University cancels production of “Passing Strange”


(Photo Credit: Point Park website)

Written By Nardos Haile, Co-News Editor

After three student cast members of the only musical production this semester, “Passing Strange,” quit the show over concerns of allegedly inadequate COVID-19 guidelines, the Conservatory of the Performing Arts (COPA) announced on Thursday, April 15, that the show was cancelled.

An email by Acting Provost Jonas Prida, sent to musical theatre students and the Playhouse staff, said that administrators for the university and COPA received a “sufficient number of responses from those engaged with the COPA Theatre production of ‘Passing Strange,’ to reach the decision that we cannot continue with the staged performance of this show.”

Jaquel Spivey, Devon Burton and Tim Richardson quit the show due to their concerns over what they said was a lack of strictly implemented COVID-19 guidelines regarding the multiple exposed cast and crew members and limited space in rehearsal rooms. 

Spivey, a senior musical theatre major and the lead of the show, and another student in the cast were exposed to COVID-19 by a musical director.

“During the production of ‘Passing Strange,’ we became aware of a situation involving an employee that necessitated the quarantining of both the employee and several students,” the university said in its statement.

Spivey said that the director told him had been exposed and had to quarantine for five days.

“It was not a qualification to get tested before coming back to the rehearsal room. No one gave that [directive] to me. I pretty much put it on myself that I was going to get tested and wait out the period of quarantining, but I waited more than five days,” Spivey said.

Spivey mentioned that another cast member who had been exposed went to the doctor and was told to quarantine 10 days, which he said contradicted the school’s guidance. 

“Were y’all going to tell these two actors five days when a medical professional said 10?” Spivey said.

The university said that it, “stands by its record of safety throughout the academic year. However, Playhouse leadership recognized that students should have the ability to decide if and how they will participate in productions this academic year, particularly if they should at any point feel unsafe.”

After the exposures, Artistic Director of COPA, Steven Breese, sent the cast an updated version of their COVID-19 protocol measures and guidelines that would include temperature checks, surveys, new face shields and masks and a new COVID-19 compliance officer overseeing rehearsals. 

The cast then sent Breese a list of demands that included compensation for their participation in order to make “amends work for mental distress placed upon on BIPOC students and being put at risk of contracting COVID-19 by the Pittsburgh Playhouse – Given the inappropriate initial COVID-19 protocols in rehearsal rooms, so much so that cast members were exposed and had to take personal time to quarantine and obtain testing for COVID-19.”

It wasn’t just COVID-19 exposures that made the cast members feel unsafe; they said it also had to do with how the director “blocked” the scenes in rehearsal. Blocking is a director’s job positioning how the actors move on stage. 

“Much of his blocking at the top of the process was as if this was not a COVID world,” Spivey said.

The main issue senior acting major, Devon Burton said he had with the production of “Passing Strange” was the blocking and limited space in rehearsals.

“The one thing that stood out to me the most was there was a really big square that took up the whole room,” Burton said. “Since it took up the whole room it wasn’t much space after the square was inputted.”

“They were telling us how when we get to [set], we’re going to have so much space. The set’s going to be 20 feet up [at the] front,” he added. “Then recently I saw the set, and it was the same space we had in the rehearsal rooms. Everything we were told, it wasn’t what it was.” 

Burton said as a cast and crew they had a meeting about the concerns regarding the spacing. 

“A major thing I brought up in our meeting was that, for me, I felt safe not because they made me safe, but because I made myself safe,” Burton said. 

Tim Richardson, a senior musical theatre major, said he knew the show would have issues since auditions.

“I kind of felt [the show] was going to turn into something that it was not supposed to turn into because of it being the only show that we were doing in person. The way things were being organized and set it up, it seemed like it was improved on the spot,” Richardson said.

Richardson said he and a couple of cast members saw the issues but continued to keep pushing. To him, the issues really became clear when he watched the first rehearsal online from home and he said he saw people breaking the guidelines.

“Nobody was six feet, not even the director was six feet,” Richardson said. “The only people who were six feet were the stage managers, but everyone else was all on each other hugging. I’m watching this on my laptop like is someone going to say anything? Nobody said anything as far as blocking goes.”

Richardson said they had a safety meeting before rehearsal started about how the director was planning on following COVID-19 protocols but Richardson said, “it was not shown since day one.”

Additionally, Richardson also mentioned that singing alongside the blocking was an issue. He said they were told there was only going to be two people singing in one room and that was not the case.

“It does get a little hot in that room. I’m not going to lie to you, but it’s still COVID, I’d rather be humid than die,” Richardson said. “So yeah, there would be plenty of moments where people like, pulled their mask off, kind of like put it over their mouth and not their nose. There were some people who straight up were not wearing masks in that hallway.”

Richardson said the cast was told they would have a COVID-19 safety officer in rehearsals, but the officer was not seen until they had meetings about cancelling the show. 

“I guess it was a desperation move because where was this man in the beginning?” Richardson said. 

The university defended its COVID-19 protocols, pointing to how it handled the production “Dance Nation.”

“The safety record of the Conservatory has been strong throughout the academic year. Recently, the Conservatory successfully completed the production of ‘Dance Nation’ using our established protocols and, to our knowledge, there were no safety-related incidents,” said the university.

“It got to the point that I was getting attacked by having my own personal feelings about this pandemic,” Richardson added. “If one person’s uncomfortable, I feel like it should be taken seriously. It got to the point where I spoke up, I feel like we had these discussions many times and it has not been implemented.”

Richardson said Spivey, Burton and himself were the only three cast members who had an issue with the unsafe environment they were rehearsing in. He said the response from the cast and some of the creative team pushed him to make his final decision to leave.

“Y’all don’t care about my life. Let me leave,” Richardson said.

Moreover, Burton said he felt like the COPA administration pushed for the show to continue as scheduled because they didn’t want another show with a predominantly Black cast to get cancelled again. Within the last year, COPA has had controversies regarding race and equity with three productions: “Adding Machine,” “Parade” and “The Wild Party.”

“[Breese] is trying to do damage control, and I don’t think he’s trying to take anyone’s feelings into consideration genuinely. I think he’s trying to cover himself so he can look good as an artistic director,” Burton said.

To Burton, when students brought concerns to Breese, he said he should have been monitoring the director and the rehearsals of the show in order to avoid cast members dropping out and the inevitable cancellation of the show.

“[Cancelling the show] is the only move they have left but they don’t want to let it go,” Burton said.

“They know Passing Strange, the Black show of the semester, is going to get views, so they are trying to make sure that the things that are definitely gonna be seen by the public are gonna be seen no matter what,” Spivey said. “You get COVID? The show must go on! That’s not how this works.”