If you want to see a Broadway show this fall, you’re going to have to show proof that you’ve been vaccinated. Closer to home, if you want to see a musical or drama at one of D.C.'s leading theaters, you’re probably going to have to provide proof of vaccination, too.
A coalition of 13 Washington area theaters, including Arena Stage, the Shakespeare Theatre Company, Studio Theatre, Signature Theatre and Round House Theatre, announced Thursday that they will require patrons to be vaccinated to attend productions through the end of 2021. Exceptions will be made for those who cannot be vaccinated, such as children younger than 12.
“I think there is a great strength in numbers, and I think the fact that we’re all announcing it together at the same time is a benefit both for us and our audiences,” says Ed Zakreski, the managing director of Round House, which is based in Bethesda, Md. “You know you’re going to get the same safety and experience at any of these participating theaters.”
Chris Jennings, the executive director of the Shakespeare Theatre Company, says the inspiration came from Broadway, even before the Broadway League’s July 30 announcement about covid protocols. “A little over a month ago, Bruce Springsteen opened “Springsteen on Broadway” and required vaccinations. A few weeks later, a second Broadway show, “Pass Over,” opened [with a vaccination requirement]. I started to talk to my colleagues in New York and said, ‘Is this something that all of Broadway is going to do?’ At that point, nobody thought that was the case. They just said each show was going to decide on its own. But it had me thinking that it’s something that we should be looking at.”
Jennings reached out to colleagues at Washington area theaters, who’d stayed connected with Zoom calls since March 2020. Many were grappling with the same worries, especially as announcements of their 2021-22 seasons began to roll out. Some had decided that staff and actors would have to be vaccinated, others had upgraded their filtration systems or required audience members to wear masks except in the lobby, and others wondered if that went far enough. “It was literally about two weeks ago that we started to say, ‘Yeah, [a vaccination requirement] is something that we should really consider,’” Jennings says.
In surveys of subscribers and during in-person interactions, theater executives say, the topic of vaccination — knowing there was a minimal chance the stranger you’d be sitting next to for the next few hours had coronavirus — came up again and again. “I know that there are many, many audience members that want audiences vaccinated,” says Molly Smith, the artistic director of Arena Stage. She says she’s taken phone calls from subscribers, and last month, when Arena hosted in-person cabaret performances that only required attendees to wear masks, Smith says the No. 1 question she was asked by guests was, “Why isn’t Arena requiring vaccinations for audience members?”
Zakreski says Round House’s surveys showed it was more than just people liking the idea of vaccination mandates: “There were a number of people who expressed that they would not attend unless there was a vaccine mandate in place. I think there are some people who might not attend because we have a vaccine mandate, but I am absolutely confident that the first group is much larger than the second.”
A challenging aspect of the Washington theater scene is that, unlike New York, the area’s biggest theaters are spread across multiple jurisdictions with a patchwork of regulations. D.C. requires masking indoors, but businesses in Shirlington, a few minutes drive down 395 in Virginia, have no statewide mandate. That didn’t deter Signature Theatre, founded in Arlington in 1989, from joining the coalition. “Signature’s audience actually comes from all over the Metro area,” says Maggie Boland, Signature’s managing director. “We, of course, are deeply rooted in our Virginia neighborhood and in the Commonwealth, but we also really think about our audience as being regional, not specifically only Virginia. And so we’re not concerned about having mandates in place that are a little different from what the state is requiring because, again, we think it’s in the best interest of our audiences and our artists and our staff.”
Requiring vaccinations is one thing, but proving compliance is another. In New York, theater and restaurant patrons can use the NYC Covid Safe app, New York state’s Excelsior Pass or show their physical Centers for Disease Control and Prevention vaccination card. Theaters in Washington will set their own parameters: The Shakespeare Theatre, for instance, will accept a physical CDC card, a photo of a CDC card, or an approved digital vaccination card, such as those from MyIR or the Clear app. Theatergoers should check individual websites to see each venue’s requirements.
Exceptions will be made for those who cannot be vaccinated because of age, medical conditions or religious beliefs. Each theater will set its own requirements for entry, which could include showing a negative coronavirus test taken within 48 or 72 hours of showtime.
Of course, this isn’t just about the audience. “Quite frankly, the actors have expressed concern for their safety,” Zakreski says. “They’re the ones that are in that room every night. They’ve mostly been out of work for the last year and a half. They want to come back and work, but they want to make sure they’re safe, they want to make sure that their families are safe. And so making sure that everybody that comes into the theater has been vaccinated is a huge step in increasing their confidence.”
The full list of participating theaters includes Arena Stage, Atlas Performing Arts Center, Constellation Theatre Company, GALA Hispanic Theatre, the Keegan Theatre, Mosaic Theater Company, Round House Theatre, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Signature Theatre, Studio Theatre, Synetic Theater, Theater J, and Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company. As the list is subject to change, it will be updated on theatrewashington.org.
Those holding tickets to see “Hadestown” or “Ain’t Too Proud” might have noticed that the Kennedy Center has not signed on — at least not yet. Asked whether it might institute a vaccination policy, the nation’s performing arts center sent a statement saying, “We support the work being done by institutions in D.C. and across the country as we return to full-capacity, indoor performances. The Kennedy Center is a complex organization, with many stakeholders across our roles as a performing arts center, presidential memorial, and federal building. We are working with our numerous constituencies on updated protocols and look forward to sharing that information soon, as the safety and comfort of our audiences, artists, staff, and volunteers remains our highest priority.”
Just because a theater company isn’t a signatory doesn’t mean they’re not taking precautions. Olney Theatre is staging socially distanced outdoor performances that only require audiences to wear masks. However, when “The Thanksgiving Play” opens for a month of indoor performances in late September, audience members will have to show proof of vaccination as well as mask up. “Vaccine policies beyond October and in all Olney Theatre venues will depend on the course of the virus and the advice of public health experts,” according to a statement from the Montgomery County theater.
At a news conference on Tuesday, Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) was asked whether she would consider adopting protocols similar to New York City’s, which will require proof of vaccination to dine inside restaurants or enter entertainment venues. “I can assure you that the District is going to evaluate anything that works for D.C.,” she said.
In the meantime, theaters are moving ahead on their own, hoping to provide a semblance of normal for their community, and maybe something more, Arena Stage’s Smith says. “There may be some that say, ‘I’m not vaccinated,’ and this might be the moment that they say to themselves, ‘You know what? In order to do the things that I love to do in my city, I may need to get the shot.’ And if we can be part of that happening, then that’s a very good thing.”