The choreographer Lorin Latarro, most recently overseeing the dance and movement in Mrs. Doubtfire on Broadway, has had a brainwave.
“I have gone through Mrs. Doubtfire beginning to end, and I have re-choreographed it with social distancing in mind,” Latarro told The Daily Beast of her creative breakthrough, sparked in lockdown. “I have taken out any ‘clumps’ of performers. I have taken out any partnering—which I love to do—which makes me very sad, and anything involving people being very close to each other.
“It is possible. If that is what is required to let the audience see the story of Mrs. Doubtfire, so be it. We can do it. The story wouldn’t be diminished. There are a million ways to skin a cat. We will find other ways to make sure people get the same joy and experience that choreography and storytelling offer.”
Latarro, who is also choreographing Pulitzer winner Tom Kitt’s musical The Visitor at the Public Theater and the touring productions of Waitress, said, “If social distancing ends up being something that makes actors safe, I would have no problem with it. There are so many exciting ways to move in the space. There is no one way.”
That Latarro has re-choreographed an entire Broadway musical is impressive: At the beginning of the pandemic her neurosurgeon husband, Dr. Brian Kopell, had to retrain as a critical care surgeon for COVID-19 patients. In what felt like “a minute” Latarro and their 2-year-old daughter, Arden, had to move out of their New York home to her sister’s. “It was a complete turnaround in 48 hours. It was pretty intense, although now it’s easy to laugh about,” she said.
Kopell ended up performing two and a half weeks’ worth of COVID-related surgery. It was a few weeks before the family could be reunited. “Now he’s back to doing normal surgery and we’re over that hump of anxiety, and all reunited at home,” said Latarro. “It was scary, but in hindsight I feel very lucky. Now I can get back to worrying about Broadway.”
She is not alone. Many other creative brainwaves will be necessary as theater—on Broadway, off-Broadway, off-off Broadway, and all over America—returns to life. On Monday, Charlotte St. Martin, president of the Broadway League, exclusively revealed to The Daily Beast that she hoped for a January 2021 return for Broadway (currently officially closed through Sept. 6), talking about the impossibility of social distancing in theaters for a number of reasons—not least of which is Broadway’s current financial model. She also spoke about whether that model could ever change.
St. Martin, performers, producers, stage crew, unions, and audiences all know it will be a complicated way back for all theater, negotiating issues around social distancing and public health in confined spaces on stage, backstage, and in densely packed auditoriums where COVID-19, unchecked, can rapidly spread. Will performers, stage-crew and audience need the reassurance of a vaccine before returning to theaters, or is there another way, or multiple ways, to bring the art form back to life?
As part of our ongoing coverage about the crisis theater faces, and the possible ways out of it, The Daily Beast spoke to a range of theater professionals, enduring unemployment and hoping one day to create once more: a producer, choreographer, stage manager, lighting designer, and union chief.
Kate Shindle, president of Actors’ Equity Association (“Equity”), told The Daily Beast that the pandemic had presented “the most daunting challenge in the history of the union—the wholesale shutdown of every theater in America. But theater has been around for a long time. I don’t doubt there will be theater in the future. I hope it is sooner rather than later. All of us want to get back to work.”
Shindle said it was hard to characterize how the union’s 51,000 professional actors and stage managers were feeling. Like the rest of us, their feelings fluctuate. “The overarching vibe is that everybody would love to be able to get back to work,” said Shindle. This isn’t just down to earning money, but also because “a big part of their identity is wound up in creating things.”
“We have a lot of people who are questioning what the future will be,” Shindle said. “Our members are basically at a 100 percent unemployment rate. We have members considering changing careers because they don’t know when theater will be back. Some friends of mine have gone home to take care of a parent or another family member.
“A good friend has a sister who is a health-care worker in Ohio, and he has moved from New York City to Ohio to take care of her toddler—or she would have to have left her job because her childcare situation was untenable.”
The union, said Shindle, was lobbying for a “100 percent COBRA subsidy” for members’ health care.
The bulk of members’ concern is around safety, said Shindle, which is why the union has engaged the expertise of David Michaels, assistant secretary of labor for the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) during the Obama administration, to advise on post-COVID working conditions.
