The Broadway League’s Charlotte St. Martin Q and A. We don’t yet know what it’s going to take to get open

The Broadway League will be rolling out unconscious bias training for all its members within the next ten days. It’s one of several new initiatives to address equity, diversity and inclusion in the theater community that Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the League, discussed today at an industry conference. It will sending out to its producers and theater owners news of a contact tracing system that it hopes will be put in place to make theatergoers feel safe when Broadway reopens.

As to when the Tony Awards: “We don’t have a decision date yet.”

The bulk of the discussion was about the unique challenges facing Broadway because of the pandemic.  St. Martin said she knows that social distancing works to stop the spread of the coronavirus — but, she said,  it won’t work in the theater. “We’re not that kind of business; we can’t socially distance  cast and crew,” she told Julie James, program director of On Broadway on Sirius Radio, in a conversation today as part of Theatermakers Summit. “No (producer) comes even close to recouping at 50 percent attendance… So we have to find other solutions.”

One obvious solution would be a vaccine — although some people won’t take it. “I say let’s get Hugh Jackman and Bernadette Peters to take the vaccine and then everybody will take it” — just like the public health community convinced Elvis Presley to take the polio vaccine and the country followed.

Below is an edited transcript of the conversation, and at the bottom, the full video.

Julie James: Charlotte, I already think that you have one of the most challenging jobs even under the best of circumstances trying to find consensus among so many people who make theatre from, you know, conversations with unions to theater owners, producers, you are the leaves on the making all of all of these people trying to make them happy, which is a probably near impossible task.
And you’ve had challenges in your time hurricanes, blizzards, subway closing, strikes … You also have enjoyed some of the most record breaking seasons for Broadway attendance and revenue in recent years. And here you are in 2020, faced with this sort of unbelievable, unfathomable challenge. How are you managing that as just as even just as Charlotte, the person, as well as Charlotte, the president of the Broadway League?

Charlotte St. Martin:
Well, certainly the first three or four months when people were all lamenting about what to do. Mondays were 12 to 14 hour days. And I had no time to worry about what to do. No question, as things have moved along, the days have gotten a tiny bit more normal. But I’m doing fine. I think because we have 42 tasks that are working on returning Broadway, and I’m working with them on a daily basis. I know that there is light at the end of the tunnel. And I know that these shows will be back. So it’s just a matter of trying to have some patience with a lot of people whose patience is not the number one and trying to help get us all on that road to patience, so that when we open everything will be the best it can be.

I would love for you to roll back the curtain on on some of that a little bit. I think there’s so many people who are curious. What is that activity? Who are the conversations with? Who are the players? What kind of dialogue is happening?

Every day, as we all know because we turn on our TVs, there’s news. So it’s not like you can make a plan and say okay, this is what we’re going to do, because things change. We do have as I said the 42 task forces, and they’re all geared toward different things to get us back.
We have over 150 people of our leadership, which are the board, and they’re working on all of the normal stuff, whether it’s finance committee, or labor or diversity or any of those issues. But we have almost 200 people working on those 42 task forces. So we’ve got about half of our membership, and some of the leaders of the community of Broadway at large, working with us to try to figure out what we’re going to do in each of the areas.

Working with the unions is different than… working with theater owners in developing protocols for the theaters. And all of that is different from our governmental efforts at the city, state and federal level. So the days are not boring. They’re challenging, but also reassuring.

Save Our Stages Act

I’m so glad to hear that. I’m sure so many other people are too. We’ve been hearing about your work on the Save Our Stages act. And I know you’re working closely with Senator Schumer on that  What are you asking for? And where do things stand at this moment?

The Save Our Stages act was actually originally developed by an organization that was newly formed called Nika, and it was about live entertainment. And they saw that they were not broad enough so they reached out to us. The bill was actually initially written by Senator John Cornyn from Texas, a Republican, and Senator Amy Klobuchar from Minnesota. And when they reached out to us, because we are live entertainment, and ask us to get involved, we then said, we will get involved and we will bring our National Legislative Council, elected officials in virtually every state, into the picture with us as long as we can get producers, and, of course, our theater owners and the presenters across the country involved in the bill.  We have over 200 cities in which Broadway is presented…many in performing arts centers that are nonprofit.

