COVID-19 and the Arts

Dallas theater production abruptly shuts down due to COVID-19 spread

Dallas theater production abruptly shuts down due to COVID-19 spread

Firehouse Theatre presents Back to the '80s
The cast of Back to the '80s! on opening night. Photo by Kris Ikejiri

UPDATE: Actors' Equity Association emailed a statement from executive director Mary McColl on October 23 that reads: 

"Our hearts go out to the members of the cast and crew at Firehouse Theatre. Just this recently, Equity put Firehouse Theatre on its safety spotlight for refusing to use an Equity safety plan and follow Equity's safety guidelines. For months, we have said that the pandemic must be under control with adequate testing and contact tracing for live theatre to resume safely, and now the entire theatre community is reminded just how critical Equity’s safety guidelines really are."

AEA has stated that The Firehouse Theatre is no longer an Equity producer, having "abandoned their commitment to Actors' Equity workplace safety rules that protect the audience and actors and stage managers."

---

The Firehouse Theatre in Farmers Branch has canceled the remaining performances of its musical revue Back to the '80s!, which was originally set to run October 16-25 on an outside stage at the Sound at Cypress Waters.

Few theaters in Dallas-Fort Worth have attempted live, in-person productions with a full cast during the pandemic — and with good reason. A solo show or two performers who come from the same household is easier to monitor for health and safety reasons, but 18 unrelated actors plus five musicians and four production staff members seems like it's just asking for the coronavirus to spread if proper precautions aren't taken.

In an email sent to patrons on October 21, the company communicated that "Late yesterday, we were informed that some individuals involved with our production of Back to the '80s have tested positive for COVID-19. To ensure the safety of our artists, crew, and audience members, this weekend’s performances of the musical are canceled. All ticket holders will be contacted by our box office for a full refund."

One of the production members of Back to the '80s! confirmed that there are currently 17 cases of coronavirus among the the cast, band, crew, and Firehouse staff, with more results pending.

The source, who wishes to remain anonymous, says that regular testing was never suggested by the directing team or anyone from Firehouse, and that social distancing or masks/PPE were not required during the rehearsal process or performances.

"The original idea was to keep the show blocked with social distancing in mind, and then let the cast come together for the finale (the prom) and have them wear masks and gloves," says the source. "The problem then was that over time, there was more and more blocking that was taught without social distancing in mind, with the knowledge and intention that the cast would not be wearing a mask or gloves for those scenes."

A member of the band also contributed on Facebook: "They went through the rehearsal process without problems. Same for the times the band was there, masks all around and everything felt good. When we moved to the outdoor venue that's when everything changed. The large dressing room space, going down to the stage, on and off stage: no masks. Except the band. We were masked the entire time from when we got to the venue to when we left. But whatever rules were in place for the cast stopped at that point. That is where the trouble was, no masks once they got to performance time."

Production and promotional photos show the cast posed closely together with no form of personal protection equipment.

"Technically, people started getting tested on Monday and self-reporting the results of their tests starting late Monday/early Tuesday," says the source. "But that happened because someone in the cast started telling people after the show on Sunday that they had had a fever earlier in the day, but managed to medicate it down before call time.

"The director [Nick Hill] heard about it from a couple of cast members, so he encouraged everyone in the cast to get tested. Once one person tested positive, the positive results just kept rolling in."

Firehouse executive director David Moore and artistic director Derek Whitener have not responded to requests for comment. On October 24, the theater's board of directors emailed patrons that "out of an abundance of caution" the next two productions — Every Christmas Story Ever Told and Elf the Musical — are canceled.

A similar incident occurred in June at Granbury Theatre Company, when the final week of indoor performances of Legally Blonde were canceled due to a coronavirus outbreak among the cast and crew.

Firehouse is bringing back its streamed production of the musical Daddy Long Legs, a two-person production starring engaged couple Caitlin Martelle Jones and Preston Lee Isham. It will be available for on-demand streaming starting Friday, October 23, at 7:30 pm until the end of the year, with access codes available for purchase beginning on Friday.

However, The Firehouse Theatre isn't the only company attempting a live production with a large cast right now.

Kitchen Dog Theater has been presenting Get Up, Stand Up! A Drive-In Celebration of Democracy, a concert of freedom and protest songs with a rotating lineup that runs through November 3 in the parking lot behind its new home in the Design District.

But the singers perform individually, with KDT staff cleaning the microphones between each song and using disposable mike covers. There are no official rehearsals — sound check outside is the first time the performers are together — and temperatures of all involved are taken as they arrive. 

The audience is required to stay in their cars, and all crew and cast wear masks and maintain distance when not onstage. 

Imprint Theatreworks is currently rehearsing The Tree: An American Rock Musical with a score by local band Veteran Children and co-produced with Shakespeare Dallas. It is the third production that Imprint has staged since the pandemic began.

The new musical will perform at Samuell-Grand Amphitheatre October 29-November 14, with the option to live-stream for those who wish to view from home. A video on Imprint's Facebook page and website outlines the safety precautions in place for the audience.

Directed by Dallas Theater Center company member Tiana Kay Blair, the show has a cast of nine.

"I truly believe there is a way to tell a story with thoughtful and overly distanced staging, sanitization, masking, no-contact processes, and safety protocols in place that eliminate the potential for spread and still allow us to move forward," says Imprint's artistic director Ashley H. White. "But we can't work under the assumption that literally anything would be as it was before. It won't and it can't.

"This is new territory and caution, precaution, protocols, and guidelines are imperative. But in order to pioneer, all of those have to be strictly enforced at all times. There is a world of possibility out there, but we have to think forward and outside of the box and embrace the necessary precautions as opportunities, as opposed to ignoring them."