We tell ourselves that we’re all in this together. The world is full of uncertainties and hardships; we come together for mutual support, both materially and spiritually, to try and mitigate that. To present a united front against the forces that threaten us. But deep down, our self-interests are always present, always gnawing away at our higher ideals, ready to betray them altogether under the right circumstances. For all our talk of unity, of remaining steadfast in the face of terrible danger, we’re liable to turn on each other at a moment’s notice.
And that’s what performers’ unions are like in normal times. Imagine what it’s like during a pandemic.
After nearly two years spent trapped in the digital limbo of zoom, the cold reading series for which I serve as co-creative director returned to in-person programming. We’re not alone in this regard; all throughout the city, months after the initial ballyhoo of “Broadway is BacK!” (and the subsequent waves of Broadway closures due to the omicron variant), smaller theater companies are resuming their programming, hoping against hope that their audience will brave the pandemic as well as the February cold.
Well, our audience has come back, Constant Reader. We had a nice, large crowd (all vaccinated and masked, natch), all eager to participate and to see each other once again. There was a heartening throng of brand new faces, young theater folks looking to get involved in the process, itching to get up on a stage and perform, dammit, even if only in a reading. There were plenty of beloved, familiar faces as well – faces we’ve only been able to see as pixilated images on our laptop for the past two years, now live and in person in an honest-to-gods theater once again.
We weren’t all live and in person, however. A substantial number of our more commercially established members were unable to attend. They’ve wished us well on social media, and are heartily glad that we’re back in person, but they’ve let us know that they can’t join us at this time. Part of that, of course, stems from health concerns – we may all be triple vaxxed and masked, and New York City case numbers may be going down, but there’s still a pandemic going on out there, guys, so we still need to be careful. But the concerns I’ve been hearing stem lesson from health fears stemming from the pandemic, and more from professional ones.
You see, film and television production has been going on steadily over the past few months, even through the worst of the omicron wave. And as a result, SAG-AFTRA productions have evolved stringent protocols about how frequently performers and crew members need to be tested on those shoots. And given the amount of money tied up in those film shoots, the producers have developed draconian guidelines in response. If an actor in a principal role tests positive, of course, the production will shut down for as long as current guidelines require it. But if a recurring or day player should test positive – a guest lawyer or judge on your favorite crime show, for instance, the sort of role which many of our community’s members rely upon for their bread and butter – that actor will simply be released from their booking.
In other words, those members of my reading series who have recurring gigs as bodega orders and beat cops and all the other supporting parts in these film and television projects, can’t run the risk of coming to our reading series and hanging out with our great throng of theater rats again. Even with case numbers coming down, as long as there’s the chance of contracting anything, they’re liable to lose needed work. Meanwhile, those members of our community whose primary work takes place in the theater desperately need those throngs to gather, otherwise their work is in jeopardy.
Which means that here in New York, depending on what medium you primarily work in and which of the performer’s unions cover it, half of us can’t afford for theater to come back the way it us, and half of us can’t afford for it not to.
This hasn’t really been remarked upon yet, since it’s only becoming apparent now as things start opening up. But at some point, it’s going to need to be addressed. The arts community is always a precariously held-together confederation, trying to find some common ground for all of our diverse artistic goals and production models. I’m worried that a massive fissure is about to open up in that common ground, and we need to be ready to fuse it back together again just as soon as the fates and coronavirus allow us.