Shakespeare in a Time of Plague
How a Local Theater Company Overcame Pandemic Health and Safety Concerns
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William Shakespeare never wrote a play about an epidemic or pandemic even though he lived amid the bubonic plague. He did write about the impacts of disease, both biological and mental, and in one famous play cursed “A plague o’ both your houses!” In that same play, Friar John is quarantined and unable to reach Romeo, and a tragic ending results. The audiences for Romeo and Juliet were familiar with loss: the 1592–93 outbreak of the Black Death in London is estimated to have resulted in at least 15,000 deaths in a city of 150,000.
History repeats itself—or, as Mark Twain clarified, “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it often rhymes.” Modern risk principles, during our time of COVID-19, rhyme with centuries-old risk principles as well as our classic hierarchy of exposure control and transmission management: distancing, cleanliness, ventilation, personal protective equipment, quarantines, and socially responsible behavior. Our OEHS profession has been deeply involved in figuring out how to protect those at work, creating safe places to work, and dispelling misleading and false information. Decision-making in managing risk has been a focal point of the services we provide.
PROLOGUE Since 2014, I have been on the Board of Trustees of the Idaho Shakespeare Festival (ISF), a cherished custodian of the arts that performs outdoors in an amphitheater set in a nature reserve a few miles upstream of downtown Boise, Idaho. In what feels like ancient history, ISF announced its five-show, 99-performance 2020 summer season in October 2019; however, by July 2020, no show had been performed and the entire season had to be canceled. One of many excellent not-for-profit arts and educational institutions in Idaho, ISF is nevertheless unique: it is the only professional theater company in the state that follows Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) and League of Resident Theatres (LORT) rules. ISF cannot mount a production without concurrence by AEA, the national union for actors and stage managers. The performing arts is a significant part of the economy, in Idaho and the United States as a whole. The contribution of culture and art to the national economy is bigger than the economic output of Sweden or Switzerland. Disproportionately impacted by the pandemic, the arts were one of the last industries to begin a recovery. Their absence has been deeply felt: in addition to their economic value, the arts fill a human need beyond entertainment and a social good beyond personal pleasure. BACKSTORY The World Health Organization declared a pandemic on March 11, 2020. Two weeks later, following the guidance of public health experts, Idaho Governor Brad Little issued a statewide stay-at-home order for all Idahoans. An AEA statement on April 15 informed employers that it was “unclear” how a theater could safely reopen under these circumstances and that AEA would “use all of our available resources to ensure that no one is asked to work in an unsafe environment.” On April 24, AEA announced that it had engaged former OSHA administrator David Michaels to develop model health and safety standards for COVID-19.
Idaho Shakespeare Festival Artistic Director Charlie Fee on stage during a preview of Anthony Shaffer’s Sleuth, July 9, 2021. Photo credit: Fred Boelter.
Michaels presented a memo to AEA in May titled “Ensuring the Safety and Health of Equity Members.” The memo identified four core principles needed to support safe and healthy theater productions:
1. The epidemic must be under control, with effective testing, few new cases in the area, and contact tracing. 
2. Individuals who may be infectious can be readily identified and isolated through frequent, regular, and accurate testing with speedy results.
3. Venues and productions must be modified to minimize exposure. Changes to auditions, rehearsals, performances, and stage management may be necessary to reduce the risk.
4. Efforts to control COVID-19 exposure must be collaborative. Equity members, employers, the union, and all others involved in the production of theater must participate. Collective buy-in and ongoing evaluation and improvement of health and safety practices are necessary.
Michaels’ four core principles were cautious, correct, and necessary to address one of AEA’s fundamental objectives: protect union members from unsafe conditions. Under the best of circumstances, the performing arts can be a risky business, not only financially but also for the performers. The pandemic compounded these challenges.
While not-for-profit arts organizations have an educational responsibility, they need to be well-governed and financially well-managed. This tenet is as true for nonprofits as for-profit organizations. If any organization runs out of money, they are out of whatever business they were in. In general, the business model of the performing arts requires comfortably full houses. The 2019 ISF season of 99 performances had an average capacity of 102 percent.