“So much conversation about theaters focuses on making them safe for audiences. But the stage and backstage safety is every bit as concerning,” said Shindle. “There is no such thing as social distancing for actors and stage managers. It’s really rare. We’re taking a really hard look at how that can be made safer.”
To that end, in an online press conference Tuesday, Michaels presented a series of four principles that Equity is setting out for its members to safely return to the stage: “The epidemic must be under control, with effective testing, few new cases in the area, and contact tracing. Individuals who may be infectious can be readily identified and isolated, with frequent, regular, and accurate testing with speedy results.
“The way we audition, rehearse, perform, and stage manage may need to change, and the venues we work in may need to undergo changes in order to reduce the risk. Efforts to control COVID-19 exposure must be collaborative, involving Equity members, employers, the union, and all others involved in the production of theater. There must be collective buy-in and ongoing evaluation and improvement of health and safety practices.”
However, the devil will be—as it tends to be—in the details, and in the specifics, neither of which have been established yet. Those are fine principles to work to, but how do people work to them, and how are they enforced, in the practical moment?
The industry, Shindle told The Daily Beast, is “full of creative problem solvers,” who can make theaters safe, along with whatever scientific advances occur, like the reassurance offered by a future vaccine.
Creatively, Shindle said, some members are anticipating making COVID-influenced art, wearing gloves and masks, while others look forward to “throwing themselves” back into the work they’re used to in the way they used to do it. Shindle is hopeful that can happen, once the right safety protocols are in place.
Shindle does not want her members being sent into theaters “as guinea pigs.” It is, she said, a “wait-and-see” approach: If a relatively low infection rate is seen once a tentative return to theaters begins, then more shows and more audiences seeing shows will grow from that.
Broadway producer Eva Price—a lead producer on Oklahoma!, and whose other shows include Jagged Little Pill—told The Daily Beast: “Producers are by nature optimists. In the best of times, we live in hope. If I didn’t have a degree of optimism in shows, in the audience of shows, and the necessity of shows, I would have never become a producer to begin with.
“I believe that all good things will fall into place; that theater will be back, audiences will be back, and shows will be able to be remounted and restarted. That’s what I am currently working towards and believing in.”
Mike Baldassari, a Tony- and Emmy-nominated lighting designer who works on Broadway, in television, film, and concerts, thinks that Broadway’s closure will last a full year, reopening in the spring of 2021. “I hope I’m wrong about that, but 2020 feels ‘done,’” he told The Daily Beast.
“Our business is in no position to socially distance backstage, or in the orchestra pit,” said Baldassari, who lives in New Jersey with his wife, Arlene, and daughter, Sophia. “You’re asking a lot of people. Sixty-something percent of our audience are tourists, and you’re now asking a lot of tourists, not just in the theater but also in terms of taking planes, staying in hotels, going to restaurants. Will older people still want to go to the theater? Will people even have enough money to go to the theater? I’m not saying theater is dead, but I definitely think it’s on hiatus.”
The Tony-nominated designer Edward Pierce, whose story of surviving COVID-19 and making medical history was revealed by The Daily Beast last week, said Broadway has never experienced anything as devastating as the impact of the pandemic.
“A lot of people are working hard to figure out a safe way to begin work again, an incredible roster of professionals at all levels,” Pierce said.
A trustee on the Executive Board of the United Scenic Artists Local 829 Union, Pierce also serves as a member on the Advisory Board of the American Theatre Wing and the Tony Award Administration Committee, meaning he knows “all the facets of the business.”
He believes that the theater will find “safe, structured ways of getting back to work. I think the big unknown is how to get our audiences to believe that coming into a theater is safe. That’s the biggest challenge. How do we ensure they are comfortable sitting arm-to-arm with strangers for an extended period of time? How do we convince them to leave their outside lives outside and come in and enjoy the story we present to them? Until we can find that solution, I don’t think we are going to see shows for a while.”
Pierce knows both individuals and businesses trying to take advantage of the various loan programs and protections available to them. The owners of larger scenery and lighting companies have had to furlough employees, while “there is no scenery to build or a reason to rent lights. I fear that just when the industry needs to ramp up again there may not be all the resources available to us to bring those ideas to life. That’s a struggle that might still be right around the corner.”
