How Theatre Makes Its Comeback: Producing Shows in a Pandemic

Written by Stefanie Maiya Lehmann |

As the novel coronavirus pandemic continues to impact the U.S., the majority of theatres across the country remain closed. According to Americans for the Arts’ COVID-19 Impact on the Arts tracking update, nonprofit arts and cultural organizations were estimated to have lost $8.4 billion as of June 29 – and that number has continued to grow. The impact on theatre practitioners is incalculable. Overnight, careers in the entertainment industry disappeared. Of the approximately 21,000 artists and creative people surveyed by Americans for the Arts, 94% have experienced a loss of income as a result of the pandemic and 62% have become fully unemployed.

How will theatres recover from this pandemic? What steps must theatres take to open in a way that keeps cast, crew and audiences safe? We share insights and resources from industry leaders below, followed by reports from theatres that have opened or planned to open this summer on the steps they are taking to do so safely.

What industry leaders are saying
With Broadway theatres closed at least through Jan. 3, 2021, shows that were expected to have long runs have chosen to cut their losses and close. Many large regional companies and producers of major new shows have given up on 2020 and pushed back openings all the way to mid-year 2021.

Looking to the future, unions and other organizations are working to develop standards for how workers in all areas can safely return to theatres of all sizes.

Actors’ Equity Association (Equity) has hired epidemiologist and former U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) Administrator David Michaels to consult on developing health and safety standards that prioritize Equity member safety. In mid-May, Michaels submitted his initial recommendations to Equity, outlining four core principles necessary for safe and healthy theatre productions to resume. Those recommendations, shared by Equity in a news release, are:

  1. The epidemic must be under control, with effective testing, few new cases in the area and contact tracing.
  2. Individuals who may be infectious can be readily identified and isolated, with frequent, regular and accurate testing with speedy results.
  3. The way we audition, rehearse, perform and stage manage may need to change and the venues we work in may need to undergo changes in order to reduce the risk.
  4. Efforts to control COVID-19 exposure must be collaborative, involving Equity members, employers, the union and all others involved in the production of theatre. There must be collective buy-in and ongoing evaluation and improvement of health and safety practices.

Equity Executive Director Mary McColl noted that those principles “are the foundation for our continued work with Dr. Michaels. We intend to build out protocols that can be used by our employers and all of our colleagues to insure that everyone who works in the theatre has the safest workplace possible.”

In the meantime, the union has advised members to contact their regional Equity office if they receive an offer to work.

In early July, Equity announced it had approved plans for the reopening of two theatres: Barrington Stage Company (see below) and Berkshire Theatre Group. The union also posted guidelines for COVID-19 testing and a pre-production safety sheet at

Moving to protect the safety of its members, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) has hired a team of three epidemiologists to consult on protocols for a return to work.

“We want everyone to get back to work as soon as possible, but we need to do it right,” IATSE International President Matthew D. Loeb stated in a May announcement. “We are working with these epidemiologists and employers to create standards that will apply across the board in the U.S. and Canada, so no production or worker is left behind.”

Also stepping up to provide guidance is American Repertory Theater (ART), working in conjunction with researchers from the Healthy Buildings program at Harvard University’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health. The first edition of their joint effort, The Roadmap to Recovery and Resilience for Theatre, is posted at “At this time, there are more questions than answers, but we believe that articulating the questions will lead to preparedness,” the report states. “This ‘First Edition’ of the roadmap, dated May 27, offers an initial set of considerations. … We will continue to add content in the form of future editions as we develop and test protocols in the months ahead.”

Steven A. Adelman,
Vice President,
Event Safety Alliance

Among the first to release guidelines applicable specifically to theatres and other venues was Event Safety Alliance (ESA), a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting “life safety first” in all phases of event production and activation. Sourced by more than 300 event industry professionals, the ESA Reopening Guide aims to help those planning to reopen during the pandemic by identifying risks and suggesting options for mitigation.

“Once one is legally allowed to reopen a venue or event space, the tougher question that follows is how to do that without exposing workers, patrons or artists to an unreasonable risk of exposure to a highly contagious virus for which, in many parts of the world, there is neither sufficient testing nor contact tracing, and no vaccine on the horizon,” writes Steven A. Adelman, vice president of ESA.

