I wrote last week about people anxious to restart New York theater, as part of the general push to resuscitate the economy a year into the global pandemic. As of March 25, the ranks of those people officially includes the government of New York City. On that day, Mayor de Blasio held a press conference to announce a number of initiatives intended to benefit the theater community. Plans are underway for a vaccination site in the vicinity of Times Square specifically for Broadway actors, with other pop-up sites for vaccinations and COVID testing near off-Broadway venues as well. It’s exactly the sort of initiative that we’ve been praying for since the start of the pandemic, and the city’s arts professionals are responding to the happy news in a predictable fashion.
With apprehension, distrust, and frequently rage.
It’s not because these were announced by Bill de Blasio, and it seems that New Yorkers are required by law to be angry at every single thing the man does. And it’s not simply because, as I wrote last week, there’s legitimate concerns as to whether we’re opening things prematurely, and what the consequences will be for doing so. No, the angst and unrest I’m feeling (remotely) from so many of my peers, the second guessing of this latest plan, the uncertainty and unease all stem from the same question that plague all of us regardless of whether or not there’s a pandemic raging:
Just who matters in this industry, anyway?
Remember, the initiatives described, and the rationales publicly given for their implementation, all focus around Broadway theater. The goal is to get Broadway productions back up and running, to restore that pillar of the city’s tourist economy. Which is understandable, of course – but it’s only a tiny fraction of the city’s theater professionals. And while the vaccination centers are being set up to serve the theater community, there aren’t plans to make “Broadway actor” a category for who is eligible to receive the virus; you still have to qualify through some other way. (Fortunately, I qualify through the nature of my day job, so my second dose of the Pfizer vaccine is scheduled for Saturday.) Now, here in New York, actors at certain of the Off-Broadway houses do qualify as “public-facing employees” of a non-profit – but you’d need to document that somehow. How many people were on that sort of a contract when everything shut down last March, or happen to have one of their pay stubs still at the ready?
For an alternate model of how to proceed, consider that Actors Equity would provide free flu shots to members at the start of flu season; there’d be a series of dates throughout the fall when you stop by the union offices and receive a free inoculation as long as you could provide proof of membership in either AEA or one of the sister unions. But there again, there are many thousands of entertainment professionals in the city who do not (yet) belong to one of these unions. Are they less deserving of protection?
Furthermore, after the city’s plans were announced (and remember, these plans are still contingent on cooperation from the state to actually happen), Actors Equity sent its members a statement. They were quick to take credit for these initiatives, which they say they’ve been lobbying for since March 3, and proclaimed that this was a critical step towards restoring the national theater industry. While this raises the question of what the union had been doing prior to March 3, what most industry folks I know outside of the city pointed out to their chagrin was that this “national” effort by definition did not involve them. People can feel by their union even in the best of times, by virtue of not living in the center of Broadway production, and that get ratcheted up when it’s a literal matter of life and death.
It’s a matter of months; eventually, regardless of the order in which we receive our vaccinations, every American who wants one will get one. (And then we’ll have to figure out how to handle the folks who don’t want one, but again, another post for another day.) But as I tried to say last week, we can’t be eager to “get back to normal” when for so many of us, normal wasn’t working. We need to do better, for the sake of so many of us.