By Ginia Bellafante
Last month, in a much-celebrated moment of public disciplining during a talk back with the cast of “Company,” a woman in the audience who was told to please put her mask back on refused and then, mocking the directive, waved it in the air and placed it over her eyes. Up onstage, Patti LuPone was not having it and told her to get out. As if incubated in a lab manufacturing legend-resistant organisms — and unlike almost anyone else on the west side of Manhattan — this was a person immune to the ire of Patti LuPone. Yelling back defiantly, she proclaimed, “I pay your salary.” A member of the theater’s COVID safety staff proceeded to escort her out of the building.
In the actress’ view, the woman should have been ejected as soon as it was clear that she was not going to wear a mask. “It shouldn’t have been up to me,” LuPone said. I called her earlier this week to gauge her feelings on the theater world’s changing COVID protocols. On Tuesday, the Broadway League, a trade association, announced that owners and operators of all Broadway’s 41 theaters would put a mask-optional policy into effect beginning July 1, just as the 2022-23 season was kicking off.
In a written statement, the League’s president, Charlotte St. Martin, did not even pretend to ground the decision in statistics. “Millions of people enjoyed the unique magic of Broadway by watching the 75th Tony Award Ceremony recently,” she began, overlooking the fact that “watching” typically takes place at home.
“Are they afraid that they’re losing audiences?” LuPone wondered, pointing out that masks were still required of casts and crew backstage. “I don’t know.” Unions, nearly a dozen of which are involved in governing the theater industry, have pushed for strict safety rules since the beginning of the pandemic.
After rising steadily for a decade, Broadway earnings have taken an obvious beating over the past two years. Grosses for the week ending June 19 fell to $29 million from a pre-pandemic peak late in 2019 of nearly twice that. COVID outbreaks among performers have stymied productions, further complicating things. A few weeks ago, Hugh Jackman, currently starring in “The Music Man’,’ tested positive for COVID for a second time, leaving the role of professor Harold Hill to Max Clayton.
Even though case rates have fallen recently after a late spring surge, the seven-day average in New York City is still more than 10 times what it was last June. Regardless, Broadway theaters — old, windowless and often poorly ventilated — present particular vulnerabilities to those working in them, especially actors who are communicating intimately with one another onstage, unmasked.
Sam Rockwell, who is starring in “American Buffalo” at Circle in the Square, is one of several actors I spoke with who is unnerved by the change in policy. “We’re doing theater in the round,” he told me. “The other day I had a guy cough 4 feet in front of me.” He and the rest of the cast and crew test constantly. “We test in order to have the privilege to take the mask off. We earn the privilege to take the mask off and spit saliva on the stage,” he said. “I don’t know if it occurs to the audience that they’re protecting the actors onstage. If someone is mad because they have to wear a mask, they have to know that we are testing every day.”
It is hard to see who benefits from removal, given that people who go to the theater tend to skew older and have traveled to New York from somewhere else. Moreover, anyone who has held back from seeing shows out of a fear of COVID is unlikely to spend hundreds of dollars to do so now that strictures have loosened. “Just looking at it pragmatically, this is not serving the audience,” Rockwell said. “It’s about, Do you want to see Hugh Jackman in the show? Do you want to go see that show without Patti? Because let me tell you, if she gets COVID, she’s not in the show for 10 days.”
Last week, six out of the 11 cast members of the acclaimed Tracy Letts play, “The Minutes,” were out sick. One of them, Blair Brown, now in her 70s, has been especially cautious over the past two years, staying away from restaurants and public transportation. She did not understand how the League would periodically reassess the need for masks — which it has committed to doing — considering that there is no system for tracking transmission in theaters.
While it might be hard for the public to feel sympathetic toward actors, who seem in every way swimming in privilege, most who appear on the New York stage do not make up the ranks of the wealthy and well known. At the same time, according to the League’s own demographic study three years ago, the average annual household income of the Broadway theatergoer is $261,000. If you don’t want to wear a mask for Hugh Jackman, you might want to do it for the actor in the chorus who is making a lot less than that — the one with two lines, who is headed to bed early to teach a barre class at Equinox the next morning.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
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