Behind transparent face shields, Broadway veterans Charl Brown, Joel Perez, Kris Coleman, and Matthew Amira approached the modulation of Kander and Ebb’s “New York, New York” in tight harmonies, their voices ringing out in Times Square April 12. The performance heralded the opening of New York City’s latest COVID-19 vaccination center, located in the heart of the theatre district and designated for performing arts workers. The site itself is also a harmonious feat, signifying a collaboration between the city government and various theatre unions, with their members taking on new but familiar roles.
At the opening, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio called the site a place where theatre, film, and TV industry folks “can go and be guaranteed they can get a vaccine,” paving the way for their regular jobs—on pause in the wake of the pandemic shutdown—to resume. (De Blasio and Doctor Anthony Fauci have both cited this fall as a reasonable, if optimistic, reopening target.)
Until then, however, several arts workers will translate their showbiz skills to the medical administration in all of the new site’s non-clinical positions.
Ushers once tasked with bringing ticketholders to their seats now escort individuals to post-vaccination observation areas. Box office personnel shifted from processing seat requests to processing first and second dose appointments. Instead of merchandise or concession, medical supplies are now getting restocked as new crowds file in. Management positions have a theatrical flair as well: serving as site manager is Susan Sampliner, the longtime company manager of Wicked.
“I’ve always said that if you could manage a Broadway show, you could manage anything. This is totally putting that to the test,” Sampliner says. “I didn’t really want to leave theatre, but I thought if I had to, I could manage. Now I can actually flex my muscles and work 40, 60 hours a week again. I haven’t done that in a year, and your muscles get rusty. I didn’t want to go right back to Wicked without having done something in between.”
As a company manager, Sampliner acts as a liaison between production heads and the many individuals who keep the show running, including cast, crew, and creative and administrative teams. At the center of that responsibility are assurances of care and comfort, and it’s no different at the vaccination site. “It feels like backstage—that’s the vibe I’m trying to bring to it,” she says. “We have all the people from the industry wearing show t-shirts. All the people who get vaccinated can sign the wall.”
Show posters courtesy of merchandise company Araca Group are on display; upon finishing their observation period, individuals exit through stanchions from Off-Broadway's Westside Theatre.
A Broadway show might require years of development before reaching weeks of rehearsal, a month or so of previews, and finally an opening night. De Blasio announced this new vaccination center less than three weeks ago. Medical staffing agency ATC Healthcare led the charge in assembling the team, connecting with the Coalition of Broadway Unions and Guilds (an umbrella cohort of 13 groups representing backstage, front-of-house, and in-office theatre workers) to fill administrative positions with union members. Currently, the site employs six vaccine nurses and 16 administrative staffers; Sampliner expects both numbers to increase four-fold.
“It's not a career; hopefully it'll last three or four months, and that's it,” says ATC executive Jordan Savitsky. That's true: a pandemic shouldn’t have the run time of a Broadway hit, and unlike a premature closing notice, eliminating the need for a vaccination center should be a good omen. “It's great when you have someone who's going to be able to go back into another job that is really their passion, and we can help them get there.”
Registration has begun to roll out via the city’s Vaccine Finder portal. On its first day, the site administered about 160 vaccines. At full speed, the center will be able to administer over 1,500 shots a day, and it's working with The Actors Fund to ensure industry members have access to those slots.
The quick turnaround and subsequent acceleration is a byproduct of a shared urgency. The show indeed must go on, and this is a means to that end. “Everyone is so laser-focused on working toward the common goal of getting their members back to work,” Savitsky says. “Whatever it takes, they’re here for you.”
Savitsky admits that this might be his theatrical foray. But take it from a bona fide Broadway star who knows the business: Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda. The multi-hyphenate was on hand with de Blasio to tour the facility in its first hours of operation. “If anyone knows how to make shit run on time, it’s Broadway stage managers,” Miranda said. “So you’ll be in good hands.”