The scene is a staple of Broadway: After a show ends, its most ardent fans gather at the stage door, hoping for an autograph, an Instagrammable photo, or even a conversation with their favorite star.
But this week, facing a widening coronavirus outbreak that threatens public health in New York and around the world, the theater industry’s leaders said they wanted to put a stop to the practice.
“We are highly recommending that all stage door activities be eliminated for the time being,” the Broadway League, a trade organization representing producers and theater owners, said on Tuesday.
The step is the latest in a series of actions the theater business has taken to keep its plays and musicals running while also protecting public health.
Broadway, a hallmark New York industry that drew 14.8 million patrons and grossed $1.8 billion last season, is vulnerable to economic damage from the outbreak for multiple reasons: Its audience skews older, and older people seem especially vulnerable to this virus; its audience is heavily made up of tourists, and travel is drying up; and its events involve large numbers of people packed into tight spaces — a situation risky enough that it is being banned in some countries.
Broadway’s leaders say they are determined to keep their theaters open if at all possible, and anticipate that they would collectively close only if ordered to do so by a government agency. (That is not unthinkable: Some performance venues have been closed in Austria, Germany and Italy, among other places.)
The scene at stage doors Tuesday night showed just how hard even small changes can be. At some shows — Disney’s “Frozen” and “The Lion King,” for example — theater employees made clear there would be no more stage dooring. But at other theaters, some actors obliged waiting fans.
Outside the Shubert Theater, where “To Kill a Mockingbird” is playing, Ed Harris, the star who plays Atticus Finch, made a hasty exit with a wave to the crowd. But Nick Robinson, who plays Jem Finch, stayed to accept hugs, and stood in close, arms around shoulders, for pictures with a last handful of well-wishers.
“It’s great that people want to stick around,” Robinson said afterward. “I just try to wash my hands and not shake hands — just the simple stuff.”
At the Golden Theater, where a new Martin McDonagh play called “Hangmen” is in previews, employees told fans that cast members would not stop for signatures or pictures.
But Brenda and Gillian Garcia, a mother-daughter pair from Manhattan, were undeterred, sidling up to the play’s star, Dan Stevens of “Downton Abbey” fame, as he turned onto Eighth Avenue. They got him to pause for a picture, even as a security guard tried to hurry them along.
“She really loves Dan Stevens,” explained Brenda Garcia, as her daughter happily clutched her phone with its brand-new photo.
There are 31 shows running on Broadway, and so far overall attendance has held steady — there were 253,453 patrons last week, up slightly from the previous week. And many ticket buyers are clearly still eager to see theater.
“I guess I’m not willing to stop my life unless I’m forced to,” said Wendy Hanna-Rose, as she stood on Tuesday under the awning of the TKTS discount-ticket booth in Times Square, deciding which show to see that night. She and her husband, Craig Rose, had tickets to “Hamilton” the following night for their family of five and they were hoping to squeeze in another show.
They said they considered the threat of the virus before making their spring break trek from State College, Pa., but decided that if Broadway kept its doors open, they would be in the audience. “So we’re here, just trying not to touch our faces,” Hanna-Rose said.
Industry officials say that advance sales are starting to droop, suggesting that attendance and gross revenues will most likely take a hit in the coming weeks. Among the early indicators of potential problems: Disney’s three shows, “The Lion King,” “Aladdin” and “Frozen,” all dipped last week. And a number of student groups have canceled trips to Broadway shows, either because their schools have closed or their districts have advised against the events.
Ticket holders seeking to cancel Broadway plans because of concerns about the virus must contact the seller to seek refunds or exchanges. Disney announced a flexible policy on its shows’ websites, declaring that “exchange fees are waived and refunds are available for guests holding tickets to performances through April 19, 2020.” And Charlotte St. Martin, the president of the Broadway League, said most ticket sellers were trying to be flexible with purchasers.
Broadway theaters are taking multiple steps to reduce the risk of infection: cleaning seats and surfaces more frequently, installing more hand-sanitizer dispensers, providing new cups for drink refills and eliminating backstage tours.
Stage dooring has come under increasing scrutiny as the outbreak has intensified. NETWorks, a major touring company, eliminated the practice for its shows around the country, while on Broadway, the musical “Hadestown” announced last weekend that for the next 30 days its cast would not appear at the stage door.
Multiple other shows had barred stage-door handshakes and hugs and asked performers not to touch the Playbills they were signing before the Broadway League issued its recommendation for an end to stage door activities.
“This is a common sense precaution until we feel that we are past this period of concern and everyone can be safe,” St. Martin said. The move has the backing of Actors’ Equity, the union representing performers.
“Most of them love to do it,” Mary McColl, the union’s executive director, said of stage dooring. “but right now, being in that crowd of people is not necessarily the safest place to be.”
Some theatergoers and actors seem willing to take the risk — at least thus far. After a performance of “Dear Evan Hansen” on Tuesday night, more than three dozen fans were waiting behind a barrier, holding Playbills and smartphones, when David Jeffery, who plays Connor Murphy, emerged.
Jeffery jotted his name on program pages and leaned in for selfies as he made his way toward the exit. “I hand-sanitize right before I leave,” he said. And with photos, he said, “I just try to not get too handsy.”
The fans were grateful. “At the end of the day this is so important for the people like my daughters,” said Scott Mestan, 49, a restaurant equipment manager from Texas, who scored a stage door photo of his children with Zachary Noah Piser, who played the role of Evan Hansen on Tuesday. “We came all the way from Dallas to see this show, and so it’s really a big deal for them.”
Julia Jacobs and Sean Piccoli contributed reporting.