ESA estimates that in just the first two weeks after the Guide was released, more than 100,000 copies of the document were already circulating worldwide. Download the free Guide here:

Small theatres lead the way
It’s clear that Broadway, national tours, large performing arts centers and regional theatres will not be the first to reopen. Small local theatre companies, including outdoor theatres, have more flexibility and lower operational expenses, which allow them to think creatively and innovate around the pandemic. They will be the trailblazers for the industry.

“If small events and venues can reopen without increasing COVID-19 transmission rates, it will open the door for progressively larger spaces to implement similar measures on a larger scale in the future,” the ESA Reopening Guide states.

But the Guide also warns of unintended consequences if those first openings are not done successfully: “If, on the other hand, the first attempt at a safe reopening is a failure, that would set back the entire event industry.”

Among those leading the way are seven theatres that announced plans for a summer season. We asked them to share their strategies. One is an indoor Equity theatre, another is an indoor non-Equity theatre, four are outdoor theatres, and one is a dinner theatre. As Southern Theatre went to press in July, three had opened, three were proceeding with plans to open, and one (Kentucky Shakespeare Festival) had ultimately decided to postpone its season to 2021. All of the openings are contingent on COVID-19 orders.


Barrington Stage Company
Pittsfield, MA
Planned Opening: Aug. 5, 2020

Julianne Boyd,
Artistic Director,
Barrington Stage Company

Barrington Stage Company (BSC) is a regional Equity theatre in the Berkshires known for premiering The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, which went on to win two Tony Awards on Broadway. After postponing the originally slated 2020 productions to 2021, BSC Artistic Director Julianne Boyd planned to open Aug. 5 with a newly developed season specifically designed for a pandemic recovery.

The season was scheduled to begin with a one-person show featuring an actor who has recovered from COVID-19 and was slated to arrive three and one-half weeks before the first performance. Other mainstage events are concerts or staged readings with one to two days of rehearsals. Boyd said they “have chosen shows where there will be no physical contact between actors during performances.” For example, South Pacific: In Concert will be performed outdoors at a park as an Encores-type presentation with 6-foot social distancing. Offstage will see the same distancing.

“Our stage manager and sound and lighting technicians have their own areas in the house and can easily remain socially distant from one another,” Boyd said.

BSC’s 520-seat mainstage theatre has been rescaled to adhere to social distancing. Every other row of seats has been removed from the theatre. Two seats will be left vacant between groups. (Click here to see a detailed plan)

“In addition to all patrons having to wear masks, and entering through multiple entrances, there will be no tickets exchanging hands or being scanned,” Boyd said. “Since there will be only 163 people in the theatre, we will have patrons’ names on clipboards and slowly admit one group at a time. None of the shows has an intermission to minimize the usage of bathrooms. Concessions will not be open.”

Numerous sanitizing stations were planned. The theatre also has installed new filters and made air flow adjustments to the air conditioning system, Boyd said.

Audience response has been positive, with all shows selling so well that BSC added an additional concert.

“I think theatre is a great healer, a place where people meet and have a common experience, where there’s a shared humanity,” Boyd said.  “People can forget for a few hours the isolated world we live in and listen to stories that delight them, that move them, that affect them in new and unexpected ways.”

Bigfork Summer Playhouse
Bigfork, MT
Opened Its Season: July 2, 2020

Brach Thomson,
Associate Producer,
Bigfork Summer Playhouse

Bigfork Summer Playhouse is a non-Equity professional theatre known for “bringing the best of Broadway to the Rockies” through a season typically running from early May through August. After canceling an early season show and pushing back the start of the main season multiple times, Associate Producer Brach Thomson reopened Bigfork with Newsies on July 2 and The Hunchback of Notre Dame on July 4: “We played to really good houses both nights.”

His detailed plans for safely reopening included:

  • Limiting audiences to a maximum of 75% capacity in the 435-seat theatre.
  • Encouraging patrons to use masks and providing masks at the door for those who need one.
  • Installing hand sanitizer stations throughout the theatre and increasing cleaning efforts.
  • Forbidding contact between actors and audiences.
  • Self-quarantining the company, with temperature checks and self-assessments required.

“We are keeping the company at our facilities for all rehearsals, builds and events,” Thomson said. “We have asked for support from people in town to help pick up groceries and any necessities that the company needs during that time. Individual isolation isn’t possible with our living facilities, but we can contain ourselves as a group.”

Although he originally planned to alter love scenes due to the pandemic, that did not prove necessary.

