The theater community is facing an unprecedented obstacle this year in the form of COVID-19, the virus that shuttered Broadway last March and has proven equally devastating for the touring industry. “Theater is this 100-mile-per-hour train,” says Jeff Loeb, general manager of Los Angeles’s Hollywood Pantages Theatre and Broadway in Hollywood. “And it’s as if a brick wall has been placed in front of it.”
When the touring industry brings a Broadway series to your city, it is usually to a venue that stages touring shows in the building that it owns and/or manages. Historically referred to as bus-and-truck shows, these productions find the various players involved — the cast, crew, musicians, and management — traveling from city to city by bus and plane, while semi-trucks carry everything else necessary to physically put on a show (sets, costumes, lights, props, and sound equipment).
“It’s hard to believe, but most touring shows will arrive in a city in the wee hours on a Monday to ‘load-in,’ and by Tuesday afternoon, the cast and crew are rehearsing and preparing to go on for an audience at 8 p.m. that evening,” says Loeb. “If you’ve ever attended a ‘load-in’ event at your theatre, you’ve witnessed firsthand this remarkable feat.”
For some perspective, the opposite of a presenter is a production organization. Examples of the latter include regional theatres, community theatres, and schools with theater programs. These organizations obtain the rights to produce a show or write their own material, cast local performers, design and build the sets and costumes, rehearse, and then perform the shows on their stages. They can be professional, with paid employees and participants, or amateur, functioning on a volunteer basis.
A show typically begins its Broadway life in one of the forty-one Broadway theatres in and near New York’s Times Square. If a production is well-received, producers are likely to begin plans for a national tour; they’ll start booking venues around the country, building a duplicate set, hiring staff, casting a second company of actors, and preparing to go on the road.
In addition to the obvious hurdles the novel coronavirus presents for all large gatherings, live performances face specific challenges — keeping artists, crews, theatre workers, and audience members safe in close quarters — and touring shows must accommodate tightly controlled schedules in a wide array of venues, in cities and states that may have different protocols. “Every touring production has a schedule that’s put together 12, 18, sometimes 24 months in advance, keeping in mind they have to go from city to city. It can be like 3-D chess,” says Loeb. In the early period of the shutdown, “shows scheduled to play in 2020 were getting re-calendared three to six times.”
Meredith Blair, who, as president of The Booking Group, books touring productions of Hamilton, Hadestown, Dear Evan Hansen, Mean Girls, and Come From Away, notes that each tour has been rerouted four times since COVID-19 hit, “and routing them to begin with is not easy. The calendar in any given city is not necessarily a blank slate. If I’m coming from Cleveland and want to go to Cincinnati, a logical move, they may already have the symphony or The Lion King scheduled. Now you’re up against every other tour that’s trying to rebook dates, and we’re all hedging our bets.”
Even under the best of circumstances, sending a Broadway production on tour poses a variety of practical and logistical challenges. “You’re asking 50 or 60 people — the actors, crew members, musicians, management — to be in one group that moves around the country, with all the flights and buses and hotel rooms and theatres involved,” explains Stephen Gabriel, president of Work Light Productions, coproducer of the musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations, and executive producer of the national tour. “Then you’re loading into different theatres quickly and constantly — and you can have hurricanes, trucks breaking down, other complicating factors.”
Adds Sue Frost, founding partner of Junkyard Dog Productions, lead producer of Come From Away on Broadway and on the road: “You’ve got to make sure you’re booking in such a way that you’ve got strong contiguous markets, and a company that enjoys touring together.”
Despite dark stages, the industry is working hard every day to come back. Varying and shifting approaches to combating COVID-19 across the country have been a particularly daunting factor. “We’ve had markets we’ve known we couldn’t go to because their local and state governments didn’t meet all the guidelines to open,” says Roeya Banuazizi, company manager for Hamilton’s “And Peggy” tour (the musical’s third national company). Others agree that, as Gabriel puts it, “the lack of a federal mandate, a national plan, is really hurting. You can start in state A, where the rules require people to wear masks, but if that’s not the case in state B, your tour breaks down.”
Prior to recent surges in the South, West, and Midwest, in fact, “we thought touring might be able to come back before Broadway did,” Gabriel says. “We thought that people would be more willing to leave their homes to go to a local theatre than to get on a plane to New York. But now it’s kind of a toss-up.”
These insiders nonetheless stress perseverance, pointing to productions being staged outdoors under tents — Godspell at Berkshire Theater Group and Harry Clarke at Barrington Stage Company and outside the U.S. — and a world tour of The Phantom of the Opera that has been playing to huge crowds in Seoul, South Korea, following strict hygienic codes. Gabriel, Frost, and many others have been taking part in regular Zoom meetings in which colleagues assess potential and partial solutions, among them the kind of rapid testing currently employed by the National Basketball Association.
“We’ve been closely watching what the NBA is doing, which is working with a company that’s developed a rapid testing system where you get results in 15 minutes, in conjunction with nasal swabs,” says Gabriel. There are other rapid tests that could eventually provide for weekly or periodic testing backstage and even among audience members.
“A vaccine would be ideal, but if you could have every audience member tested and wearing masks while we double down on protection, that could be part of the way back,” says Gabriel, adding, “Our whole community, including producers and general managers and theatre owners, has a number of task forces that meet every week, trying to come up with strategies.” Loeb confirms this: “All of us across the industry are talking with epidemiologists and industrial hygienists about developing protocols, and adjusting them as we go along.”
Banuazizi notes, “None of us operates in a vacuum. Every union has its own reference points, and there are different kinds of human interaction. There are ticket takers, ushers, janitors, housekeeping, the backstage unions. Musicians in the pit can get spit on by performers on stage, and the hair and makeup people and dressers are in close proximity to performers. Everyone has their concerns, and they’re all valid.”
Loeb has been encouraged by the level of understanding among patrons at Broadway in Hollywood. “As we transition shows to being postponed or rescheduled, 85 percent of our season ticket holders are opting to keep their money on account for future use and say that they’re looking forward to coming back as soon it’s safe,” he says. “That is such a vote of confidence, and we are just so grateful for our patrons.”
Says Frost, “We all want to come back so much, but it’s important that we come back safely, for audiences as well as companies. We want to know there’s a chance to succeed. So the waiting period will be longer than anyone wants it to be — but it will be worth it.”
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