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Must the show go on?

I can't imagine a worse feeling in theatre than letting down your castmates, crew, and audience. But that is likely the emotion coursing through many actors of late when a surprising COVID diagnosis results in the cancellation of a performance, or even a run of them.


There's the old expression, "The show must go on," but as we all begin to adapt to living in a world where COVID seems here to stay in one form or another, does that aphorism still hold true? Judging by the almost-daily announcements that a theatre performance has been cancelled, it seems that the answer is, regretfully I'm sure, "No."


Even if you are vaccinated and boosted, COVID is still spiking in breakthrough cases globally, with the only guarantee being that those who got the shots may suffer less extreme symptoms than those without. When I had COVID, it felt more like a bad head cold than the terrible stories I'd read about. I was very lucky. Could I have gone on stage, though, and pulled off a performance in that congested state? Hard to tell, even if I was doing it for a living. Because it's not just my welfare I'd need to take into account, but those of the other people involved with the production, and the audience who, even masked, don't want to see any show bad enough to contract this disease. (Well, unless it's Hamilton; that's almost worth it.)


And that's the thing I believe most people forget when they are riled up that the show they bought tickets to six months ago, and traveled great distances to see, is cancelled: The actors may be OK to perform, but it's the concern for others' well-being (especially those who do not mask during a performance, or have not trusted modern science) that I'm certain factors into a decision. (From a logistical standpoint, a theatre is a perfect location for a super-spreader event.)


Theatres are doing their damndest to try and avoid closures, obviously; I recently saw a production of A Gentleman's Guide to Love & Murder in Boston, where there were three swings on-call. (A swing, in theatre parlance, is like an understudy but is ready to step on in any number of roles.) Being a swing is a double-edged sword for an actor, because, if all goes right with the show, you'll never set foot on stage, yet you've likely done a lot of prep work in the event you do need to go on at a moment's notice. It's my belief that swings and understudies are the unsung heroes of professional theatrical productions.


Community theatres, on the other hand, often do not have the luxury of having back-up plans in place if an actor falls sick. Sometimes it's difficult just to find enough people to fill the cast once! Fortunately, licensing companies (those that a theatre pays for the rights to perform a show) have been understanding of this new normal, and void part of the fee because the run could not be completed. Likewise, audiences have their tickets refunded, and we eventually move past the disappointment.


There doesn't seem to be a solution to this problem that can keep the show going on, short of eradication of COVID, which will likely not happen at this point. Even with routine tests, masking, deep cleaning of public spaces, social distancing (near impossible in those old theatres) and proof of vaccination, the theatre is no longer like the U.S. Postal Service, coming to you no matter what. However, when the show does go on, it will be all the more cherished because it happened.

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