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Some Kansas City Equity Theaters Say Union Restrictions Are Slowing Their Return To Live Performances

courtesy Heart of America Shakespeare Festival
For the second year in a row, the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival canceled its annual production in Southmoreland Park. Plans call for a return in 2022 for the Festival's 30th anniversary.

Vaccine distribution is ramping up, and restrictions are starting to loosen. But there are still lots of considerations for area stages before putting on a show.

The Heart of America Shakespeare Festival last week announced that, for the second year in a row, its outdoor production in Southmoreland Park is canceled.

On its website, the group pulled no punches as to the reason for its disappointing decision: “The Festival was fully prepared to work within local health guidelines,” it stated. “But, due to extremely strict COVID-19 safety protocols from Actors’ Equity Association (Equity), mounting a production would have been both logistically challenging and prohibitively expensive.”

The Shakespeare Festival is not the only Kansas City theater group that has run up against union restrictions.

Cynthia Levin is the producing artistic director of the Unicorn Theatre. She said, after a 40-year relationship as a union member, she’s been disappointed by all the twists and turns during the pandemic.

“I mean, we were a partner organization...and we had always worked hand in hand,” Levin said. “And now I felt like an adversary.”

Actors’ Equity Association, a performing arts labor union, got its start in 1913. Equity now represents more than 51,000 professional theater actors and managers across the country. It negotiates wages, provides benefits such as health and pension plans, and advocates for safe working conditions.

During the pandemic, Equity has provided a series of safety protocols for producing organizations. And, like city, county, and state restrictions, as well as guidance from the CDC, these have changed to adapt to rising or lowering cases, and as more has been learned about transmission.

But, in March, more than 2,000 actors signed a petition, arguing that no producers would be able to meet strict requirements such as Plexiglass barriers, and the new recommendations were preventing them from going back to work.

Equity’s latest safety protocols, released in April and effective at least through June 30, call for weekly COVID-19 testing, a COVID-19 safety officer, daily sanitizing, ventilation certified by a professional, as well as a fully vaccinated backstage.

And if anyone gets sick, the production shuts down.

Ron Megee.JPG
Spencer, Laura R.
The Unicorn Theatre offers an online series called "Quarantine Confessions." In the third episode, Ron Megee wrote and performs in “Quarantine Diary."

Levin said she followed Equity's instructions last year to ready the Unicorn's space for summer shows.

“You have to be able to redo your HVAC system and get in MERV-13 filters and put UV lights in all your ductwork,” she said. “And we raised the money and did that.”

But, she added, “And then two weeks later they said, no, that's not gonna work. Now, you'll have to do this and this and this.”

So the Unicorn has employed actors from a distance with virtual shows, virtual live readings of new scripts, and a monologue series — and offered one of their stages to house a food bank. They also fundraised, Levin said, “like crazy demons, because there was no income.”

Rich Baker, executive director of Starlight Theatre, said his company has more flexibility, being an outdoor venue. But he added he still has still plenty of guidelines to follow.

Starlight has announced plans for a four-show Broadway series starting June 22 with a concert-style production of “Godspell," and its concert series starts in July.

Baker said he and officials at The Muny in St. Louis, a similar outdoor venue, plan to jointly approach Equity in late April or early May to negotiate relaxed provisions.

In the meantime, Starlight has provided weekly updates for staff, actors and production teams about vaccination sites, including one at the nearby Kansas City Zoo. So far, he said, there’s been little pushback.

“They realized that in our business, so public-oriented, that they needed to get it,” he said, meaning the shot.

courtesy Starlight Theatre
Starlight Theatre in Swope Park seats 8,000 people. Social distanced seating, as well as required masks, will be in place in May, but officials hope to open at full capacity this summer.

Like many other theater companies, Starlight went dark in mid-March 2020 and has provided online programming. It opened up last year to host high school graduations, and Baker said it will do that again this spring, as well as host outdoor performances for other groups, such as the Kansas City Ballet in May.

Baker said these events provide an opportunity for a trial run, for staff to get some of the safety protocols down.

“They’re going to find out, the folks running theaters have become COVID experts,” he said. “We want to get back open, but we want to make sure we do it safely. Safety is our utmost concern.”

As for the Unicorn Theatre, plans call to continue virtual productions for now and to launch a season of in-person plays and new play readings in the fall.

“We are waiting to bring people actually inside of a building,” producing artistic director Cynthia Levin said, “like it was meant to be.”

Levin said she does have concerns that the old night out ritual of dinner and a movie, or dinner and a show, has changed to an evening featuring carryout food and streaming television. But, she’s hopeful.

“I know that theater has lasted thousands of years,” she said, “and that people will always want to gather together and tell stories, that I know.”

She added, “At what level that will come back, and when, I don’t know. But I’m going to keep trying.”

Kansas City is known for its style of jazz, influenced by the blues, as the home of Walt Disney’s first animation studio and the headquarters of Hallmark Cards. As one of KCUR’s arts reporters, I want people here to know a wide range of arts and culture stories from across the metropolitan area. I take listeners behind the scenes and introduce them to emerging artists and organizations, as well as keep up with established institutions. Send me an email at lauras@kcur.org or follow me on Twitter @lauraspencer.
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