You think you've got it bad?

No matter how you aim the gun, it's not a good time to be a member of the chorus. Photo from Midtown Arts Center's 'Les Misérables.'

THE 5 MOST-SCREWED JOB TITLES IN COVID-ERA THEATRE

By John Moore, Senior Arts Journalist

There's no question the COVID shutdown has been bad for everyone in the performing arts, from actors to audiences and everyone in-between. But with cash-strapped theatre companies facing competing safety and revenue concerns, the show is most likely to go on without some previously considered essential characters. Here are some of those who, through no fault of their own, are among those least likely to get cast when shows return, and why:

1. Equity Actors: There’s no question that the small pool of professional actors who have reached the grail-like status of membership in the professional actor’s union (Actors' Equity Association) are going to have the hardest time finding work over the next year. Because there just won’t be that much work to go around. The Denver Center, which is responsible for doling out the lion’s share of contracts to professional actors in this region, is sitting out live performances entirely for at least the next nine months. Other companies like the Arvada Center that are governed by union guidelines are facing huge revenue shortfalls and are likely to come out of the shutdown by presenting small-cast shows to keep costs down. Most other Colorado companies that offer occasional Equity guest contracts simply won’t over the next year because those actors (and the mandatory union stage manager who comes with the deal) would be ensured both higher pay and health-insurance contributions. Compounding matters is that the union is months away from allowing any member company to perform indoors. Bottom line: Union actors who depend on jobs at places like the Aurora Fox, Curious Theatre, the Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Lake Dillon Theatre Company, Theatre Aspen and others won’t have many offers of work coming their way anytime soon ­unless they – or those companies – make the devastating choice to drop their union affiliations. Meanwhile, non-union theatres such as Candlelight Dinner Playhouse in Johnstown already have announced plans to welcome audiences back indoors as soon as next month.

2. Ensemblists: Chorus members are the bedrock of the American musical. Broadway has a podcast dedicated just to them. On every Opening Night since 1950, The Legacy Robe tradition (formerly called the Gypsy Robe) has honored the chorus member with the most Broadway credits to receive a robe in a special backstage ceremony. Among other things, the chorus reinforces important dramatic and emotional moments. They create the spectacle that transports musical audiences. But let’s face it: Every theatre company that presents musicals is currently scrambling for one-actor vehicles, two-handers or, at most, quartets such as “I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change.” The one thing those shows all share in common: No chorus members. It looks like our beloved hoofers can just tap themselves right off the stage for the near future. These highly trained and underappreciated members of the local theatre ecology are in for a long, hard year of early morning shifts at Snooze.

3. Horn players: Much attention has been given to the real risks of public singing, with new evidence suggesting a singer’s respiratory droplets can carry as far as 60 feet and linger in the indoor air for hours. But what of the poor horn section? Playing any wind instrument involves deep breathing, forceful exhalation, and (not to be gross about it, but) the saliva and mucus that result from that are just part of the gig. According to the University of Iowa, “the only peer-reviewed, published study on wind instruments found significant aerosol production.” Duh. It just stands to reason that if a Music Director is putting together a small combo for a COVID-era musical, they are not likely to include deep blowers in the pit.

4. Assistant anything: On the flip side, 2020 is officially “The Year of the Stage Manager,” and these backstage bosses have perhaps the most essential jobs in all of theatre coming out of the shutdown. (OK, behind the precious few actors who make it onto the stage.) Not only do Stage Managers run every aspect of the show from first rehearsal to closing, they take charge as soon as the Director bolts after Opening Night. That said, any job with the word “assistant” in the title will, for a time, be considered a luxury: Assistant Stage Manager. Assistant Director. Assistant Sound Designer. Those jobs might not fully go away, but as far as their spots on the payroll, they will soon be moving to that most rapidly growing classification of theatre professionals: “Unpaid Interns.”

