Playing It Safe: Broadway Reopens With Rigorous COVID Protocols

In a Manhattan studio late last month, rehearsal was in progress. Two actors ran through a playful chase sequence. A fight choreographer, seated at the head of the room with the director, the stage management team and the understudies, suggested the best way to perform a quick leap-and-catch maneuver and then roll to the ground without injury. At one point, the choreographer’s two assistants stepped in to demonstrate.

In many ways the session played out exactly as it would have in pre-pandemic times. But in others, the rehearsal for Antoinette Nwandu’s “Pass Over” highlighted the additional steps and layers of protection now being enacted as multiple Broadway shows gear up to reopen after an unprecedented shutdown of nearly 18 months.

Before that day’s rehearsal, the cast and crew had spit into test tubes for one of three rounds of COVID-19 testing that week. A COVID safety manager wiped down all the props and set pieces prior to use. And a masked journalist was required to show proof of vaccination and a recent negative PCR test before he was allowed to observe.

The second Broadway production to start up after “Springsteen on Broadway” launched in June, “Pass Over” begins performances Aug. 4. Tony winner “Hadestown” and a limited return of “Waitress,” starring Sara Bareilles, follow on Sept. 2, and then, with the simultaneous reopening of titles including “Hamilton,” “Wicked” and “The Lion King” on Sept. 14, the floodgates open with a total of 15 productions starting up that month and another dozen resuming in October.

It’s a resumption of business — and, for many arts workers, employment — that’s been eagerly awaited and long in coming. But it’s also a balancing act of safety and economics, with high stakes seemingly underscored by the COVID-related cancellations of performances on the West End (“Cinderella”), in Sydney (where a return to lockdown has halted multiple productions) and even at Shakespeare in the Park (“Merry Wives”).

But Broadway producers point out extenuating variables abroad, from the UK’s 10-day isolation protocol to Australia’s low vaccination rate, that don’t apply in New York. Even the pause at Shakespeare in the Park isn’t an apples-to-apples comparison, given that each production institutes its own protections and protocols that meet (or exceed) the mandates of the city, the state and the industry’s unions, while also taking into account CDC guidance.

Last week, as the rise of the delta variant spurred new indoor masking recommendations from the CDC, the Broadway League and Actors’ Equity announced policies that made vaccination mandatory for all workers and audience members. Theatergoers in the 41 Broadway venues are also required to wear masks indoors, except when eating or drinking in designated areas.

These policies are currently in place through Oct. 31, and next month will be reevaluated for productions that open in November and beyond.

London producers have been vocal about the financial devastation of production stoppages. In New York, producers are betting that, in addition to the vaccine protocols, Broadway’s slow road to recovery has allowed for the research and preparation that would lay the foundation for a smooth reopening.

“It’s been a real lesson in long-game,” said Jordan Roth, the president of Broadway theater owner Jujamcyn Theaters.

Roth noted that during the shutdown, improvements were made to all Jujamcyn venues (which house “Springsteen,” “Pass Over” and “Hadestown”) including new and upgraded filtration systems and adjusted rates of fresh air exchanges per hour, as well as touchless interfaces at the box office, in the theater and in the bathrooms.

Stateside producers have also learned from insights gained abroad, particularly from Korea, where theater performances have continued largely unabated throughout the pandemic. “Korea has demonstrated a way to continue producing by following some very rigorous safety protocols,” says producer Mara Isaacs of “Hadestown,” which opens in Seoul this month. “It’s shown us there are documented practices that have now been analyzed, and there is scientific data about how transmission does and doesn’t happen and what you can do to prevent it.”

At “Pass Over,” the producing team, led by Matt Ross, hired Blythe Adamson, a former member of the White House COVID task force, as a dedicated consultant for the show’s safety protocols. “We were aware of the responsibility of being the first play back, and what it means to the industry and to the field to get it right,” Ross said.

Limiting the performance disruptions that have seemed to plague theaters overseas is not only a matter of safety but of economics: At “Pass Over,” with a capitalization cost of $2.6 million and only a limited Broadway run to recoup or turn a profit, a cancelled performance would make for a significant fiscal blow.

During a rehearsal for “Pass Over,” epidemiology experts led the company in a homemade board game that simulated 10 performances impacted by daily variable that were drawn out of a bag. The simulation included positive test results, Ross recalled, and understudies went on. “But even after we ran through all those simulations, we never had to cancel a performance,” he said.

Meanwhile, all the new protocols add layers of backstage timing and logistics for the company to juggle. It’s a lot, admitted stage manager Cody Renard Richard, but it’s doable.

“All of this has made us feel safe and able to do our work without thinking about what’s happening outside the rehearsal room,” he said. “I hope this is not forever, but like with all new things, it becomes practice. In two months, it’s going to be second nature.”

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