Post-Pandemic, The Show Goes On With Safety, Equity In The Spotlight
Amanda Wilson knew that life in the theater might mean dealing with a few metaphorical wolves, but she didn’t know it would mean sharing the stage with literal coyotes.
“We discovered pretty early on that there was a family of coyotes, super harmless, but definitely not something that you want to encounter at dusk by yourself,” Wilson said. The co-founder and artistic director of Boulder theatre troupe, The Catamounts, was staging a production of the show “The Rough” on a golf course. It was part of a site-specific experience in line with their motto: “Theater for an adventurous palate.”
“We really want to be able to push boundaries,” Wilson said. “But we recognize that in doing so, a lot of times we're asking actors and crew and designers to work in circumstances that they don't necessarily have a lot of experience in.”
Some in the cast weren’t entirely comfortable being stationed along the course alone. Wilson was able to find a way to make sure actors felt safe thanks to the organization’s adoption of the Community Standards for Theatre.
Based on the Chicago Theatre Standards created more than a decade ago as part of the Not In Our House movement, CST addresses things like basic safety, sexual harassment and diversity and accessibility inclusion.
“One of the biggest things that we advocate for is just transparency and clear communication at every step of the process, removing the ambiguity that makes people feel unsafe,” said Amanda Rose Villarreal. She’s the co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Artists’ Safety Alliance, which created the CST. She’s also a faculty member for theatrical intimacy education at the University of Colorado Boulder.
“If I'm going into a space and I don't know what I'm going to be asked to do and the director can just add anything at any point in time and say, ‘Oh, now this is in the nude,’ that makes me feel very unsafe,” Villarreal said.
As an equity actor for more than 25 years, Tamara Meneghini knows that feeling all too well. Now a co-founder of the Rocky Mountain Artists’ Safety Alliance, as well as an associate professor in musical theater at the University of Colorado Boulder, Meneghini started her career out as a “hoofer,” or tap dancer, in musical theatre.
She remembers performing with blisters on her feet and sprained ankles, even a dress with a broken zipper that left her exposed.
“You don't even think of saying something's wrong,” Meneghini said. “One show I had a guy break my rib.”
She kept performing. That was just the business, she says.
“Theatre is notoriously a grind,” Meneghini said. “It's deeply rooted in this grind culture. It came out of — in the United States anyway — vaudeville. These immigrants that were trying to make money to get food on their table, it was like just working, working, working. And that sort of mentality and that ethic, that, ‘I'll do anything for a little bit,’ that's kind of ingrained in us.”
Meneghini says she hopes that, with the help of the CST and the Rocky Mountain Artists’ Safety Alliance, they can help artists and theatre troupes move away from that kind of mentality. They’re already seeing it in the young artists they work with at CU.
But the idea that artists and theatre crews should be able to advocate for themselves when they don’t feel safe is still a huge cultural shift. And it's one Villarreal says will take time amongst those who’ve been in the scene awhile. It’s also one that not everyone has embraced.
“We've seen quite a bit of people being reticent to look at new practices because looking at new practices acknowledges that something's wrong and that makes people uncomfortable,” she said. “A lot of people out there are like, ‘But I'm a good person.’ And there is a disconnect where you can be a really good, caring, empathetic, wonderful person and the system can still be causing harm.”
Still, for some artists, the year and a half spent figuring out how to create work in a pandemic has also given them time to think about how to make that work safer and more equitable.
”When COVID broke out, it was just like a sign, one that we needed to do it (because) there's no one looking out for us,” said Aidan Pagnani, a longtime Denver musician and the co-founder of the Denver Musicians Union. The organization began in the midst of the pandemic, but the issues it addresses have been around for a while.
“I know a lot of people had to move home who are still screwed over from those first few months,” Pagnani said. “And, I think what the pandemic did was just give us time to organize. I mean, we weren't doing anything. We were losing money every day. But still, it was like, we've got to do something.”
The first step was to ask area musicians to commit to a demand that venues pay them a minimum of $100 per night, per band member. Pagnani says it’s the absolute minimum a musician needs to make a living in Denver.
It was a small step, but it led to a larger conversation about the overall treatment of musicians. The union later organized a boycott of venues owned by or associated with concert booker Jay Bianchi. Multiple artists have accused Bianchi of harassment and sexual assault. Bianchi has denied the allegations.
“This is just our response and our way of creating accountability culture,” said Sarah Mount, a musician and DMU co-founder. She says efforts to call out abusive behavior in the music scene are a long time coming.
“Even if it's more closed doors, we are making moves that are basically just our actions to show people that we're not going to put up with this anymore,” Mount said.
For years, artists have put up with notoriously lousy pay and abusive conditions. It’s almost an expectation that being an artist is inherently tied to the idea of struggle, says Andrew Knight.
“Right now, they're trying to do something for a profession that the rest of the people in the world are supposed to be doing on Saturday for fun — get together and sing with a friend or go to a painting night,” said Knight, an associate professor of music therapy at Colorado State University who teaches the course, the Artist’s Guide to Wellness.
The class works to change that perception, teaching young artists to advocate for their own financial, physical and mental health.
It also analyzes things students can do now, including how for a musician, protecting their posture at age 20 will pay off when they’re still playing at 40. And how understanding variable income as a student will help them budget better as a professional when gigs might be far between.
Still, no matter the amount of preparation, you just never know what’s around the corner. Like a global pandemic that wipes out your entire season — or coyotes roaming around your set.
“I have felt disempowered as an actor often and not wanting to ruffle feathers, wanting to make sure that I was being a ‘good hire,’” Wilson said. “But I also felt disempowered like I didn't have the space to sort of be like, I'm not I'm not sure that that feels safe, and not just physically safe, but sometimes kind of emotionally safe, too.”
So in the case of those coyotes, the theatre took a page from the Community Theatre Standards. Utilizing a go-between hired to improve communication between cast and crew and the directors and producers, they were able to come up with a solution. A “coyote babysitter” was implemented to be on the lookout and stay with cast members who were stationed alone on the golf course.
An odd casting choice? Maybe. But Wilson says it was worth it.
“I just think that on some level, it's tied to our mission, which is, if we're going to push boundaries, we need to be able to do so safely,” she said.
So the show can indeed go on.