As of September 15th, 2021, over 3.3 million Minnesotans have received at least one dose of a COVID vaccine. Broadway has reopened, requiring all actors, crew, audience, perhaps even the pigeons within a 20-foot radius of the theatre building to be vaccinated. The Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) worked with Dr. David Michaels, Biden Administration COVID-19 Advisory Board member, to develop pandemic safety protocols and riders for its member theatres. But what about theatres in the land of 10,000 lakes, far from the bustling crowds of Broadway?
As an actor myself, I’ve noticed varying standards in place for recent Minnesota-based auditions, callbacks, and rehearsal processes. Curious, I reached out to seven Twin Cities theatre organizations with recent Minnesota Playlist audition postings to learn about their audition COVID policies: which theatres required actors to be vaccinated, which didn’t, and why. Of the seven organizations I reached out to, four replied as of press time: Lyric Arts (Anoka, MN), Yellow Tree Theatre (Osseo, MN), Artistry (Bloomington, MN), and Cross Community Players (Maple Grove, MN).
Yellow Tree’s small-but-mighty theatre and Artistry’s grand Bloomington complex both frequently employ AEA actors, so I assumed they would follow AEA’s COVID-19 guidelines as their default. I was correct. “When an actor is asked to come in for a callback, they are told we are a fully vaccinated company and that masking and social distancing will be adhered to during the callback process,” wrote the source from Artistry. Artistry’s initial auditions have been via video submission, including over 300 submissions for Little Women, though their callbacks are in person. “In the callback room, the Artistry team is masked and social distanced,” the source continued. “The actor is then safe to remove their mask during the performance part of their audition. We have allowed [vaccine] exemptions for medical/religious reasons. If an actor has requested this, we required a covid test with a negative result taken in the 72 hours prior to attending the callback.” Yellow Tree also is accepting auditions via video submissions, but their callbacks are over Zoom. “No in person auditions or callbacks yet,” wrote Austene Van, Yellow Tree’s Producing Artistic Director.
Lyric Arts is a non-union theatre nestled in the heart of Anoka’s quaint Main Street. While they stuck to digital submissions for their productions of The Revolutionists and the soon-to-open The 39 Steps, their October auditions for The Mousetrap include both in-person and digital options. Callbacks are held in person, but actors are required to show proof of vaccination at the door. The theatre even upgraded their HVAC system during the pandemic with high-efficiency MERV-13 air filters and increased air exchange rates. “We are maintaining protocols during auditions and in the rehearsal room: masking whenever possible, distancing as much as we can, and always deferring to the most risk averse person in the room, no matter what the threat level is at the time,” wrote Laura Tahja Johnson, Lyric Arts’ Artistic Director.
Cross Community Players (CCP), Lyric Arts’ north metro neighbor and another non-union theatre, forwarded their COVID policy for their June production of Mamma Mia!. For this production, the company held virtual auditions over Zoom, then in-person callbacks - all actors and production staff at callbacks were required to mask up, but there were no vaccination requirements in place. According to the staff contact, “Going forward we might make some small adjustments to [our policy], but until this is over we will require masks at all indoor rehearsals. The only exception to that would be if everyone agreed to share they are vaccinated, and that goes for 100% of the cast.” However, according to CCP’s recent audition post for All Together Now: “If you are vaccinated, masks are not required at the CCP Costume Center. Unvaccinated auditionees should wear a mask.” This discrepancy serves as a reminder that all COVID policies are subject to change.
I asked each theatre if they were concerned about losing audition talent based on their guidelines; regardless of their COVID policy, the answer was no. “Talent seems to be on board with knowing that their safety is our main concern,” wrote Austene Van. “People are eager to get back to work and [are] creative, flexible, and resourceful enough to change and flow during these unprecedented times.” The source from Artistry agreed: “The community we work with is pro-safety, pro-vaccination, and pro- getting-back-to-work. We believe our shared commitment to covid safety is the path to a thriving and healthy arts community.” “Everyone is so looking forward to getting back to making art. They will do what they have to do to get on stage,” wrote the source from Cross Community Players.
If the high number of submissions for these theatre’s upcoming seasons is any indication, actors are certainly ready to retake the stage. Laura Tajha Johnson wrote: “For me, [implementing these guidelines] really came down to the safety of our actors. If we had not mandated masks and vaccinations, audiences could enter at their own risk. However, our actors don’t have that choice. They are choosing to give of their time and talent to provide a couple of hours of entertainment to an audience that really needs it right now. Honestly, their work is practically a public service at this point and my job is to do my very best to protect them, even at the risk of losing ticket revenue.”
Of the seven theatres I reached out to for comment, three did not respond as of press time: Chaska Valley Family Theatre (Chaska, MN), Expressions Community Theatre (Lakeville, MN), and Theatre in the Round Players (Minneapolis, MN). Of the three, only Theatre in the Round’s website mentions COVID protocols, stating “All audience members, artists, volunteers and staff members must be fully vaccinated and be able to provide proof (digital or paper) of COVID-19 vaccination.” Chaska Valley’s recent audition posting for Newsies requires all auditioners 12+ to show proof of vaccination, but Expressions’ does not.
As an impartial journalist, it is not my role to say which protocols are “correct.” There are as many theatre companies in Minnesota as there are lakes, and it is the duty of every actor, director, and theatre professional to decide for themselves where they want most to work. Are they comfortable working for free, or would they prefer to be paid for their time? What is the level of risk they will personally accept to set foot on a stage again? What about the upcoming slate of Christmas shows casting children under 12, who cannot be vaccinated? What is the “right” thing to do?
If you’re asking yourself these questions, then congratulations - you and I are in the same boat. We are in a very frustrating, confusing time, and for many of us, theatre is the thing we enjoy most in the world. It’s what brings us together with “our people,” what makes us feel safe and alive, what brings us “home.” Many companies are doing their best to ensure those feelings stay with us through the production journey - but is it worth the risk?