5. Journalists: (Or at least those journalists still harboring any remote hope of being paid for it.) In 1975, Denver had 11 daily or weekly newspapers with compensated theatre reporters on staff or contract. Today, we have a few freelancers who get paid by the story: Juliet Wittman at Westword, Lisa Kennedy for The Denver Post and Joanne Ostrow for The Colorado Sun. While some blogs like Onstage Colorado and Denver Theatre Perspectives pay nominal stipends for their reviewer contributions, no one makes a living covering theatre anymore. (Full disclosure: I was the final full-time, salaried journalist dedicated exclusively to covering theatre in Colorado, and had been since the Rocky Mountain News folded in 2009. Until my most recent job was eliminated by the Denver Center for the Performing Arts in April.) A few local advocates including David Marlowe, Tom Jones, Patrick Dorn and others blog for the love of it. But no one will likely cover the Colorado theatre community as a full-time job ever again. And believe me … what’s bad for us in journalism is bad for everyone in local theatre. Who will be the next generation of storytellers? And will they have any staying power without a sustainable pay model?  

Side note: It was suggested to me that this list could not possibly be considered complete if it did not include dramaturgs. If you don’t know who they are, that’s part of the problem. Dramaturgs, where they exist at all, are a theatre company’s literary editor. They provide research and resources and insight that saves a director’s bacon from making some terrible mistake like putting a cannon in a Shakespeare play that is set at the time of Jesus. But really, dramaturgs are no more screwed now than they were before COVID. Because in order to be screwed, you had to at one point not be screwed.

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theater critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine during his time at The Denver Post. He also is the founder of The Denver Actors Fund, and is now contributing reports for the local theatre community for ArvadaCenter.Org. Reach him at culturewestjohn@gmail.com.

Reader contributions:

Sally Ollove: I am Dramaturg, and I feel seen by being seen being unseen 👏👏👏

Sheila Morris: "I know you can't list us all, and face it. ... ALL professional theatre jobs are on shaky ground. But costume shops' fortunes rise and fall with the size of casts. At one time, the DCPA Theatre Company had as many as 30 people working in the costume shop, all at once, because there were three huge productions (each with 15-30 cast members) in progress at the same time. Those days will likely never come again. I think I'm happy I retired in November."

Rob Costigan: How about designers, John?

John Moore's response: I had designers as an entire category in my first draft but decided to stick to five and let readers contribute additional thoughts. I thought of designers because my sense is we will necessarily be in for a period of minimal-set shows, with minimal props to cut down on communal touching. I think that among designers, this could negatively affect costumers most of all because I think we're in for mostly sinply staged, contemporary-dress stories. And, if so, those especially cash-strapped small companies might be content making do with what's in stock or in actors' closets. I also think we might be in for more combined designers jobs to save on stipends.

Nicole Harrison: I am a Costume Designer, and so far I have lost 22 contracts and rentals for the bulk of my year’s income. Summer and fall are just so huge. Also, the shows I was contracted for that are happening decided to go to Zoom performances, costumed from their closets and concert performances in dress blacks. There is a lot of apprehension about how we will do fittings too, because we have to physically be up in their business. Imagine having a giant basement full of costumes and thinking, 'Who’s going to wear you?' How long can I justify paying for my warehouse when I don’t have any idea where my 25-year career is going?"

Becky Toma: I am a Properties Designer, and I have a big decision to make. I have several storage units that I can't afford any more. They are filled with 40 years of props from movies, commercials, industrial films and theatre. My heart is breaking.

Jeff Parker: Pros for a dialect coach: Actors no longer complain when I ask them to use technology and seem to be much more tech-savvy than they were a year ago. Cons for a dialect coach: 95 percent of theatres are saying, “Eh, we’ll just let the actors and the director figure it out. How hard could it be? It’s just the vocal component of the story.” So our job has been made easier but our job, already seen as 'optional' by many companies, will likely not be utilized soon or terribly often (despite the impending onslaught of Zoom comedy-of-manners plays with RP accents). There’s a silver lining: many actors and teachers I know are using this time to develop their skills, and speech/articulation/accent remains the easiest component of performance to teach online. I’m seeing and hearing great speech work from actors, as well as a hunger to learn systems and theory (versus the 'just gimme the sounds' approach). Which, I suppose, also means that dialect coaches may not be necessary as members of the production team if all the actors have advanced training in speech and accents."

Naysan Mojgani: "At the risk of being overly serious and simultaneously overly optimistic, I suspect we'll be seeing a boost in developmental work, since Zoom allows staged readings and workshops to continue pretty easily. So there's that."

Kellie Rockey: Add theatre teachers to the list, please. We just got hosed.

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