“It’s one of the toughest things I have ever had to experience”
At the time of New York City’s theater shutdown, James Latus, a stage manager for Broadway and off-Broadway productions, had finished the run of the critically hailed, award-winning Oklahoma! and had begun rehearsals for The Visitor (based on the film of the same name), starring David Hyde Pierce and Ar’iel Stachel, at the Public.
The production was closed down two days before going into the theater to begin technical rehearsals, with the cast and crew forming a giant drum circle to bang themselves out before production paused. Like many productions, they have since gathered for regular Zoom sessions. In The Visitor’s case this “Wine and Unwind” session takes place every Saturday evening.
Latus, who is known as The Backstage Baker for the cakes he makes when not stage-managing, bakes something every week, just as he does when a show is in production (see his Mother of the Maid cake, complete with flaming icing, which the show’s star Glenn Close allegedly loved).
For the most recent Visitor “Wine and Unwind,” Latus made a flourless chocolate cake with a sprinkling of flaked sea salt, and as he can no longer share it with cast members after a ceremonial cutting of the cake virtually, he distributes slices to his lucky neighbors.
“Some days are better than others,” said Latus. “Some days I wake up and just don’t want to come out from under the covers. It just feels, ‘What’s the point?’ It’s very important to have a schedule each day, but on some days if I do feel like laying under the covers. I think it’s important to allow yourself to follow that instinct.
“Truly, this is a test of all our patience. It really is, “One day at a time.’ I’m used to being in a room with 30 other people, managing them, having interactions, doing emails and other stuff. To have all that stripped away is really difficult, it’s one of the toughest things I have ever had to experience.”
Eva Price has been Zoom-ing with the casts and crews of Oklahoma! and Jagged Little Pill. “There are so many multi-hyphenates in the casts—musicians, songwriters, painters. Everyone is finding their way and their own creative, spiritual way,” she said. “Their creativity and positive outlook inspire me. It’s a rollercoaster, and we need to ride it. Some days are up, some are down. We can’t let the highs be too high and the lows too low.”
For Latus, as much as Zoom has been welcome in bringing him face-to-face with colleagues and friends, “I want to be across from somebody in person, talking to them, seeing their eyes. I really want to hug somebody again. Theater is a very huggy, kissy industry. To not have that touch is really hard some days.”
Saying goodbye to The Visitor was hard for him. “It’s a really good show and tight company. For it to just to stop is like having your heart getting pulled out of your chest. It’s all part of the storytelling ritual, which goes back to caveman days. There’s something magical about those close quarters. On a two-show day, you don’t leave the theater. You eat together, take naps together, play games together. Holidays like Christmas are celebrated if you are away from your families. The theater becomes a family.”
That the play’s focus was so contemporary (about immigration) gave cast and crew an even greater bond, said Latus. Its currency makes its closure even more painful, though he is confident that the Public will re-mount the play when theater’s lockdown ends. The sets, costumes, and lights are in place, waiting for them.
Like Latus and Price, Latarro has been attending Zoom cast and crew meetings, for Mrs. Doubtfire and The Visitor.
She has tried to take the most positives from lockdown; creatively to let ideas marinate and not rush to execute on them immediately but let them “consciously or unconsciously bloom” later. “I have good days and bad days. I miss being with artists. I miss telling stories. I miss dancing, so deeply. I do ballet barre in the kitchen, but it’s just not the same.”
Mike Baldassari’s main concern has been taking care of his family: “How can I keep us going?” He applied for unemployment eight weeks ago, but (at the time of our interview) had heard nothing back. “I get that they’re swamped, and some of what we do is 1092 and some is 1099. I have been a freelancer for 33 years. We have not lived beyond our means. We have enough reserves to live on. But we don’t want to get to the end of the year and be at zero.”
Sophia, a senior in high school, missed out on graduation and is due to begin college at Sarah Lawrence College in the fall. “I feel like we’re trying to make good decisions, trying to plan things out not in a panicked manner,” Baldassari said. There have many online “quarantinis” with other couples, and he has reconnected with college friends he hadn’t spoken to in 30 years.
“To work in theater, you have to be a fighter and survivor,” said Baldassari. “I don’t feel like when I’m speaking to friends and colleagues that anyone is throwing in the towel. When friends say their kid wants to go into show business, I say that the arts is a great education for a horrible career. I say that the five things that the arts encourages are creativity, self-discipline, working hard, teamwork, and being able to deal with rejection.