So we were able to bring in Senator Chuck Schumer, obviously, and also Senator Blunt with whom we had worked about six years ago on the producer tax incentives. So we have a very wide group of both Republicans and Democrats that are supporting this bill. It was actually passed by the House under the leadership of Nancy Pelosi. And we continue to hear that the prospects are very good for some form of this bill, when we have a new president.

We all hold out hope that we’ll get this bill passed in the next Heroes Act in this lame duck session, but for sure, we believe there’s very good possibility once we get a new president.

Every time the bill added people, different things were changed. But what
this does do is it gives certainly the first month of grants that are provided to the people who get these grants, who have lost 90 percent of their earned income or more. And then the next phase is for those that have lost 70 percent of their earned income. And then finally, it’ll open it up to all live entertainment, and  producers. So it will cover capital expenses, for example, for theaters that need to make changes related to COVID. It will cover running costs during the time that we don’t have full houses…. So it will help us keep theaters open while we’re building those audiences to return.

And that’s really important especially to the actors, for example, because it will give them the needed workweeks to get their health insurance back. It will help with costs to not only get the shows back up, because as you probably are aware, it will cost three to four million dollars to get most of the Broadway shows back open because
It will be at least a year, and more, to reopen. Casts may change, you have to go  through a new rehearsal. It’s not like everybody’s dancing feet are ready to dance again, right?  … So it will just help us get open and stay open during the rebuilding period.

Broadway Means Business

I know it must be frustrating. So many people feel like there’s enough acknowledgement of how much business is all tied and wrapped into theatre being able to be done both around the country and in New York City, that it’s such an engine. You’re mentioning all of this bipartisan support our people really getting it that this is part of our economy, this is an important part of our economy.

….For the last ten years, we’ve been working really hard to educate the elected officials. But there’s no question this particular crisis has done more to teach our elected officials at all levels, about the economic impact that we deliver. When I say that Broadway is responsible for 97,000 jobs in New York City, people are absolutely shocked. And to hear the head of the Hotel Association say Well, until Broadway’s back, we can’t come back. All of a sudden, you start getting people to open their ears and say, Well, this is not just some lovely entertainment thing that you can do in your spare time. This is one of the primary economic generators in our societies. And you look around the country, so many of our performing arts centers and venues are in center cities, and they’re also creating those jobs where jobs are most needed. And all you have to do is walk through Times Square, you don’t see anything open — you might see a little bit — but it’s because we don’t have those 250,000 people coming through Times Square every day, many of whom are our theatergoers.

Before your more than decades of experience at the League, you came from the hospitality industry. And I was wondering if you could bring your expertise in that arena into helping us understand the correlation that exists between  tourism, Broadway, and everything else  it affects — restaurants, hotels

When I got this job in 2006. I read a study from the Port Authority, where it said 80 percent of the people who are coming to New York City for a pleasure trip are coming to see a Broadway show, either as their first reason for coming or their second reason…
I think it was summed up perfectly after 9/11, when on the second day that we were closed, Mayor Rudy Giuliani reached out to Broadway and said, we have to get Broadway back up. And we’ve got to get it up by Thursday. Until Broadway’s open, the world will say New York is closed. We are a big brand for the city.
So there is the image of the city, there is the entertainment to bring people into the city. And then there’s the economic generator for the city. So we are hospitality, we often are the image of a city. The I Love New York campaign featured Broadway.


We know it’s Governor Cuomo’s call, but what are the challenges that are standing in the way of reopening at this moment?

The governor wants us open, he now totally understands the value of having Broadway open and the jobs that we create. And he is working closely with us.

We don’t yet know what it’s going to take to get open. As you may recall, in the early stages of the pandemic, there was a lot of conversation about how long the virus stays on hard surfaces. And of course, we spent several months researching every possible cure or disinfectant for the soft seats, the hard seats, the restrooms, all of that. s, restaurants, all of that…. And then two months later, we learned that that might not be such a big deal. It’s more about air circulation. We’re all eating outside these days. But we’re not getting definitive information about what will make the inside safe.  We have hired a infectious disease specialist to work with us, and the governor has made state officials, medical scientists, people who understand this virus better than us,  available to our infectious disease specialist. But we still don’t know.  Some say it’s as good as a great filter and others say you may need to replace your AC system. So lots of things are being done. Tests are being created and we will work closely with the governor.
We’ve said from day one we have to have a safe and secure environment, for our theatergoers, cast and crew. It does us no good to be open, if we close two weeks later because somebody got sick, because that truly could devastate Broadway for a long period of time.

