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Op-Ed: Chad Kimball and the Larger Problems of Broadway's Pandemic Complacency

A Twitter debate about mask-wearing is indicative of a bigger issue.

Times Square, circa March 2020
(© Tricia Baron)

The other night, I did something I've never done before. I dunked on a Broadway star on Twitter.

To be fair, he was asking for it.

Chad Kimball, one of the stars of Come From Away, a musical about showing compassion to your fellow humans, tweeted that he would "respectfully disobey" governmental orders that he personally deemed "unlawful" regarding wearing masks in church. Kimball, responding to new restrictions in the state of Washington, said, "Respectfully, I will never allow a Governor, or anyone, to stop me from SINGING let alone sing in worship to my God. Folks, absolute POWER corrupts ABSOLUTELY. This is not about safety. It's about POWER. I will respectfully disobey these unlawful orders."

Kimball had Covid-19 in March. A lot of people in his cast had it, too. While not widely reported, it is well known in the community that the virus spread like wildfire around Broadway last spring, a product of close backstage quarters and a job that requires people to talk and sing in close proximity for three hours a night. I'm working on an oral history about Broadway in the early days of the pandemic, and of the 50 interviews I've conducted so far with actors and creatives from various shows, I'd say, conservatively, that 75 percent of them either have had it, or could name more than five cases in their company.

His recent Tweet was particularly dangerous — surprising, too, considering how he shared a post on Instagram while ill, writing: "Please take every precaution by social distancing and washing your hands…It is an act of love, respect, self-sacrifice, and compassion to keep distant right now."

This tinfoil-hat stuff got Kimball "ratioed," meaning, the number of negative comments his church tweet received vastly outweighed the likes. Was it worth it for him to lose the respect of all his peers this way? I can't say. But I felt I had to respond because this kind of dangerous sentiment not only endangers lives, it is also protracts the amount of time that the entire theater community will have to be out of work.

A trio of mask-wearers and hoards of nose-breathers in Times Square last spring.
(© Tricia Baron)

Every new case is a setback when it comes to reopening Broadway. Every day that someone leaves their house without a mask on postpones the date when we will be able to get back to work. That really worries me. You know what else worries me, though? The fact that, eight months into this pandemic, Broadway still doesn't have a recovery plan beyond waiting for a vaccine. Devoid of a leader, someone who could shape perception and guide the community to its future, Broadway looks more and more like our current COVID-oblivious government. Ignore it and it'll eventually go away, and we'll all come back to things being exactly as they were.

I see this every day in my email inbox. I see it when I get invitations to cover in-person events on press lines that I'm told will be "spread out" (one press rep seemed mystified when my response was a hearty "no thank you"). I see it when I get press releases announcing 2022 seasons at major nonprofit theaters that, instead of trying to innovate, have spent the past eight months entirely dark (I understand that they had to furlough and lay off staff members, but if small theaters can figure out how to produce theater online, ones that operate million-dollar venues look particularly bad for staying silent). I see it when shows that have already announced new opening dates in 2021 push once again to the following year "pending cast and theater availability." I see it in a slate of Tony nominations that were at once seven months too late and entirely rushed at the same time, with no ceremony date in sight. I can't speak for the nominees, but while a statue is nice, I'm sure they'd much rather just have the ability to go to work every night.

It mystifies and disappoints me that the New York theater industry is largely refusing to look ahead, as if the Covid vaccine will magically erase the fact that many people won't be able to afford $150 tickets anymore (but really, could any normal person ever afford that?). True, there's no easy answer, and there are a lot of variables in this situation, but these theaters have a responsibility to figure out a place for themselves in a post-pandemic world, and resting on name recognition isn't going to do the trick. It's wholly irresponsible to operate under the assumption that things are going to go back to being exactly as they were, especially since we're now looking at tourism not recovering until 2025.

I don't have an answer, and nobody's turning to me for advice. But if someone did, I would say this: wear a mask. This goes for everyone. Masks aren't a partisan issue. Everyone flocks to superhero movies, and you know what? They all wear masks. Second, theater leaders, it's time to buckle down and come up with a plan of action to sustain our industry, whether it's Broadway, off-Broadway, or off-off-Broadway. It doesn't need to be ironclad. It just needs to exist so people know you're trying to imagine what the future is going to look like. It's willfully ignorant not to, just as how it's willfully ignorant to tell people to ignore public safety measures.

Mother from Ragtime said it best: We can never go back to before. Not after all we've experienced.

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