“Anybody working at the level of Broadway has all those qualities. I don’t think something like this will knock us down. Show business is a way of life. I can’t be all upset, ‘Woe is me,’ when the entire industry is in the same boat.”
Touring crews are in the toughest position, as they were about to embark on spring and summer tours, said Baldassari. Broadway will not fully return until there is a vaccine, he thinks. The tight business margins mean every show carries a large amount of risk. “One of the worst things would be to open and then have to close again.”
Baldassari feels well-represented and fought for by his union, United Scenic Artists local USA 829. He estimates he has lost $100,000 in income, but—like so many—it’s his health care (and to a lesser extent, his pension) that he is worried about most. “Our industry went from very low unemployment to 100 percent unemployment in a week. My guess is we will need some government propping up. What happens if our health care plans go insolvent?”
Latus has started collecting unemployment but is concerned about what will happen in July, when the $600 weekly payments from the Federal Pandemic Unemployment Compensation program are scheduled to end. “It’s currently livable on. After July, it gets tight,” said Latus. “It’s scary. I have savings, but I’d rather not use them, and keep them for retirement. I am worried most about losing my health insurance. Not having health insurance in these times scares me the most.”
In the Equity fund that Latus pays into, he must work 19 weeks a year to get full coverage, but that has been rendered impossible by the pandemic. “Will it be a COBRA situation, or will we go on to Obamacare? I hope another stimulus package is approved, so we—and other workers—are protected through next March. We are all realistic, and we know that the producers cannot keep paying us if no box office income is coming in. I am just grateful that we got more than two weeks.”
Latus welcomes all the work that Equity has done for members like him, like webinars (on applying for unemployment, for example), lobbying at a federal level for various financial help and protections, and launching the Curtain Up Fund “to provide needy members with emergency financial relief. They have a whole section of the website devoted to life in this COVID pause. This has many resources for members to use.”
Many Equity members are used to the financial precariousness of booking one job to the next, but the pandemic has “pulled the rug from under them,” Kate Shindle said. The Actors Fund has resources devoted to those struggling with mental health-related issues.
“I think it’s been really tough for everyone,” said Lorin Latarro (her union is the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, whose executive director, Laura Penn, will talk to The Daily Beast in a forthcoming article). “Financially, it’s really scary. Everybody has taken a giant hit. Being a Broadway freelancer—whether you’re a dancer, choreographer, director, stage designer, whatever you do—is hard. My accountant always scratches his head and says, ‘So there is no way you can explain to me what you have made this year?’
“Hopefully everyone is getting unemployment, which is a third of what they would usually be getting. It’s a scary time really. What happens when that runs out, and will we back to work by then? The producers are in the same position as everyone else. Usually, they play their cards close to their chests, but now no one has any answers. We’re all in the same position. It’s scary for them too.”
“Honestly, I think audiences will come back. I think everyone needs theater”
Because of the unknown of what will happen in three to six months, or longer, producer Eva Price said she has to “live in hope.”
The present financial situation facing Broadway producers like her is “tough,” said Price. “We make money, the shows make money when tickets are sold. We make money on fees and royalties based on the shows running. When the shows are not running it is entirely scary, and the longer-term existential threat of that is obviously frightening. The shorter-term, current threat is uncomfortable, but not impossible. We’re all living—not living to the same point of three months ago, but you know what?” Price laughed. “My credit card bill is a lot lower as well.”
Price said she has been “reading the same tea leaves” as everyone else. She feels Broadway could reopen as late as next spring but is anticipating earlier and planning “for what that looks like and what the world looks like. We want to come back appropriately and aesthetically in line with the general conversation, the general emotional state, and general feelings of the culture.”
Price is presently figuring out what shows she will and will not continue working on, “what will make sense in the new environment and what will make less sense.”
Price thinks we will see fewer productions and more financially modest productions. “The risk appetite will be different. Financing will be less available. And I think there will be lot of fear about what it means to be at risk for this money and this art form for backers and producers.” However, as a producer, Price is determined to “figure it out.”
Lorin Latarro has imagined “nothing changing and us all with a vaccine or herd immunity, learning how to treat this disease, so it’s no worse than the common cold and we can get back to what we normally do. I am a bit bullish. I live in hope. I hope the world is healthy enough for actors to be back in the room rehearsing again in the fall. I don’t think audiences want to come back until the spring. And I honestly think audiences will come back. I think everyone needs theater.”
