Like Life, Creative People Always Find a Way
Leave it to creative people to take an event like Covid 19 – which upends everything! – and find a way to make it work for them.
The film and TV industry has taken the shutdown on the chin. It shares that unfortunate distinction with restaurants, bars, movie theaters, cruise lines, airlines, hotels, live theater! – all of which rely on employing or servicing large groups of people in close proximity for an extended period of time. Unlike many businesses, which have found ways for employees to work from home (more or less productively), the on-camera world relies on its cast and crew members to be physically present.
All productions abruptly shut down when it became apparent around the world that we were dealing with a virulent pandemic that would not be going away within a few weeks. Common knowledge led us to think that we would be looking at a 14 day shutdown at most. Well, as we now know all too well, that has stretched out to a minimum of 14 weeks in most states, and even longer in some. Five months later and with some lockdowns still in place, and restrictions just about everywhere else, business in ANY field is far from normal. And may be so at least through the end of 2020. The Great Shutdown. The Lost Year. Indeed.
But creative people look outside of the box for work-arounds to these restrictions, and the results have been inspiring. TV commercials were the first to begin casting and filming. Scripts that called for groups of people to interact while celebrating with the client product were cleverly rewritten to be shot piecemeal, either in an actor’s home or on set under strict Covid-mandated health guidelines. Stories featured people being interviewed and lending their opinions, driving by the original action and calling out their endorsements, or video that was narrated by a remote voiceover actor.
Many of the more recent commercial projects are actively looking for people who have been quarantining together, thereby mitigating a large risk of infection through personal interaction. Castings request real-life couples, families, roommates, and others who share a household or who otherwise are in such close contact that they might as well be living under one roof. My teen daughter and I have actually enjoyed auditioning together for these projects! Like many in the Southeast, where self-taped auditions have been commonplace for years, we have our own studio setup with a camera, tripod, lights, microphone, and backdrop. We also know how to edit and upload our recorded scenes to the appropriate casting sites. The learning curve has been much steeper for actors in other parts of the country where they were accustomed to in-person auditons for most projects. But there's lots of help on-line, if you don't know where to start. Google "self-tape auditions" and you can find plenty of articles and video, like this one from Backstage.
SAG-AFTRA film and TV sets that have resumed filming are operating under strict and extensive new guidelines to ensure everyone’s health on set, with frequent testing of all cast and crew for Covid 19. Tyler Perry, always in a league of his own, surpassed just about everybody in the industry by creating a quarantine “bubble” – a residential community on the grounds of his studio, repurposing existing barracks and historic houses from the time the site was an active Army base, and building new homes. All crew, actors, and anyone connected with production reside on his property while shooting. Mr. Perry, who writes all his own scripts and directs all his films and TV shows, is highly efficient and shoots very quickly. The entire upcoming season of “Sistas” was filmed within a few weeks in July, and new episodes of “The Oval” began in early August. Back-to-back shoots of his BET+ series, “Bruh” and “Ruthless,” are scheduled to begin soon afterwards. He’s been a role model for the whole industry!
Non-union productions, too, are taking precautions, but they make their own non-binding guidelines, which may or not be followed. Experienced non-union actors have been leery of these sets for the most part. In their favor, however, many of these productions are working with small crews and fewer actors per scene than originally scripted. It’s up to the actors and crew members who choose to participate to assess the risks themselves, based on the information that the production provides, and then hope for voluntary compliance. No outside agency will be enforcing SAG-AFTRA rules on a non-union set.
There is some collateral career damage - well, call it a setback - for two distinct groups of actors. Older actors, specifically those over 65, will be sitting on the sidelines for some time to come. Not only are productions rewriting plot lines that would have naturally included older characters, but the actors themselves are well-advised to keep themselves away from potentially risky, crowded environments.
The other group is the very young, children and teens under age 18. While this age group is less likely to contract the coronavirus or experience severe symptoms, they each come to set with a parent or guardian and require an on-set teacher, too. If a young actor were to be tested and possibly quarantined for an extended period on set, then all these extra people would have to be, too, and the costs and points of possible exposure to the virus go up. The hours per day on set are increasing with the extra precautions, but kids and teens are still limited to the same number of active work hours, potentially leaving too little time each day to shoot the necessary footage involving these young actors. Plus, kids and teens are likely have been exposed to more people who may have contracted Covid 19, considering the greater number of their personal interactions through extended family, friend groups, school population, sports or extra-curricular activity. Emancipated minors can be treated as adults without the extra supervision, but more often than not, the production will choose a more mature young adult to play a teen role, especially if the cast is to be quarantined prior to and/or during production.
We’ll get through this “unprecedented time” (haven’t you grown to detest this phrase?!), but for many in the performing arts, 2020 will certainly be counted a lost year as they consider their careers. At least for those working in TV, film, and commercials, there are workable options. (The same can’t be said for those performing on stage, as they are presumably shut down completely until all this is OVER.) There’ll come the day when the crisis is declared past. Just watch productions gear up in response to months and months of pent-up demand! Until then, we and our creative friends will just have to think a little further outside the box. No doubt, plenty of us will find innovative ways to work within our restrictive Covid-induced bubble.