Stage performers waiting in the wings, until pandemic's final curtain call

Posted at 5:11 PM, Jul 13, 2020
and last updated 2020-07-13 17:41:38-04

CINCINNATI — From the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra to Broadway to theatrical performances, artists have been forced to wait in the wings, unemployed, until the COVID-19 pandemic decides to take its final bow.

Mid-March was the last time any live show took the stage in Cincinnati, and theater and music fans may not be able to see another until there's a vaccine. For hundreds of Tri-State families, this is more than just the drama of the theater; it's also stress, worry and historically large losses.

"It's kind of very scary in the fact that we don't know when we'll be able to get back into that and do that," said Christopher Walter, stagehand with the International Alliance of Theatrical and Stage Employees local union.

Since the pandemic began, Riverbend remains empty, Music Hall watches over Washington Park in silence and the Cincinnati Opera has mourned the loss of its 100th season. For the first time in 127 years, the men and women working on live shows throughout the region have lost all full-time work.

"Day one, we were the first ones out," said Tom Guidugli, business agent with Cincinnati Stage Employees. "Our events were the first ones canceled. We were in the middle of loading a show into the Taft when the decision was made that the performer was not going to go on."

The unprecedented mass unemployment throughout the industry has forced stagehands, musicians, lighting techs, actors and every other job associated with live performances to rely on federal CARES Act checks. As other industries begin to reopen and return to work, getting live entertainment back in the spotlight before winter will not be simple.

"I'm very hopeful that we get back to work," said Guidugli. "But I think that the industry has recognized and understands that without a vaccine, it's going to make it very challenging."

A lot of it simply comes down to money. Tours need venues filled to the brim with eager audience members to make profits; in a theater with 3,000 seats, most performances need to fill at least 2,100. But with social distancing policies, the safe maximum is only around 500.

The rest is about safety. Many performers are, themselves, in the high-risk age group for COVID-19.

As regions across the country and close to home, like Hamilton, Clermont and Butler counties, see a rise in coronavirus cases, it becomes increasingly more unlikely that live shows will begin to book locations again without the presence of a vaccine.

"When we do turn the corner on this and when we are out in the clear, people are going to come back," said Guidugli. "They're going to want to be entertained and they're going to really be looking forward to it. So, you know, we just have to get to that point."