A vaccine may not be ready, Latarro said, but medical understanding has increased even in the short window of the pandemic thus far; that level of understanding, she thought, will only increase more quickly.
On whether the prospect of fewer shows in fewer theaters will mean less work for actors, Equity’s Kate Shindle said: “Some work is better than none.”
Shindle said theaters “across America” had told Equity that they had been hearing from subscribers who won’t renew their subscriptions, “which would obviously be a devastating blow to theaters if they didn’t have the option of virtual tickets.”
Shindle wondered if in the tickets that theaters will sell some tickets for a physical audience and, and virtual tickets to others—for those who are older, or who have underlying health conditions, or who just feel uncomfortable about going to the theater—who could watch the performance at home.
Those virtual tickets would likely be priced less than actual theater tickets—not to mention the lessened income taken by in-house concessions and nearby hotels, restaurants, and bars. For Shindle, one test will be the audience figures for Hamilton when it is broadcast on Disney+ in July.
The presumption that if you can see a show at home you will not want to see it in a theater is “not necessarily accurate,” said Shindle. She hopes Hamilton on screen will encourage audiences to go see it on Broadway or on tour.
Hamilton is also not symbolic of the reach of every Broadway show. It has an outsized success and pop culture profile, “but it will be interesting to see how it goes,” said Shindle.
The producer Eva Price’s vision of the reborn Broadway is of “a normalized Broadway. That’s the vision I know, and that currently works from a cost structure perspective. If we as an industry can figure out another vision of what Broadway can look like and be successful at, I am all for looking at that. But it’s hard to envision what that would look like based on what we know today.
“Theater buildings are old and have structured seats and ceilings of a certain height, and lobbies of certain circumference and backstages of a certain makeup. It’s very hard to rethink how all that would look. Broadway’s economic structures are such that we need to have audience capacity at a certain percentage. How do we adapt that to a socially distanced auditorium? I don’t know. I am certainly willing to look at models and be part of an industry that believes that’s the way to go, but the industry I think doesn’t know yet.”
Mike Baldassari thinks that “the capital behind Broadway, the investors, are going to sit on the sidelines for a little while. When they come back, perhaps musicals won’t be as large, or the budgets so large, while those investors dip their toes back into the water.”
From the bathrooms to the orchestra pit to backstage, he does not see social distancing as viable. “One of the things that makes Broadway theaters the envy of the world is how intimate they are, made so by how expensive Manhattan real estate is,” said Baldassari.
A friend of his who works in concert promotion sees smaller music venues as attracting a younger returning audience before Broadway and the likes of Madison Square Garden.
“All the things that make Broadway great are all the things that the virus hits the most,” said Baldassari. “The beauty of live theater is that it’s never quite the same twice. It doesn’t matter how long a show has been running; every performance is slightly different. The show adjusts to that particular audience. That’s what we all crave.”
Eva Price’s sense is that her optimism is shared by other Broadway producers. “People are obviously discouraged by the present, but they are optimistic about the future. Everyone is committed and dedicated to bringing their shows back and our industry back, and making it even better than it was.”
However, the multi-pronged devastation wrought by COVID-19 has had an impact, Price said. “Every couple of weeks, every month, our positive outlook is slightly dampened, but as far I can tell our optimism is still very much there, and still very much alive.”
The financial structure of Broadway “would have to change dramatically to be able to support a product with dramatically fewer audience members,” said Edward Pierce. “Maybe that is the temporary solution where people work at the beginning for less of a wage to keep things going, and have some distancing among audiences. But the margins are so tight and the investment so fragile in the best of circumstances.
“I don’t immediately see a solution that doesn’t involve packing the houses. Also, the energy of being in a packed theater experiencing live entertainment is part of its DNA. To lose that would be to lose an essential part of the experience.”
Pierce has confidence that scientific expertise—in terms of a vaccine or testing or effective medications—will help audiences “feel comfortable assembling. I can’t put a timeline on it, but I have great hope.” Just as bag checks became “second nature” after 9/11, Pierce predicts the same for whatever is required of post-pandemic audiences—“although we can’t live our entire lives not shaking hands or giving hugs. We have to know that someday that’s perfectly safe to do.”