We are working on protocols with  everything from backstage to front of house to Ingress, to regress to all of the services, like the concession stand,
the restrooms, ticketing, anything you can think of, About three months ago, there were 200 touch points that were being investigated. We certainly know masks. We know contactless. There are a few things we don’t know yet.

Certainly the vaccine, when effective will be great. But we also know that some people won’t do the vaccine.

I say let’s get Hugh Jackman and Bernadette Peters to take the vaccine and then everybody will take it. ..One of our lead directors was telling me that when the polio vaccine came out, about 50 percent of people took it, and they got Elvis Presley to take it. And the world took the polio vaccine,

.. We are communicating around the world, with theaters and colleagues, and we are all looking at this as a global industry and a global community.  We learned something for from Korea, where Phantom played and are able to use some of that here. some
We’re working on a couple of things that I can’t talk about, that may inform other countries. Who ever heard of a door handle that when you catch it, it ionizes your germ?  Well now that’s happening in London at the Palladium.

We know that social distancing works. That’s been proven to work. But we’re not that kind of business . We can’t socially distance on cast and crew, right? So we have to find other solutions and I have no doubt that we will.

There are so many people working on it. I read a couple of days ago that there are like 200 vaccines in process of being worked on that look favorable. So if we were to get a third of those, think about how quickly those could distributed and in the hands of people around the world.

Diversity and Inclusion

Another incredible opportunity that presented itself in 2020, was the lifting of voices from the BiPOC community (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) and
their demands to bring more diversity and inclusion to theater. I’m curious what you have been learning from these voices and what the League may be looking to do in the future to bring Broadway back better.

I do think that’s going to be one of the positive changes that we will see when we do come back. We the League have have been working on significant diversity initiatives — now called EDI issues —  for well over 10 years… I thought we were doing pretty good. And then as we became better educated by our colleagues in the BIPOC community, we learned there was a lot more we can do.  The League very quickly had
board meeting after the George Floyd murder, and we made a number of commitments. We’re just about to roll out unconscious biased training — required training for all of our leadership, which is 150 people, but we’re offering it
and encouraging it for all our members. That will be rolled out in the next ten days.
And we are hiring an EDI (Equity, Diversity and Inclusion)…theater is not a corporation. You know, it has a completely different set of things that need to change
And then we’ll be doing anti racist training for all members after the first of the year. We’ve added more BIPOC members to our board. And our goal is add even more as we have them join and get them engaged because to be on the board, you have to be active in the League. Our goal is not to have more members but to have more members of the community that are dedicated to enhancing and keeping alive safe
and healthy, the commercial theater.

What is so exciting for me is that I have never seen a community more ready, willing and able to support change. There’s a there’s a time and place for every movement.
It’s heartbreaking for us to have learned even more than I think most of us knew about what has been happening over the last 400 years. But what is
wonderful is there is a real desire for change, and I’ve never seen anything like it.

Our Equity, Diversity and Inclusion committee.
is over 50 percent bipod members who are guiding us and helping us walk the path that is the best for everyone.

We’ve learned about concerns from some of our BIPOC members that I don’t think anybody had any idea about, because perhaps they were afraid to share their concerns. They’re not afraid now, and that’s terrific.

Silver Linings?

Are there some silver linings, in addition to those BIPOC conversations and all of that learning and unlearning, that might actually benefit Broadway when it comes back? We’re so focused on how to return? Are there things that we won’t return to because maybe we found there’s a better way?

Well, I think it’s a bit early for me to know more of those. I do believe we will have a whole new way of looking at contactless services. Nobody wants to give up their playbill for example; so many see it as a keepsake.  But that’s not contactless. So we were thinking you could stack them up and oeople could take them. There are so many issues like that.

