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Theatre's frontline workers on what it's like navigating the pandemic
Over the 2021 holidays, as the omicron surge wreaked havoc in theatres on Broadway and beyond, understudies and swings were rightfully celebrated for stepping into roles at the last minute to make sure that shows could go on. However, there's another group of essential theatre workers who haven't been given the same spotlight: front-of-house staffers. Ushers, line expediters and COVID-19 compliance officers are on the front lines of Broadway every day, working hard to keep audiences safe. While they're not looking for applause, they do appreciate obedience and a heartfelt thank-you. TDF Stages spoke with some of these intrepid employees (all anonymously due to their contracts) who are helping to keep the industry going during this challenging time.
Prior to the pandemic, F. spent many years working various theatre industry jobs. After 18 months of darkness, she knew she wanted to be part of Broadway's revival. "I was looking for jobs on Playbill and I kept seeing COVID-19 compliance work come up," she says. F. took a certification course and was quickly hired at a Broadway theatre. Before a performance begins, she stands outside, checking vaccination cards and photo IDs as audiences enter. Once everyone is inside, she roams the aisles holding up a "Mask Up" sign, keeping an eye out for exposed noses and mouths.
While F. is proud of what she does, she admits, "Mask compliance isn't fun. I have been called things like mask Nazi. I'm Jewish and I just stopped dead in my tracks the first time someone said that. We've all been called some name or cursed at. We're just trying to keep everyone as safe as possible. It's crazy times right now and we want everyone to see theatre. You can't do this job unless you love theatre."
Although ushers are supposed to get a COVID-19 compliance officer if they spot someone breaking the mask rules, sometimes L. will try handling it herself. "If I see somebody while I'm seating people I'll say, 'Excuse me: Can you please keep your mask up?' Sometimes they'll say, 'I'm sorry, I didn't realize,' which is a little weird since we've been doing this for two years now!" L. says. "It's gotten a lot better since the bar at my theatre closed. When it was still open, I once saw somebody with a Twizzler hanging out of his mouth just so he wouldn't have to put his mask up! He claimed he was 'actively eating.' We're not telling you to keep your mask on because we're jerks. We're trying to keep our show and the audience and ourselves safe."
N., a veteran line expediter who helps audiences enter the theatre quickly, notes that all front-of-house staffers are tested for COVID-19 three times a week. Non-union employees like him do this on their own time without extra pay just to keep everyone, especially theatregoers, healthy. "I went almost two years without really working," he says. "Now I have some people coming up to me, asking why the bar is closed or giving me a hard time about wearing masks. Even if you don't believe masks work, it's about respect. Other people are all wearing masks for your safety. You should wear one for our safety."
S., an usher, agrees. "If you lose your mask or it doesn't fit properly, theatres have masks for you," he says. "I tell everyone, you don't get any safer than a Broadway theatre! Everyone is vaccinated, everyone is masked, all the workers are tested multiple times weekly. We do have a staffing shortage as a result, so ushers double up on the aisle. Sometimes, an usher will work our show and, as soon as everyone is seated, run to another theatre to seat there."
Back in December and early January, many productions were forced to suspend performances because of breakthrough infections; a handful ended up closing abruptly due to the financial strain. Every shuttered show meant hundreds of people were suddenly out of work and thousands of theatregoers were disappointed. The industry is seemingly stabilizing as the omicron surge subsides. For the Broadway shows that are left (19 as of Monday, January 24, with a slew of openings coming in March and April), the priority is keeping everyone in the theatre healthy.
Everyone interviewed said audiences are pushing back a lot less these days, presumably due to what we collectively went through with the spike in COVID-19 cases. And they noted many instances when a compliment or a little support from a theatregoer totally made their day.
"Once in a while someone will pull me aside and just thank me for what I'm doing," says F., the COVID-19 compliance officer. "That definitely helps. Or someone will stick up for me. One night I told this guy if he didn't keep his mask up, we were going to have to ask him to leave, and the guy behind him went, 'Yeah, kick him out!' He ended up complying. Small acts of kindness change your whole night. You could be having a really rough day and that one person who is nice really turns it around."
F. also cautions that theatregoers shouldn't try to be the mask police—"we don't want you getting into a fight or getting hurt!" Instead, find a COVID-19 compliance officer (look for the "Mask Up" signs) and politely ask for assistance. Of course, F. takes her job so seriously, she continues to be on mask enforcement duty even when she's off the clock. "I was at Company with my family a few weeks ago and this woman behind us literally had no mask and I said, 'Hey, can you please put your mask on? There are like 17 shows closed tonight and I want to see this one!' I said it loudly so everyone turned and stared. Her mask went right on."
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