Column: Actors, get vaccinated or get off the public stage
Broadway performer Laura Osnes’ exit from a one-night concert performance at East Hampton’s Guild Hall over a COVID-19 vaccine requirement has provoked an uproar in the theater world. Vaccination advocates and resisters have been thrashing it out on social media, echoing the conflict between personal autonomy and collective responsibility that has been playing out across America since the start of the pandemic.
In a nation as divided as ours, it’s only natural that policy is vigorously debated. But our polarization has reached a lethal form of decadence when governors, to score political points, are blocking mask requirements in their school systems and the misinformed and rationally unreachable defend their decision to remain unvaccinated even as ICU units reach capacity in their hometowns.
The writer Isaac Asimov, decrying “the cult of ignorance in the United States” in a 1980 column for Newsweek, identified a “strain of anti-intellectualism” running through our politics and culture that’s “nurtured by the false notion that democracy means that ‘my ignorance is just as good as your knowledge.’” This strain has been especially virulent during this pandemic, when even in the face of a common mortal coronavirus enemy, our citizenry has fallen back into the usual partisan camps or taken refuge in an American individualism that isn’t so much rugged as selfish and stupid.
I don’t know about you but I don’t have the energy for a listening session with actors who want to explain, through fuzzy math and fuzzier logic, how they decided that it was the better choice for them to put their collaborators at risk than get a shot that has saved countless thousand lives. Delta has taken over, and the fall theater season is hanging by a thread. Or more accurately, it’s relying on the incomplete bulwark of vaccinations to allow us to move forward with some semblance of normality.
Let me simplify matters for theater practitioners who feel their hunches and convictions aren’t being properly respected. Get over yourselves. You don’t have a starring role in this particular drama. The tragedy that’s been unfolding is an ensemble production. If this recognition has been lost on you, it’s time to consider a new calling.
The theater is a public art form. Actors and other company members who don’t want to get vaccinated don’t have to get vaccinated. But they need to step off the public stage.
Clarity on this point has been gaining momentum. The Broadway League announced that the owners and operators of all 41 Broadway theaters in New York “will require vaccinations for audience members as well as performers, backstage crew, and theatre staff, for all performances through October 2021.”
The deadline is likely to be extended. A winter surge is in the forecast, and hospitals are already overloaded. These are extreme times. Yesterday, there were more than 140,000 new cases, according to the New York Times. Over the past week, Los Angeles County has averaged more than 3,400 new cases per day, per the Los Angeles Times.
Los Angeles Philharmonic is the latest to require proof of full vaccination, with no exception based on personal or religious beliefs.
The great driver of this awful déjà vu is the unwillingness of millions of Americans to take advantage of a scientific miracle that has been made readily available to them. Physicians on the frontlines are understandably running out of compassion for the patients who are needlessly filling up their COVID-19 units.
As a theater critic, I find I have little patience for theater artists who are using their spotlight to defend their indefensible position to keep working while not vaccinated. Whatever excuses you may have for not doing everything in your power to avoid taking up a scarce hospital bed or putting a friend, family member, colleague or perfect stranger into one, I don’t want to hear them.
I’m not shedding any tears over Osnes having to leave a concert version of “Crazy For You,” because of the personal decision she made with her husband “for ourselves, our family planning, and our future,” as she explained in an Instagram post that seemed entirely to miss the point of this collective emergency. (Her lauded starring performances in “Grease” and “Rodgers + Hammerstein’s Cinderella” sadly haven’t raised her social conscience.)
Preemptively, let me just say that if you feel your civil rights have been infringed because you can’t get cast in a new production of “Annie Get Your Gun,” try to understand why your fellow company members might not want to be in singing proximity to you. (Delta, by the way, doesn’t care about your narcissistic interpretation of American exceptionalism; it’s only a matter of time before it plants a smooch on your unsuspecting lips.) For those with a religious or medical exemption, sorry to be blunt but perhaps you should sit this casting call out for the benefit of a profession that is still shakily trying to get on its feet.
Sacrifices have to be made — from all of us — if we’re going to figure out how to manage what seems unfortunately to be an endemic reality. Lawyers and policy makers will have plenty of time to work out the kinks, but in the meantime can we at least try to avoid another shutdown.
Javier Muñoz, who played the title role in “Hamilton” on Broadway, wrote a collegial Instagram post to Osnes, speaking with courageous vulnerability from his perspective as a working performer trying to navigate the pandemic as both a cancer survivor and someone living with HIV. The tone couldn’t have been more gentle or sincere, but naturally it was met with a fringe chorus of idiocy.
This kind of mathematically benighted framing — Asimov’s point in action — makes it difficult to have a conversation. Time Out theater critic Adam Feldman, however, offered, in response to Muñoz’s equally thoughtful reply to Pinkins, a reality check on the numbers: “To be clear, 358 million vaccines have been administered in the U.S. and they have been linked to a total of three deaths. Compare and contrast with the 620,000 people who have died from not being vaccinated.”
With so much misinformation, stupidity and bad faith making this period feel like a Sisyphean version of whack-a-mole, let’s keep the enlightened example of Muñoz’s care and kindness in the forefront of our minds. His collaborative spirit will protect our sanity, even if theaters, local governments and professional unions will have to uphold stricter vaccine mandate policies to safeguard our health.
Nichelle Nichols, the beloved Lt. Uhura on ‘Star Trek,’ is living with dementia and struggling financially. Three parties fight to control her fate.
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