The role of a not-for-profit board is to oversee governance and to focus on activities that allow the organization to succeed. In the case of ISF, the board does not interfere with the decisions made by the artistic director as to which plays, musicals, directors, or actors are selected for the season. Nor does the board interfere with the executive director or the management of the concessions, administrative staff, production staff, or stage crews.
The list of tasks for running a not-for-profit theater is seemingly endless. During a normal season, behind-the-scenes priorities include lighting and sound, building sets, costumes, rehearsals, musicians, housing, transportation, contracts, union negotiations, licensing, groundskeeping, amphitheater maintenance and repairs, box office, advertising, corporate sponsors, and so on. For every actor who is visible to the audience, approximately eight staff are needed backstage and off-stage to put on a single ISF performance, as well as a number of ushers and volunteers in and around the amphitheater house and grounds.
The Idaho Shakespeare Festival's 2014 production of As You Like It. Photo credit: DKM Photography of Boise, Idaho.
The hazards and risks of outdoor theater productions in the Western U.S. include wind, rain, lightning, heat stress, and wildfire smoke. The pandemic introduced new hurdles. Understandable COVID-19 requirements, such as physical distancing and capacity restrictions of 50 percent or less, were impossible to overcome, whereas verifying HVAC filtration efficacy in the Tiring House (Elizabethan nomenclature for the backstage quarters in which actors attire themselves) was straightforward.
Given the early uncertainties of the pandemic and the recommended and appropriate public health precautions, there was no option but to cancel the 2020 season. But the ISF board wondered, How and when can we reopen? What do we need to do to demonstrate that, in the words of AEA, “no one is asked to work in an unsafe environment”?
THE SHOW MUST GO ON In late summer 2020, work began in earnest to figure out how ISF could meet Michaels’ four core principles, obtain an AEA green light, and mount a comeback in 2021. Outdoor venues are clearly different from indoor venues; if an outdoor amphitheater cannot figure out how to put on theater amid a pandemic, who could? Ultimately, AEA authorization was obtained through teamwork, determination, and science, coupled with a healthy dose of credible management, community cooperation, and health officials who understood the necessity of balancing competing risks.
In October 2020, a repertory season of five shows was announced for 2021. Models were run using an assumption of a 50 percent maximum capacity, and the financials fell short of break-even. Nevertheless, the board was committed to putting on a season because of ISF’s educational obligation, financial reserves, and the trustees’ belief that the core artistic company could not survive two successive years of being shut down.
Then, in mid-December 2020, emergency-use vaccines were announced. Potentially, this was a game changer for the performing arts, but in the early days of 2021 vaccine eligibility was limited to those at greatest risk, such as essential workers; eventually, eligibility was extended to anyone in an approved age group. For the most part, the members of arts organizations were not in these groups.
Adherence to Michaels’ four core principles during the spring of 2021 was difficult to achieve due to rapidly moving targets regarding capacity restrictions and AEA requirements, and the need to manage the myriad “normal season” behind-the-scenes issues. Several approaches were developed for the 2021 season, including a three-show, non-rotating calendar of productions; a selection of shows with small casts and no musicals; a testing program for staff and production personnel as well as performers; and a community outreach program. The box office staff tackled the Herculean task of reticketing for a season of three shows and 59 performances versus the original five shows and 99 performances. Everyone, including the board, was energized to make the 2021 season successful.
A voluntary and unanimous commitment to vaccinate was agreed upon. By late spring, vaccines had become readily available and were easily obtained, and by early summer, testing requirements were lifted. While PCR testing would continue to be voluntarily available for those involved with daily rehearsals and nightly performances, proof of vaccination was mandatory for employment at ISF during the 2021 season. Sensitivity toward staff and actors with small children who could not be vaccinated impelled some to continue in a weekly PCR testing program managed by partners in the medical and educational community. There was 100 percent compliance with the vaccination mandate and a full-throated eagerness to get back to work after 18 months of no theater.
Prospero and Miranda in the Idaho Shakespeare Festival’s performance of The Tempest, Aug. 21, 2021. Photo credit: Fred Boelter.