“We worked with medical professionals, and they determined that our company quarantine and the fact that we all live on the same campus made the company like a ‘single family’ in the same home. So, as a family, we don’t have to distance among ourselves at all – meaning the love interest scenes can still be close and believable for our audience.”

Thomson noted that opening was important to the community as well as the theatre: “We are an integral part of our town’s economy, bringing people into the restaurants and shops every day.”

However, reaction was mixed, he said: “We are getting emails in both directions – some that are appalled that we would open our doors, some that are upset that we could even consider not opening our doors, some upset about wearing a mask.”


From This Day Forward
Valdese, NC
Planned Opening: July 17, 2020

Edyth Pruitt,
General Manager,
From This Day Forward

From This Day Forward is an outdoor drama produced by the Old Colony Players that tells the story of the founders of the town of Valdese, NC. After delaying the play’s opening, General Manager Edyth Pruitt planned to begin the season on July 17 and run until Aug. 15. As Southern Theatre went to press, state mandates due to COVID-19 limited attendance in the 500-seat amphitheatre to 25 people, but Old Colony Players planned to go ahead with the show.

The theatre has developed a two-page safety precaution document that includes such steps as:

  • Increasing the distance from audiences to the stage to 20 feet.
  • Encouraging audience members to purchase tickets in advance.
  • Installation of touchless card readers; cash sales handled by one individual.
  • Limiting capacity in restrooms and following a cleaning protocol that includes sanitizing before the show, after its start and following intermission, with a volunteer, wearing a protective mask, monitoring supplies and capacity.
  • Giving patrons the option of receiving sanitized chairs and cushions as they enter or bringing their own chairs.
  • Using ushers to ensure that audience members socially distance.

Online auditions were encouraged, and major roles are being double-cast, “so that, if necessary, cast members can be replaced at any time,” Pruitt said. “Dances, crowd scenes and battle scenes will be carefully blocked to limit personal contact when at all possible.” Show characters that must be in contact were cast with actors who have close relationships offstage, Pruitt said.

Safety precautions for the cast of local actors include a daily health screening and temperature check. Actors also are being required to sign a pledge of “best practices” not only for the theatre, but for their everyday lives, she said. Costumes have been modified, when possible, to allow for face coverings. Tents are being used to provide additional backstage space, and backstage protocols such as staggered dressing times have been adopted.

From This Day Forward has been running for 51 consecutive seasons,” Pruitt said. “It is the story of our people and our community. We do not want to be foolhardy, but if we can continue to tell our story and have a safe environment for people to join together to celebrate our story together, we will.”

The Great Passion Play
Eureka Springs, AR
Opened Its Season: May 22, 2020

Kent Butler,
Operations Director,
The Great Passion Play

The Great Passion Play has been telling the story of Jesus’ life in its three-story-high outdoor amphitheatre since 1968. The show typically opens on Good Friday, but was delayed this year until the Arkansas Department of Health approved its plan for opening. The play debuted Friday of Memorial Day weekend.

Operations director Kent Butler said audience size is limited to 1,000, 25% of the capacity in the 4,000-seat amphitheatre. Groups are seated with seven empty seats between them, a distance of 12 feet, two times the state requirement, he said. The amphitheatre opens 90 minutes before the show, so lines are not an issue. However 6-foot distancing markers are displayed throughout the venue. Handrails, seats and high-touch areas are wiped down before the show, with follow-ups once the audience is seated. All staff members wear face coverings/masks, Butler said, and signs are posted reminding audience members that the Department of Health encourages the use of face coverings/masks and sanitizer.

The approximately 150-200 employees are undergoing daily health screenings. Backstage areas have been spaced out, and wardrobe rooms are limited to 10 people. The protective measures don’t end offstage, Butler noted.

“All cast members are required to wear a face covering/mask and only take it off for lines,” he said. “Thankfully, headpieces were very typical back in Bible days, and we have incorporated the look into our costumes.”

The cast includes many families, Butler said, making it possible for family units to fill roles requiring close contact.

When The Great Passion Play opened, the county had a very low COVID-19 infection rate – a total of just 17 confirmed cases, Butler said. By mid-July, that number had climbed to 225 cases with six deaths.

The theatre has had “strong interest” from audiences, Butler said: “Although we’ve not seen attendance return to previous summer levels, we’re seeing better attendance in July than when the season began.”

