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BWW Blog: The Show Cannot Go On, But the Workers Must Survive - A Response to Nick Westrate's Article on The Daily Beast

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The article was a reaction to a statement made in a New York Times article that belittled theater artists.

When one thinks of the highlights of New York City, there are many things that come to mind - The Empire State Building, Central Park, the Statue of Liberty, the New York Public Library, even Madison Square Garden. But one thing in particular always seems to make it onto the list of "things you have to do in NYC" and that is to see a performance in the Theatre District, that special place in Midtown Manhattan most know as Broadway. But unfortunately, due to the current coronavirus pandemic, shows have been closed since March 12th, nearly 150 days ago. And while those who would have been in the audience of performances are mourning the loss of theatre, there is a greater problem that must be discussed.

Recently, actor Nick Westrate (Turn: Washington's Spies, Bernhardt/Hamlet) wrote a free article for The Daily Beast entitled "American Theater Workers Urgently Need Financial Help. The Government Must Step In." The article was a reaction to a statement made in a New York Times article that belittled theater artists, saying that "even Broadway actors" were receiving pandemic stimulus from the government. Some of the statistics Mr. Westrate used to make his point were shocking - Did you know that theater "is responsible for $1.3 billion in annual economic output, 8,409 jobs, and $513 million in salaries?" The theatre industry is a powerhouse that has been bringing tourists to New York City since the end of the 19th century with its incredible shows.

One thing that must be emphasized that seems to be brushed aside by some is the fact that it is not just the performers who are suffering during this time. As Mr. Westrate notes in his article, "the professional theater industry in New York City is a beautiful ecosystem of stage managers, carpenters, publicists, advertising executives, designers, writers, stagehands, directors, ushers, and house managers". All of these people who come together to make performances for audiences from around the world are without jobs and are struggling to survive. Broadway is responsible for jobs not just in New York City, but around the country and the world as a whole. Costume and set designers are no longer purchasing materials for new shows, advertisers are unable to market any performances, the ways in which the theatre industry affects the global economy could continue on and on for hundreds of paragraphs. But if theatre is so important to America, why doesn't it just reopen?

Reopening Broadway isn't the same as reopening restaurants and stores. The process will be much longer and require more safety precautions than other industries. Hundreds of people work on one show alone, so how will it be possible to regulate every single employee on The Great White Way to ensure that they are not potentially spreading the virus? How will actors work with social distancing on the stage? How will the musicians in the small pits below the stage be able to stay six feet apart, let alone perform while potentially wearing face masks? There are so many things that must be considered before the Broadway League can even think about reopening a single show. If shows reopened now, with no vaccine available and very little federal guidelines in existence, it would be nearly impossible to keep everyone safe. If a single person with coronavirus entered a theatre, they would be exposing hundreds, if not thousands, of people to the virus, which could lead to even more deaths than there already have been in New York and the United States as a whole.

Broadway stars like Javier Muñoz (Hamilton, In the Heights) have taken to social media to express their frustration with the current situation and how the lack of funding has affected their lives. Muñoz even stated in a Tweet that he may have to leave the theatre industry, stating that "this pandemic is now nearing meaning I might have no choice but the choose a new life". So-called "survival jobs" for those in the theatre industry are also sparse, as most tend to be in the hospitality sector which has shrunk over the past few months. BIPOC will be even more hurt by the effects of the pandemic, as studied in an article for The New York Times. Many in the theatre industry, including Mr. Westrate himself, will be losing their health insurance. Unfortunately, as quite a few people have noted, the arts are not funded in the United States and are failing to receive sorely-needed relief from the government.

One of the solutions that Mr. Westrate suggests to help with the crisis is a proposal to create a fund entitled The Fair Wage Fund. This fund, proposed by Robert Stanton (Dennis the Menace, Ink) and Jeffrey Omura (The Blacklist, Romeo and Juliet), would be created by the Department of Cultural and Literary Affairs to make up the difference between "the minimum union salaries and what we [industry workers] actually need to survive". But this proposal may have to wait, as New York City as a whole is struggling to survive economically, not just the theatre industry.

And it's not just the New York City government that is failing to provide support to the theatre industry (and other industries as well). President Trump refuses to take the pandemic seriously and allowing states to create their own restrictions, which has led to conflict and dangerous situations where some governors deem masks "unnecessary", potentially exposing even more United States citizens to the coronavirus. No one knows when things are going to go back to normal, or whether there will even be a "normal" to go back to. Some countries like Japan are already beginning to reopen their theatres, with Mamma Mia! opening just last month in Yokohama. But those in the United States will have to wait, because, as Mr. Westrate declares, "we are led by a vain, feckless demagogue".

Why did the airline industry receive $50 billion of relief when the arts sector contributes $265 billion more to the economy than the entire transportation sector put together, not just flights? Why are people having to give up their entire lives while those in the government continue to receive millions of dollars, giving none of it to the people they represent? As Mr. Westrate says, artists "aren't asking for 'hand-outs'", they are "demanding investment in an industry that is integral to our identity as a nation, and our economic survival. Mr. Westrate is absolutely correct in the statement that workers in the arts industry must be provided with support during the pandemic. Even though working on Broadway is always risky, and there is rarely a guarantee of a job throughout the year, those working in the industry should not have to beg for survival as a virus causes the world to stop turning. To quote his article once more, "We contribute to this country's [The United States] mind, heart, soul, and wallet".

Think about how you have been dealing with being stuck at home for months - Netflix, Spotify, Disney+, Hulu, the streaming options are nearly endless. Many, myself included, would have probably gone insane without some form of entertainment. But who provides this entertainment? The very artists who are right now struggling to survive, trying to stay afloat during the pandemic. If you have consumed a single piece of media during the pandemic, even just a single song or a video, you should be doing what you can to help support artists. Take a look at Be an Arts Hero to find ways you can get involved at an individual level. Reach out to your Senators and tell them to pass Arts & Culture relief. Urge government officials to help sustain the health funds of the theatre works so they are not without healthcare during a global pandemic. Support rent relief for different cultural institutions, particularly smaller ones that may even be local to you. Spread the words. Keep the arts and the artists alive.



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From This Author Student Blogger: Kat Mokrynski