As a union, AEA viewed the systematic, science-based efforts of ISF and the vaccination mandate as having met Michaels’ four core principles. By this time, capacity restrictions had been lifted, a “Safe at the Show” community outreach program had been implemented, and ticket holders were requested not to attend if they didn’t feel well or safe. The community was eager to cooperate with the rules ISF had communicated, understanding that no one is safe unless everyone is safe. The three-show limited-run season was green-lighted.
The first show, Anthony Shaffer’s play Sleuth, previewed on July 8 and opened on July 10 to capacity houses and standing ovations even before the actors took the stage. It was a rarified moment after the 18-month shutdown. The second show, Shakespeare’s The Tempest, was similarly received when it previewed August 12.
PLOT TWIST And then the delta variant decided to pay a visit to the unvaccinated of Idaho, pushing hospitals in the state to the brink of capacity. As a result, an ISF COVID task force developed a preemptive contingency plan that included mandatory masks, a suspension of picnics and food consumption in the amphitheater, and a commitment to pay actors for the entire run should there be an agency-ordered shutdown. This last point calmed the nerves of the actors, who would otherwise lose their chief source of income.
The third show—the madcap Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)—previewed Sept. 9 and finished its scheduled run on Sept. 26.
EPILOGUE The successful 2021 season closed on the final weekend of September with an overall capacity of more than 80 percent across the 58 performances (one was canceled because of rain). Nearly 40,000 people came out to the ISF amphitheater and experienced the best of live theater.
Fortunately, there was no agency-ordered closure, audiences were marvelous, and there were zero confirmed cases of COVID infection among the ISF staff, production team, and actors. The 2021 season was every bit the success desired.
Many of the hazards and risks in the performing arts are well known to our OEHS profession, especially those in the production shop for tasks such as welding, painting, and ventilation. Perhaps less well recognized are the hazards actors face—for example, dancing on a raked stage and choreographed sword fights. We are familiar with managing biohazards, but not on the scale of SARS-CoV-2, which has blurred the distinction between occupational health and public health. Establishing the teamwork, trust, and skills needed to balance competing risks during the pandemic has been daunting.
The Idaho Shakespeare Festival has demonstrated that by working together on a common objective, the performing arts, indeed, can safely produce great theater even during a pandemic. We are part of a global community that still has a long way to go before COVID-19 is conquered. Resources, supply chains, travel, labor, consumers, and health are all interconnected. Healthier workplaces are necessary for a healthier world.
There will be moments when we may disagree professionally, but we have a common goal regarding worker health, public health, and the health of our environment: to make lives and the places we visit better.
Nothing tends to focus the mind so clearly as a crisis. The famous plagues of the past made clear their indifference to the boundaries erected by society. Their appetites were ravenous. History does not defy death; it reendows death with meaning and specificity. Indiscriminate plague should remind us of our shared humanity. Perhaps our misery now, as in Shakespeare’s King Lear, will help us see the meaning in the lives of others. We may only hope.
FRED BOELTER, CIH, PE, BCEE, FAIHA, of Boelter Risk Sciences and Engineering LLC, is a recipient of AIHA’s Edward J. Baier Award, Henry F. Smyth Award, and Donald E. Cummings Award.
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Actors’ Equity Association: “Actors’ Equity Announces Core Principles Needed to Support Safe and Healthy Theatre Productions” (May 2020).
Actors’ Equity Association: “Former OSHA Chief David Michaels to Consult for Actors’ Equity Association on COVID-19 Safety Issues” (April 2020).
Actors’ Equity Association: “Statement from Actors’ Equity Association on Theaters Seeking to Resume Production” (April 2020).
BBC News: “Coronavirus: What Can the ‘Plague Village’ of Eyam Teach Us?” (April 2020).
Bloomberg: “The Economic Power of American Arts and Culture” (March 2019).
John Wiley and Sons: Patty’s Industrial Hygiene, volume 1, part 1, “Decision Making in Managing Risk” (April 2021).
National Endowment for the Arts: “New Report Released on the Economic Impact of the Arts and Cultural Sector” (March 2021).
NIOSH: NIOSH Total Worker Health Program.
TIME: “Blank Verse Under a Big Sky” (June 2016).
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YaleNews: “Drama Students Ponder Safety and Risk During an Uncertain Time” (January 2021).