The Great Passion Play will not measure success by attendance numbers but rather “by how safe we are able to keep our cast, crew and audience,” Butler said. “People will be slow in returning to travel, so attendance is not necessarily the best gauge. We are very thankful to donors to our nonprofit and others who have stepped up to fill the gap.”

Montford Park Players
Asheville, NC
Planned Opening: Aug. 14, 2020

John Russell,
Executive Director,
Montford Park Players

Montford Park Players is North Carolina’s longest-running Shakespeare theatre company, providing free theatre in a 1,000-seat outdoor amphitheatre every summer. Executive Director John Russell planned to open the season Aug. 14 if the state’s policy limiting outdoor groups to 25 persons was lifted in time to do so. He planned to open with Pericles, a revision to the original lineup, followed by the remainder of the scheduled season. One show was moved to 2021.

Russell said he is “using the Event Safety Alliance Reopening Guide as our bible for reopening and for risk mitigation.” His plans for safely reopening include:

  • Holding initial rehearsals for local cast and crew via Zoom.
  • Requiring daily temperature checks.
  • Enforcement of social distancing.
  • Deep cleaning of the theatre.
  • Limiting the number of free tickets to the shows.
  • Taking patron temperatures on arrival.
  • Providing enhanced audience hand washing and sanitizing stations.
  • Designating seating, which includes both rentals and chairs that patrons bring with them, in specific areas to meet social distancing guidelines.

Montford Park Players “has a very loyal and supportive local audience who are anxious to participate in arts events,” Russell said. “We believe it’s important to provide them with that opportunity in a relaxing and safe environment. If we’re able to retain an average of 50% of our average audience, we’ll consider that a success. Currently we’re estimating a loss of 75-100% of our out-of-market audience (30% of total) and a 25% drop in the local audience.”

Russell planned an intensive social media campaign encouraging patrons to either watch via livestream or return to the theatre, depending on their comfort level.

As Southern Theatre went to press, Russell noted that the decision on an Aug. 14 opening would hinge on the state’s COVID-19 numbers – and whether the governor moves to the next phase of reopening the state in time for a summer season.

“North Carolina is experiencing a rise in COVID-19 cases, and we’re not certain at this point when we’ll move into Phase 3, where we can reopen to the public,” he said. “The decision may be made for us by state and local authorities.”

But the demand is there, he said: “Our patrons have indicated that it’s important for them to see live theatre, and they’ve been proactively reaching out to us to find out when we plan to reopen.”


Derby Dinner Playhouse
Clarksville, IN
Opened Its Season: July 7, 2020

Lee Buckholz,
Producing Artistic Director,
Derby Dinner Playhouse

Derby Dinner Playhouse is one of the oldest and largest continually operating, professional dinner theatres in the nation, employing approximately 200 people. After closing the theatre in March due to COVID-19, Producing Artistic Director Lee Buckholz reopened July 7 with an adjusted show lineup and an extended schedule.

“We’ve gotten such supportive emails from our patrons,” Buckholz said. “COVID numbers in our area remain low, so we continue to look forward!”

A dinner theatre that traditionally served buffets, Derby has moved to a new style of food service: plated food delivered covered to tables, requiring increased staff.

Other changes include:

  • Removal of tables from the main floor in order to provide more than 10 feet from stage to tables, as well as 10 feet between tables.
  • Seating people who arrive in a group together, but not seating small groups with other parties.
  • Refinishing table surfaces with epoxy resin, removing linens and moving to disposable table wear.
  • Requiring use of gloves/masks by wait staff; suggesting mask use by patrons.
  • Asking actors to self-monitor their temperature daily for two weeks prior to rehearsal.

Casts are primarily local, Buckholz said. Those from out of town arrive 24 hours prior to rehearsal. During the run of shows, actors and crew are being asked to use a variety of protective measures, Buckholz said.

“Masks are worn through the blocking process and into tech,” he said. “Dressing rooms have been altered with plexiglass barriers between makeup areas. Temperatures are taken at the beginning of each day and when returning from lunch. All rehearsal areas are sanitized throughout the day and at the end of each rehearsal. We have closed green room areas and are able to socially distance seating in our rehearsal hall as well as in our theatre during the technical process.”

Safety procedures for performances include marking floors to facilitate social distancing, assigning audience arrival times to reduce congregating in lobby areas, and extending intermission to allow for use of restrooms without crowding.

