Strict Union Rule Leaves Many Houston Theaters Scrambling

Sabas Del Toro stars in A.D. Player's Apollo to the Moon.
Sabas Del Toro stars in A.D. Player's Apollo to the Moon. Screenshot
What if measures taken to protect you have the effect of harming at the same time?

It’s a question being considered by the actors and theaters represented by Actors' Equity (AEA), the American labor union representing the world of live theatrical performance. Thanks to COVID, the union that normally fights for fair pay/treatment of actors/stage managers and administrates healthcare, is now being forced to shift from straight-ahead artist champion into something a little muddier.

In an effort to keep its members safe, AEA presently forbids live indoor/outdoor theatrical performances or streamed productions that are shot outside the actor’s primary residence in any city that has more than five new daily cases per 100,000 residents for at least two weeks.

Houston, like many U.S. cities, doesn't meet that benchmark. And with numbers starting to spike again, it doesn't look like we will any time soon.

If you're one of the seven AEA theaters in Houston (The Alley, Stages, Main Street, TUTS, A.D. Players, 4th Wall, and The Caduceus Theater) this means your options for producing content, generating income, and maintaining audience connection are minimal at best with no relief in sight.

Still, some work is squeaking out. Recently Main Street shot and streamed RFK, a one-man show starring Joel Sandel, who happens to be the AEA Liaison Chair for Houston. Not allowed to shoot at the theater, Sandel had to transform his living room into a stage and rehearse via Zoom.

“As a cautious individual I appreciate the union being very strict about it,” says Sandel. But he also feels that in some instances AEA is being too severe. “To not allow me and a camera person and a stage manager to go into Main Street Theater to record a show where we wouldn't be anywhere near six feet of each other feels wrong," says Sandel. "I'm not sure what they feel the danger is in that. At this point in time, we aren't a hermetically sealed community. We are mixing with people we feel safe with and the people I would work with are the people I feel safe with."

However, even if a theater figures out how to produce and stream a show from home, AEA approval doesn’t come quickly these days. The guidelines for contracts and COVID safety protocols can be confusing and onerous, as 4th Wall found out when trying to get approval for their Sitting with Shakespeare effort.

“To film a tiny little Shakespeare thing in our house took four months to figure out how to do re AEA standards,” says 4th Wall Co-Artistic Director, Kim Tobin-Lehl. “We feel like AEA is expecting us to do their job for them as there are no clear set guidelines. What AEA is doing is asking theaters to present safety plans and then they come back and question the plan…how can you make it better, etc. Shouldn’t AEA be telling us that?”

“To film a tiny little Shakespeare thing in our house took four months to figure out how to do re AEA standards." — Kim Tobin-Lehl

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Tobin-Lehl says that some days she feels AEA’s COVID rules and too stern and some days she doesn’t. “I get scared of the virus like everybody else, but there’s gotta be a way to do this. I feel like theater-makers are safe responsible people and if we work together and adhere to a set of guidelines I think we can be pretty safe – particularly for outdoor venues.”

Or not, as Firehouse Theater in Dallas just found out the hard way when it refused to follow union safety guidelines. A COVID outbreak at its outdoor production of the musical revue, Back to the '80s, resulted in 17 cases including members of the cast, band, crew, and staff with more possible infections on the horizon.

The response from AEA was swift. “The Firehouse Theatre is no longer an Equity producer, having abandoned their commitment to Actor’s Equity workplace safety rules that protect the audience and actors and stage managers.”

While some AEA theaters are clearly flouting the restrictive rules, others have found ways to work outside of them.

After a successful live streamed Gala concert from their theater in August, A.D. Players decided that holding in-person concerts at the theater was something they wanted to try. As an AEA theater, they may not be allowed to produce live theater, but with no jurisdiction over musicians or singers, the union has no say if one of their member theaters wants to produce cabaret or concert programming.

Signed, Sealed, Delivered, a Stevie Wonder tribute show opened for an 18-day run starting October 13 with socially distanced musicians, some wearing masks, some not, depending on the instruments played, and singers facing outwards, not at each other. Of the 450 normal theater capacity, audience members are capped at 130 in line with city guidelines. Additionally, the theater installed hospital grade UV light in their HVAC system and purifiers in dressing and green rooms.

So how has it gone for the only theater in town, AEA or not, to hold live in-person programming in their space? “It’s been hit or miss,” says A.D Players Artistic Director Kevin Dean. “Some houses look good and some only have a handful of people so it’s difficult to pinpoint why exactly that is. Is it that people don’t feel safe coming back or they think we’re being too restrictive and don’t want to wear masks for 1.5 hours?”

But it’s not just concerts that AEA can’t police at A.D. Players. The company’s school touring programming also falls outside union control and it’s how A.D Players is presently staging the originally set to tour one-man play, Apollo to the Moon, for both a live audience and to stream into schools.

Dean says it feels great to have people back in the theater, even if the numbers aren't as robust as he'd hoped. But he's worried about what's to come. The company is planning to go ahead with its January mainstage show, but there is no certainty that AEA will grant approval.

“It’s a constant pivot,” says Dean. “You have backup plans and backup plans to your backup plans and that becomes exhausting. But we’ve been able to sustain most of our staff because we have some programming going on, but if our January show doesn’t get approved, we’ll have difficult decisions to make. We don’t have any problem with our safety protocols and I don’t think AEA will either. It will come down to whether can we get our cases low enough in Houston.”

As a staunch union member and city representative, Sandel says he’s 100 percent on board with AEA making sure it’s safe before sending people back to work. How those decisions are being made, however, he feels could use a re-examination. “From what I’ve seen re what A.D. Players is doing for their protocols, that looks really safe to me, particularly for large theaters where they’ve got room to space people out,” says Sandel. “We’re fighting for our lives out here, this virtual stuff is a good stopgap but as an actor, it's not satisfying and for audiences is not as good as the live thing. I think someone has to start talks about loosening this up."

Whether it’s the programming A.D Players is doing or the smattering of streamed and outdoor nonunion shows in town, Tobin-Lehl says she’s thrilled that there’s at least some theater out there for people to see. “But of course, it makes me sad, as someone that worked really hard to get AEA status for our theater, and to know that I’m being constrained from doing our lives' work,” says Tobin-Lehl.

"It feels like my union who is my ally is saying, I don't trust you. It makes me feel like I'm failing all the time. I keep trying. They keep saying no, and I'm like what am I supposed to do when you aren't giving me any guidance? That doesn't feel like the arts, it's usually so collaborative."
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman