The Status of Post-quarantine Community Theatre in Eastern Massachusetts: An Interview with Kai Chao

Headshot of Kai Chao.

Interview by Kitty Drexel

EMACT website

Boston’s indoor mask mandate was lifted on March 5, 2022 according to the City’s government website. Residents and visitors to Boston are not required to wear a face covering in indoor public spaces such as gyms, bars and restaurants, museums, and entertainment venues.

Many Boston theatre companies still require their patrons to wear face masks when attending professional, live theatre events. Professional theatre companies are guided by union rules but are free to establish their own masking requirements.

The Huntington in Boston strongly encourages masks at evening performances and requires them at matinees. A few blocks away, The Lyric Stage Company encourages masks but doesn’t enforce them. One mile farther, Boston Playwrights’ Theatre requires masks at all performances.

Community theatre companies are not obligated to follow the rules of the Actors’ Equity Association. Director, choreographer, and photographer Kai Chao is the President of Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theatres (EMACT). He graciously agreed to discuss the state of our post-quarantine community theatre in New England.

Please note: this interview has been edited for length, clarity, and grammar.

What has it been like to watch Massachusetts community theatre recover for COVID-19 from your perspective as President of EMACT?

KC: That is a loaded question. If [a theatre] survived the pandemic, that’s one thing. I think a lot of theaters have been fortunate if they were able to pause, not lose funding, or lose patrons.

During the past six months, as restrictions have been lifted, we’ve seen theaters challenged with taking care of, not just audiences, but also their production teams and their communities as a whole.

While COVID is actually leveling out a bit, I think the community still wants to take care of everybody. We’re erring on the side of caution for everybody’s safety.

I went into a rehearsal yesterday because I was taking photographs. I masked because I was not going to be the person that is carrying something into a cast that’s been working together for weeks, months in most cases. I’m not going to be the wildcard.

What kinds of trends have you witnessed as president, photographer, and choreographer?

KC: Most theaters have followed the state, town and city mask restrictions. EMACT is not a governing organization. It’s difficult for us to tell theatre companies: this is what you have to do. EMACT guides theatres to follow state and local guidelines, to do what is most comfortable for their community.

I was just at somebody’s rehearsal yesterday and one of the leads was sick. So, they said [to the actor], “don’t come in.” We’re going to continue rehearsing. We open on Friday. We’ll see how you’re feeling as we go.

There are a lot of modifications that are happening. Ironically, when people used to be in theater before, they would just perform sick. You weren’t doing yourself any favors as an actor. You weren’t doing the audience any favors as well.

You’ll see a lot of theaters that have launched seasons, shortened them, abbreviated last shows, and taking it step by step for the last six months. Next year I think will be more regular in the sense that more theaters are publicly trying to get back online instead of doing three to four shows a year.

EMACT’s position that has always been: take care of the community, take care of your actors, take care of your people.  I know quite a few producers, directors have asked casts to stay masked during the entire rehearsal process.

You put a lot of trust in each other. Outside of the theater, people are doing whatever they’re doing. We have no governing controller for that.

When you say governing organization, do you mean specifically equity?

KC: Equity is a governing union. Whereas, EMACT is a nonprofit consortium of theatres. An equity theater has specific rules as a labor union.

Actors are under contract. Equity can dictate what the theatre houses can do. (The Actors’ Equity Association said actors and audiences didn’t have to mask in July 2022.)

You hear about productions closing due to COVID, and casts going down like flies. Have you experienced a show closing due to COVID?

KC: I was involved with the Boston Theatre Marathon. I was directing two actors in a 10-minute play.

We were to open the festival on Saturday. My actor called me on Wednesday to say, “I am not feeling great.” And then, Thursday morning, he took a test. Sure enough (he was COVID positive).

Well, it was just a 10-minute play. There’s no understudy. It’s a new work. You’re trying to honor the playwright. You’re also trying to keep things minimal, because there’s no budget per se. You’re being sponsored by a theatre company to do all this. So, guess who had to jump in (for the sick actor) and read from the script?

Good for you!

KC: I think the audience and the festival is much more understanding, these days, of that kind of situation.

I think audiences are more lenient. I think the atmosphere has changed because people are glad to be back in the audience, that they’re able to see live theatre again. Hopefully, this graciousness will continue.

Community theaters do not traditionally cast understudies. But, more and more now, they are considering it or actually doing it.

There’s no glory in being an understudy. You’re never going to be on stage if the lead doesn’t get sick. So, directors have been looking at ways to cast understudies with a specific show [so understudies] will have at least one performance in that role.

It’s a new dynamic. We’ve heard those stories about Broadway shows running through their understudies, their swings. Literally calling in people, “We know you haven’t done the show in five years, but you’re on our roster. The blocking hasn’t changed. Can you jump into the show?”

EMACT had an award ceremony in August. What was that like?

KC: It was the first return to the EMACT gala. The people who wanted to be there were very excited to have theater come back. And on the other side, there were a lot of people who were not ready yet.

We kept the gala mask optional because the town’s policy was mask optional. We were doing both to make it as comfortable for everybody.

Our board members made a conscious effort to keep masks on when we were milling with everybody in the crowds. We took our masks off on stage.

Is there anything you would like to promote or spotlight for readers?

KC: Thank you for the opportunity! The couple of things actually. Not particularly promotion, but an awareness.

Community theatre show selection processes have changed towards being more diversity, equity and inclusivity-minded. EMACT is seeing that happen across the board which is really nice.  We want everybody to keep going on that trajectory.

The other thing is that my presidency for EMACT will be coming to term next year. So, we’re looking for the next president.  I think the next step for EMACT is to get somebody who is driven and focused to push our community further in that direction.

(Folks interested in learning more about Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theatres can find information on the website. Learn more about volunteering, joining the EMACT Board of Directors, or running for president via the EMACT website.)

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