The Utah theatre world was turned upside down eight months ago today on March 12, 2020, when Utah governor Gary Herbert announced that public events and many other businesses would close down in response to the coronavirus. Since then, Utah stages have had shows cancelled, delayed, or adjusted to accommodate new public health guidelines.

Although the number of live theatre productions has not returned to its previous level (and will not in the foreseeable future), new productions have been mounted since mid-May. Every theatre company that is producing shows has made adjustments to follow safety guidelines from county and state health officials, and audience members are wearing masks and complying with new instructions about social distancing.

Still, since August, confirmed coronavirus cases in Utah have increased, and on Sunday (November 8, 2020), Governor Herbert announced a new round of restrictions and a new state of emergency. At this writing, the seven-day running average of new confirmed coronavirus cases has surpassed 2,000 every day since November 5, and hospitals in many parts of the state are at risk of being overwhelmed. Today, the state reported an all-time high of 3,919 new confirmed cases of the coronavirus in a single day. There is no sign of an end to the pandemic–and every sign that it is worsening.

All of this raises the question of whether Utah theatre companies should be mounting productions at all and whether UTBA should be reviewing plays.

Close the Theatres During a Plague Year?

Closing theaters in response to disease is part of the our theatrical heritage. Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre was closed by authorities multiple times because of outbreaks of the plague. Image source.

There are legitimate reasons to think that Utah theatre companies should not be mounting any plays at all. The coronavirus is a serious health threat, especially to vulnerable people. Utah’s current mortality rate is lower than most states’ (0.5% at the time of this writing), but the virus has taken over 650 lives in Utah, including 494 people aged 65 and over. Many of those who do not die, though, are very sick for weeks, and some patients experience long-term effects even after their initial recovery. Extreme caution is warranted, and a decision to not mount productions is a responsible one.

It is easy for outsiders to say that all theatre companies should close, but that ignores some of the realities of the current situation. Public health officials in Utah have not called for a ban on theatre performances. Indeed, they have issued guidance for theatre companies and other organizations producing live events. Large gatherings can become superspreader events, but these are most likely when people are in close quarters indoors while unmasked, especially if they are breathing heavily and/or deeply (e.g., singing, playing sports in close contact). Sitting quietly while wearing a mask in a well-ventilated space does not seem to lead to widespread outbreaks. Most Utahns who fall ill to the coronavirus are contracting it at home, work, or informal social events.

Moreover, there are very real pressures to open. One survey of professional theatre companies showed that almost one-third will have to close their doors permanently if they cannot start producing plays in 2021. Fewer than half believe that they can weather the pandemic to its end without opening first. Stimulus funds have mostly dried up, and it is unlikely that there will be more coming in the near future. Permission from health officials to open (with modifications) can be a lifeline to producers who are worried about the survival of their company.

Should I Stay, or Should I Go?

Even with some theatre companies open, there is a real question of whether people should attend plays. As with many situations during the pandemic, one course of action will probably not work for everybody. Our opinion is that people’s behavior during the pandemic should be in proportion to the risk they have for infection or for complications from the coronavirus.

The safest option is not to attend. Even if public health officials have not banned plays, there is still some risk in attending live theatre. This is especially true for people who are high-risk for severe illness if they contract the coronavirus, which includes older adults and people with certain medical conditions. Individuals who live with high-risk people should also probably stay home whenever possible.

Beyond that, whether it is appropriate to attend plays depends on a person’s tolerance for risk and the potential for negative outcomes if they contract the virus. A person who is low-risk and does not have contact with high-risk individuals may find attending a play to be an acceptable activity. Others, such as health care professionals or people who have jobs that put them in contact with a different people (e.g., in law enforcement) may believe attending a play is too dangerous for themselves or those around them. Everybody must decide for themselves whether they will engage in activities that could put them at risk of infection.

Reviewing Plays During a Pandemic

Reviewing plays during a pandemic raises considerations that are different from the decision of whether to attend a play as a patron. If a positive review encourages people to see a play, then a theatre reviewer may be adding to the coronavirus pandemic. A reviewer publicly signaling that they attended a play may also send the implicit message that theatre going is safe for everyone.

At UTBA, we have grappled with these issues for six months, and this is where our leadership stands at the current time:

First, nothing is more important than protecting people’s health. UTBA has made this clear to its members since the beginning of the pandemic. In the regular communication and in reviewer invitations, the UTBA leadership reminds members that there is absolutely no obligation to review and that the organization will not penalize anyone who declines to review a show. Indeed, many reviewers have made a blanket statement that they will not review during the pandemic. That is perfectly acceptable, and the UTBA leadership supports them in this decision. Each reviewer knows their situation best and can judge whether reviewing a production is too risky for them and their household.

Second, there is value in reviewing plays during the coronavirus pandemic. This is the biggest pandemic in a century, and future generations are going to want to know how society adapted. Theatre reviews are historical documents, and reviewers are recording what types of plays get produced in a pandemic, how productions are different, and what it was like to sit in an audience during this unique time. Thanks to UTBA reviews, posterity can learn that productions in Utah were performed with actors behind plexiglass, for audiences in cars, via livestream, and while wearing face shields. Some of the reviews capture the audience perspective of how nice it is to be in a theater after months away, or how refreshing it is to escape from the daily grind of a pandemic.

Third, UTBA is not the theatre police, and we are not health authorities. If companies are meeting minimum safety standards, then we have no power to demand that they do more. Yes, we would sometimes like companies to do more to keep people safe, and our member who has a graduate degree in public health has made some wise suggestions that would make live theatre as safe as possible for cast and crew. But we have no authority in the matter (and often no training). UTBA schedulers are checking with companies to ensure that their policies are meeting minimum state and county requirements to protect the cast, crew, and audience. We only send reviewers to companies that can ensure us that such policies are in place and politely decline to review shows where we do not have these assurances. (UTBA has declined to review plays for this reason.) Beyond that, there is nothing we can do.

Fourth, reviewers should only review what they see on stage. In normal times, this means that reviewers do not let backstage gossip or artistic politics influence their review. During a pandemic, this means that reviewers should not write a review about whether safety procedures meet their personal standards. No policy regarding the coronavirus is going to satisfy everyone. Using theatre reviewing to apply standards that contradict health authorities’ guidelines is unhelpful and robs a company of a reaction to their artistic endeavors.

Finally, reviewing a production does not imply that UTBA endorses everything the company does. This was true long before the pandemic started. Some UTBA members disagree strongly with how some companies compensate actors and staff, select creative team members (like directors and choreographers), or plan a season. Giving a positive review to a production does not translate to an endorsement of theatre company policies. Likewise, complimenting artistic work on stage does not preclude disagreement with backstage policies. The same is true regarding the pandemic.

These viewpoints may change as the situation changes. Health authorities have altered guidelines several times since the pandemic arrived in Utah 8 months ago. Theatre companies in the state have each found their own way to deal with their current challenges. Already, it is clear that being adaptable makes companies well suited to survive the pandemic. UTBA is, likewise, trying to adapt, which means that these positions may change as the situation changes.

This, Too, Shall Pass

It is much clearer now than it was in the spring that the coronavirus pandemic will not end soon. But it is also clear that the pandemic cannot last forever. When the end comes, we will enjoy the full return of Utah’s vibrant theatre offerings. Until then, we encourage everyone to stay safe and to minimize their risk of contracting the coronavirus. If that means staying away from Utah theatre productions, we hope that you can live vicariously through our reviewers and get a taste of what is happening on stage during this historic time.

For questions or comments about UTBA policies, please email the UTBA president, Russell Warne at russell (at) utahtheaterbloggers (dot) com.