Since the middle of March, the business of producing entertainment and advertising has been at a standstill. But now that states are beginning to re-open, everyone is wondering what life in our industry is going to look like in the future.
I’m most concerned with how actors are going to be impacted as production re-starts.
The Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers recently released a 22-page document with their suggestions for changes the industry could make when production resumes. This was followed by a much more in-depth joint report from the Director’s Guild of America, SAG-AFTRA, the Teamsters, and the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees. These documents could be used as a road map for keeping cast and crew safe as production resumes.
What do they say about actors? Quite a lot, actually.
The industry reports acknowledge that actors are the most vulnerable members of the production team. Our jobs prevent us from wearing protective equipment and practicing social distancing unless scripted. From the moment an actor gets into hair and makeup, masks and face shields are not an option. Plus, the very act of having hair and makeup applied requires violating social distancing rules. And unless scenes are written in a way that allows actors to be physically distant from each other, we are forced to be near other actors, in some cases physically interacting with them in a way that actually encourages virus transmission.
The industry recommendations, which are aimed at high budget productions like feature films and episodic TV shows, suggest dividing sets into zones, each requiring progressively more stringent testing and prevention measures to gain access.
Zone A would be any area where social distancing and PPE cannot be used by actors. Think dressing/holding areas, trailers, the location or studio set itself and areas in between. Cast and crew who must access this zone would undergo the most frequent virus testing, three times per week at minimum, and be closely monitored for symptoms. The goal would be to create a safe bubble around actors when they are at work.
Zone B includes ancillary areas related to the production. These include any space where a crew member would perform work. Control rooms, workshops, trucks, catering areas, etc. In this zone, crew members would be tested less often, but physical distancing and PPE would be strictly enforced.
Zone C is the outside world: homes, hotels, public transportation and anywhere cast and crew spend time when not working.
Testing is the foundation of the zone system. Without testing, the zones can’t be set up and no one can be given access to Zones A or B. All cast and crew would be required to be tested 24 hours prior to first interacting with the production. If traveling by plane to work, actors would be tested within 24 hours of their flight, and tested again before being granted access to either Zone. Those who test positive will be retested immediately while self-quarantining to wait for the result of the second test. The industry is concerned about false positives potentially causing unnecessary work stoppages. The reports do not include aggressive use of temperature monitoring because there is evidence it is not as effective in identifying potential virus spreaders.
Once on set, rehearsals will be done after cast is in hair and makeup and ready to shoot. All off-camera crew are to wear PPE at all times, and the set is to be clear of only essential crew members like a director, camera operator and sound tech. Lav mics are discouraged in favor of boom mics. Makeup and hair touch-ups are to be done by actors themselves if possible. Video village will be a thing of the past, with crew observing from other locations or having feeds delivered to individual handheld devices.
10-hour workdays would be enforced. Lunch times will be staggered and boxed meals provided in place of the traditional buffet-style setup. Special trash cans will be placed for dirty/discarded PPE, and an entirely new crew department, the Hygiene Crew and Security Unit, run by the Health Safety Supervisor, a new crew position, will be in charge of implementing and enforcing virus-related protocols.
Essentially, the goal of the reports is to envision an environment where everyone feels safe to go back to work.
How Will This Impact Actors?
I see a few implications for actors if these recommendations are adopted. It seems obvious that the effort to limit the number of people on set will result in far less background work available to actors. If crowd scenes aren’t eliminated entirely, they will be shot in a way that requires far fewer people.
I also believe there will be fewer principal roles available, especially in TV because guest casts will be shrunk. Writers will find ways to tell stories with fewer characters to minimize the risk to the series regulars, who are irreplaceable.
In-person casting will be a thing of the past for a while, as self-taped auditions and Zoom callbacks will become the norm. Casting director offices may relocate to smaller spaces depending on how long these precautions remain in place and the terms of their leases.
Those actors who do make it to set will have to rise to the emotional challenge of blocking out yet another distraction and just do good work. The job will start long before an actor actually sets foot on set, with testing being required before entering Zone B, say, a production office. Paper sides will be done away with. Actors should bring their own water bottles and pencils, as shared equipment and supplies will be out in favor of personal items. Actor holding areas will be socially distant and there is likely to be no interaction with the rest of the cast outside of rehearsing and shooting. Series regs on a TV show are likely to be isolated from guest cast as much as practically possible. The enforcement of 10-hour workdays will mean less overtime income for all.
Less clear is how smaller productions might put any of these suggestions to use. These changes are expensive and will add time to any production implementing them. It seems unlikely all of them will trickle down to lower-budget productions unless the cost can be kept to a minimum.
Work Is Trickling Back
We’ve already seen some non-union industrials coming back. Small crews of 4-5 are shooting one actor at a time while practicing social distancing and wearing PPE. Commercials are beginning to cast again, and in Los Angeles a handful of casting offices have resumed in-person auditions for non-union spots. It’s clear people are eager to get back to work.
For now, it’s up to each individual actor to decide on a case-by-case basis if the risk of taking an audition or job is worth the possibility of getting sick. I suggest asking a lot of questions before agreeing to any work-related activity.
For me personally, I know I can always get another gig. I cannot get another life. At this point, in-person auditions are a non-starter for me, no matter how casting tries to adapt to our new reality. Based on what we know about how the virus spreads, small, poorly ventilated rooms (like casting offices) where people have been talking, yelling, or otherwise leaving respiratory droplets everywhere, are good places for spread to occur.
Taking paying work is a harder calculation. I’d love to start working again, but my decision to join a production will depend on how safe that production makes me feel it’s trying to keep me and the rest of the cast and crew.
This is an intensely personal decision, but one you’ll have to make as we get going again.
I’m glad the industry is talking about ways to move forward. Actors working on SAG-AFTRA productions are likely to see a high level of spread prevention on future sets. Those working non-union should do their research and ask questions before agreeing to work.
It’s incumbent on all of us to play the role of a lifetime: one that requires us to think of others as much as ourselves as we make work-related decisions.