The majority of James Latus’ colleagues thinks rehearsals will begin again in January and performances in March. Until then, Latus is giving guest lectures and thinking about selling his baked goods, although his home kitchen isn’t big enough to undertake anything on a large scale. “If someone orders 17 dozen cookies, it would take me forever.” He is used to working all year round, and so the last few months have been “really strange.” He has refinished bookshelves with birch edging and done lots of reading.
His biggest fear about the future of theater is “What kind of audience will there be? When we reopen, will the audience come back? Broadway is driven by the tourist industry. Many of them are overseas tourists, and I don’t think they will be coming back anytime soon.”
However, Latus does feel a “burst of creativity” will follow the pandemic, just as the Roaring ’20s followed the Spanish flu of 1918. “People are pent up now. I know people are writing and putting together music. Theater is important, and audiences will come back but maybe not right away. The difference between 1918 and now is that there’s a 24-hour news cycle built on fear. Fear sells advertising dollars on television.”
Theaters have to be made safe for audiences and cast and crew, said Latus. “We pack into dressing rooms, and orchestra pits are notoriously small, with musicians crammed together, spitting and breathing.” Maybe protective barriers could be somehow placed around musicians; maybe the number of musicians will be reduced, said Latus.
“I am not a producer but I am certainly excited at the prospect of anything radicalizing theater,” said Lorin Latarro. “The idea of shifting space around is so exciting to me.” At the same time she thinks audiences will be wearing masks “for a while.” She anticipates that designers like Hamilton’s David Korins will dream up ingenious ways to make theater design safe. Latarro has heard that touring productions, like Waitress, may open before productions in New York City, if certain locales and venues are deemed safe.
Mike Baldassari, whose next job was to design the lighting at the Pride Island pop concert (for the 50th anniversary of LGBTQ Pride in New York City, now canceled) would go back to work as soon as possible, but Arlene has asthma and he does not want to endanger her health in any way.
Edward Pierce and his wife, Pixie, have lived within their means, and Pierce is hoping—once he feels fully healthy again—to perhaps work on other non-theater projects before he begins work on the design for the “slightly postponed” national tour of Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird.
Pierce said it would be “a shame” if people stayed at home for streamed entertainment. “From high school onwards I have felt the power of live theater, and I will not give up on it. In fact, I’m doubling down on it.”
Eva Price hopes “culture vultures” of all ages from across America feel “safe, secure, and comfortable” enough to support Broadway and New York City’s other cultural institutions, hotels, and restaurants. “We want them and need them, so we can feel normalized again.”
Price hopes “the brightest brains” in the theatrical industry, and business, medical and public health communities figure out how. Broadway will “absolutely survive” this period, said Price. “Like everything, it won’t be the same. Like all of us, it will be forever changed by this traumatic event.”
Lorin Latarro recalled working on Broadway at the time of 9/11 in Kiss Me, Kate, “and it being devastating and scary thinking about who would want to come to New York City. But they did, and we came back. I have gone through blackouts and strikes, and we came back. I have faith we will come back after this, and if compromises have to be made, so be it. There may also be space for opportunities for something new.” That includes, said Latarro, attracting new audiences, particularly young people through lower ticket prices.
“There will be opportunities for all of us to reach out to more people and make them understand the beauty of theater,” said Latarro. “And I hope we find a cure for the coronavirus, so the older generation can come back and enjoy theater.”
Eva Price believes audiences will return to the theater, with an even greater fervency and hunger, because there will be a “need for a communal, cathartic group experience. It will be electric to be in a room to experience live art again. Broadway is definitive of that.”
It will, she hoped, be both a ”reawakening” while also “propelling people to come to Broadway who have never been before or felt they didn’t belong, and will now feel that they do. I don’t know when, but I believe the theatrical connective experience will reassert itself again and be stronger than ever.”
There is still room for the big sound and big staging of shows like Jagged Little Pill, Price said. “Those kinds of shows have to return,” said Price. “They fill the heart and mind, and make you stand in unison and clap and feel alive, and feel uplifted about a family that is resilient and that makes it through tragedy. Jagged Little Pill is the kind of show that will not only will come back, but it must come back because people are going to need that. That’s what people need to feel.”