for smaller theaters that don't have the resources of larger theaters,” he said. “But even larger theaters… it's really scary, you know, ‘Aladdin’ in New York shut down.”

The Broadway production of “Aladdin” had to cancel several shows this month after breakthrough COVID-19 cases in its company.  

At Dobama Theatre in Cleveland Heights, they anticipated some union rule changes would be coming and were preparing to do weekly testing, according to Dobama Artistic Director Nathan Motta. Still, the requirement of three tests a week came as a surprise, he said.  

“That definitely has provided, you know, challenges,” Motta said. “But at this point, those are the rules, and we have to follow them.”

Dobama intentionally delayed opening its season until the end of October thinking that would allow more time to implement changes and for the pandemic to improve. The plan to launch “Airness,” a play about air guitar, is still in place.  

“The health and safety of the community comes first,” he said. “But at some point COVID is going to be with us for a while, and at some point, you know, we have to pursue our mission and invest those dollars that, that people have donated, and grant organizations and the government have invested, for us to reopen sooner.”

All of these theaters have fully vaccinated staff and actors. But not all theaters abide by the same union guidelines.

For instance, the new guidelines don’t apply to Great Lakes Theater, but they are doing twice-a-week testing anyway, said Great Lakes' Producing Artistic Director Charles Fee.

“We call it the 'Antigen Thursday,' and we do 'PCR Sunday,'” he said.

Two Bird Studio
L-R: Joe Wegner* as "Ariel," Jessika D. Williams as "Alonso," Jessie Cope Miller* as "Gonzalo," Dominique Champion* as "Ferdinand," David Anthony Smith* as "Antonio" and Julian Remulla* as "Sebastian" performing "The Tempest" in Boise, Idaho. *Members of Actors’ Equity Association.

The company has been testing all summer while out west performing in Idaho and Nevada without incident, Fee said.

“We’re doing this because this is how we keep our company safe and how we keep each other safe. And that's critical,” he said. “Nobody wants to sit in a theater wearing a mask, but it's the only safe way to sit in a theater.”

Masks and proof of vaccination are required for theater goers in Playhouse Square, where Great Lakes Theater opens its season this week featuring Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.”

Many theaters and venues around the region have implemented similar policies. Specific COVID-19 protocols for audiences are typically detailed on theaters' websites.
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Carrie Wise is the deputy editor of arts and culture at Ideastream Public Media.