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Don’t Touch the Props: Thinking about backstage safety in a post COVID-19 world

Jay Duckworth • Answer BoxJune 2020 • May 22, 2020

Though it’s been said—many times—seriously, don’t touch the props. We will be getting back to work; I don’t know when, but theater is resilient, and we’ll be back. I hesitate to use the word return; a lot of things will be different. There should be and will be some new safety protocols and considerations for when we do come back. Like how we hand off props to our actors; how quick changes will have to be different; A2’s will need to alter the way they mic a performer. We all work in such intimate spaces so I’m suggesting that we look how we can protect all of our people. These are all things that we should have a dialogue about now before we do go back to work.

‘’Any employer who wants to begin theatrical productions needs to have a comprehensive plan in place that protects not just the actors and stage managers, but ensures that everyone who works in the theater has a safe workplace,” said Mary McColl, Actors’ Equity Association (AEA) Executive Director. It’s good to see that the AEA union has all our health front and center. So how will theaters safeguard theater artisans and technicians when working backstage?

While there are some ideas out there for different disciplines, I can only make suggestions for props. The thing at the front of my mind is the safety of my crew. How do we keep them safe when they’re doing their jobs? Also, the interaction with the stage management team as well as the other backstage crew is very important. How they interact with performers, plus what is acceptable for the performers to do off-stage for our crews’ safety? I put these ideas out as suggestions because as the scientific research comes in, the better we will know how long the COVID virus lives on different surfaces and how we can deal with disinfecting to kill off any virus.

Planning Ahead
Starting with your precheck lists—if you haven’t already started laminating your precheck lists, now is the time. Laminated lists can be easily disinfected. There’s also the prep of the space. Sometimes we cannot control who is around the backstage space before we arrive. We should washdown and disinfect the prop tables and clean off the props before they are put in place. The COVID-19 virus can stand cold, even freezing temperatures, but it pretty much hates the heat. Maybe it’s time to introduce a handheld multi-purpose steamer. Perhaps a steamer would be good at cleaning and disinfecting surfaces where our crew and the actors most frequently touch. There may be better ways to handle porous and non-porous items that we need to learn and take into consideration.

As for the handing-off of props either from actor to runner or runner to actor, the runner should always have gloves on to protect themselves. Do we make sure that the glasses used on stage are marked for each actor so only they drink out of them? If the prop goes back on stage it should be wiped down and be put back on the prop table. The props that are not being used anymore could go to a dead space so that they can be cleaned at the end of the night before they go into the prop’s road box. Do we go as far as to create a plastic sheet tent over the props tables? Do we prepare for a two-show day differently?

Stocking Up
When you are working with your production manager on budgeting for supplies, you will need to account for PPE and sanitation supplies. During a run, we are going to need a lot of hand sanitizer, sanitizing wipes, masks, gloves, etc. You should be planning for your props crew to change gloves after any prop handoffs, and the props crew should have a new, black facemask for each performance. Can we make our own sanitizing cloths out of fabric, or another material, so we lessen the environmental impact?

It would also be a smart time to invest in a small dishwasher for show dishes. When we were doing TheApple Family Playsat the Public Theater, I did the research and showed that the cost of a dishwasher would pay for itself over time. In fact, we purchased two dishwashers at the Public since we have five spaces that are producing all at the same time.

It’s going to be a tough time ahead and we will discover things along the way. The questions I have asked here, and more, are all questions we should be asking our peers now. We also need to find out the facts and the best practices from researchers and medical professionals. As for right now let’s get a dialogue on backstage safety started. What are some of the things that you are considering for you and your crews? We need to pool our talents to get the best ideas out there and create a plan to be able to move forward in a safe and secure manner. Who knows, with all these fundamental changes we may be on the edge of a new way of doing theater. We each need to say, ‘If it is to be, it is up to me’. Stay well, wash your hands, and please, don’t touch the props!


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