To me the silver lining: Every show, every theater owner
is looking at how to breathe more diversity and inclusion into their
show choices,  their employees, their contracts. Certainly the Tony Awards will be doing that as well..
Ratifying our elected officials and getting them to understand who we are and what we bring to our communities is a silver lining.
I also think having people understand what the League does and doesn’t do. There’s so many people that think that I’m a dictator. If you must do this
Well, there’s nothing I can mandate unless the  board says we have to mandate that and we’re an organization of volunteer members. We’re not corporate members. We’re individuals who want to ensure the health and safety
and vibrancy of commercial theater. So we can communicate, we can hopefully navigate the difficult waters. We do have authority in developing contracts with our 14 unions

We Can’t Lower Capacity

How much is the current closure schedule about not being able to accommodate safety measures, and how much of it is a matter of not being financially viable
to have a significantly lower capacity.

We have not talked once about having a lower capacity so that we can reopen. It is all about safety….We can’t socially distance. So we have to have safety. Safety is
first, second and third.  Will we open to full houses? In the last
fiscal year 2018-2019 season, we had 94 percent seats occupied. I think it would be
unrealistic to think that that would happen.
But because of the other things we’re working on, like Save Our Stages,  we’re not looking at lower attendance as the criteria to open….Hopefully after a couple of months of people attending and there isn’t an outbreak, then hopefully the crowds will grow.

Union Conversations?

Can you speak about the conversations that are happening with the union, particularly Actors Equity?

The majority of our conversations with labor are about the safety for the employees We have the same goal there. We’re not at opposite ends. We’re not going to say you have to go to work if you want to get paid. We’re not going to do that unless it is deemed safe.

There have been general conversations about what contracts might look like, what might be changed, but they’re not at the serious stage yet because we have to get safety first and foremost…

We’ll have to get to the changes, if any, about wages and work rules and all that to get to open because producers have to figure out if they can reopen…. Nobody comes even close to recouping at 50 percent attendance, so we’ll have to talk about that. Hopefully Save Our Stages will give us some breathing room to do that.

We want these people back to work. They are our family. We may sit across the table and negotiate from time to time but that happens every three years and then the rest of the time, we’re working together to create the greatest theater in the world.

BIPOC Membership in the League

What parameters are in place for the Broadway League to accept
more producers of color into its membership.

There has never been any kind of restriction for producers. I think if I were to be critical of our efforts, I would say perhaps we haven’t been aggressive enough in finding the producers of color. We have worked hard on getting all bipoc members of the League engaged.
To be a full member of the league is financially stringent, because there are many requirements that go along with being a full member of the league. And I think we haven’t done a good enough job in the past of saying, Come in, let us work with you, let us help you.

The Tony Awards

What about the Tony Awards? Give us just a little insight into what it was like to make the decisions. Wen can we expect some news about this most unusual Tony year?

It was certainly one of the hardest decisions that my partner Heather Hitchens who’s president of the American Theatre Wing, and yours truly have had with my chair, Tom Schumacher, and our Tony management committee. There were so many factors…Everybody says to us, whatever you do, it has to be Tony worthy. It has to be high quality…So we’re working  with CBS and with our Tony Award producers to make this the best possible show.  So we don’t have a decision date yet since we’re not opening in March, we have more planning time. And so that’s where we are..

What can theater lovers and theater makers do to help?

What can we do?  We know we can wear masks. We know we can keep our gatherings small. We know we can donate to the Actors Fund, and Broadway Care and  the many charitable organizations. Are there other things that theater lovers and theater makers can be doing?

Certainly when the Save our Stages bill is in the Senate, we will let everyone we know that now is the time to write your congressperson or your senator and support that, and support it with facts. I will also actually today be sending out a note to all of our members and our colleague organizations, a new contact tracing system that Governor Cuomo and Bloomberg have done that is geared to the art community so that it will help us when we do come back to assure people that we will be in contact.  So we’re hoping that everyone will participate, sign in, it’s totally private. And we think that will be one of the many factors that will be required to make people safe and feel safe. They may be safe but if they don’t feel it, it doesn’t matter; they won’t come back. So those are two things I can talk about today, but I’ll continue to talk loudly about things as we learn them.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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