Buckholz also is being creative in how he presents shows as part of his effort to protect actors and audiences: “I have reimagined our first production, Cinderella, to reflect a commedia dell’arte approach, so that masks could be worn by actors and still be conceptually correct. This not only protects the actors, but also helps protect the patrons.”

Social media and outreach efforts have found patrons very supportive of reopening, Buckholz said. However, “we aren’t necessarily looking for a financial profit off the bat,” he said. “We just want to serve our customers and keep them coming back.”

Derby Dinner Playhouse has reenvisioned its first show of the summer season, Cinderella, as a commedia dell’arte production, with the masks (above) designed to help protect actors and audiences from transmission of the coronavirus. Producing Artistic Director Lee Buckholz noted that fabric and trim were added to the mouth openings: “Then we airbrushed the fabric to blend it into the masks and complete the faces. Some of the masks have sticks (like masquerade masks). This allows actors who have dialogue and are socially distanced from the other actors to remove their masks momentarily, while delivering their lines. Those actors (ensemble) who don’t have lines leave their masks on throughout the show.”


Kentucky Shakespeare Festival
Louisville, KY
Planned Opening (final of four): Aug. 25, 2020
Decision to Postpone Announced: July 13, 2020

Matt Wallace,
Producing Artistic Director,
Kentucky Shakespeare Festival

Kentucky Shakespeare Festival (KSF) is a nonprofit professional theatre that produces the free Kentucky Shakespeare Festival in Louisville’s Central Park. While waiting for state approval to open, Producing Artistic Director Matt Wallace made extensive preparations for the theatre’s 60th anniversary season. He scaled back the season and delayed the original May 27 opening date four times while remaining hopeful that the show could still go on in its non-ticketed, open-air amphitheatre.

His seven-page working document outlining what a socially distanced season might look like included employee and volunteer health checks and policies; new cleaning and sanitation procedures; blocking off bench seating in a checkerboard pattern; sneeze guard protections for bar, gift shop and dressing rooms; new registers for contactless transactions; distancing actors from audience and each other; extensive social distancing signage throughout park/amphitheatre; signage for distanced lines; contactless playbill stands; and on-site temperature checks and masks for company members, who would be asked to limit exposure to others outside of the workplace.

However, as coronavirus cases surged in early July, KSF decided those precautions were not enough. “We started at Plan ‘B,’ and we’ve finally arrived at our final option – Plan ‘T,’ which is to postpone our entire in-person season to 2021 and create a filmed offering for this summer,” Wallace said. “We spent countless hours making plans and adapting, but as the virus continued to evolve and spread, and as we got closer to making these plans a reality, we just simply didn’t feel comfortable.”

KSF extended offers to contracted artists and staff for 2021 and is hiring most of the company in August to create and film a 60th anniversary production. “We will be able to control the shoot through rehearsing in small groups via Zoom and outdoors, having fewer tech needs, and shooting it in segments – all of which convince us that we’ll be able to do it safely and comfortably for everyone,” Wallace said.

Success will be defined by safety
A consistent trend across the companies daring to reopen this summer: They’re not expecting to make a normal profit. Some have gone so far as to say that they know, due to the protective measures required, this season cannot be profitable.

Nonetheless, these theatres see a great need in their communities. Their donors and patrons are hungry for culture and connection. Many also feel a sense of duty to their company members and staff who need the work. They also know that local small businesses rely on their seasons to bring in business. A single performance ripples out across many industries, providing significant economic impact.

Artists, technicians and administrators who are struggling to pay their next month’s rent will be watching this first wave of reopenings carefully, with an eye to what works and what doesn’t.

As more theatres begin to follow their lead and plan reopenings, ESA’s Steven Adelman emphasizes the importance of proceeding with caution and using reasonable practices.

“We’re all eager to get back to work and play,” Adelman said. “COVID-19 doesn’t care about our hopes or impatience. So let’s be smart about how we reopen in order to minimize the risk of getting workers, patrons or artists sick from a deadly virus for which there is no vaccine.”

This article originally appeared in Southern Theatre, The Magazine of the Southeastern Theatre Conference, Volume LXI Number 3, Summer 2020

Written by Stefanie Maiya Lehmann
Stefanie Maiya Lehmann is furloughed from her job as business manager of 
Lincoln Center Concert Halls and Production in New York City. She is a member 
of the Southern Theatre Editorial Board.

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