Board of Regents mask ruling puts Hancher at odds with Actors’ Equity safety protocols

Following the cancellation of two performances because of COVID-19 concerns, Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson shares plans for mitigating future cancellations while still keeping cast, crew, and audience members safe.


Tate Hildyard

Hancher Auditorium is seen in Iowa City on Sunday, September 20th, 2020.

Jenna Post, Arts Editor

Hancher Auditorium canceled one of its performances last week, as the theater — under University of Iowa COVID-19 guidelines — was unable to meet the Actors’ Equity Association’s mask requirement for venues where entertainers perform.

Hancher Executive Director Chuck Swanson announced on Sept. 23 that performances by the Boston Pops Orchestra and comedian Bill Irwin were canceled because of COVID-19 concerns.

The Boston Pops Orchestra canceled its entire Midwest tour because of general COVID-19 concerns. Bill Irwin’s performance, scheduled for Nov. 5, was canceled because the Actors’ Equity Association — a labor union that represents more than 50,000 actors, stage managers, and crew members in the U.S. — requires that companies not requiring proof of vaccination must mandate that audience members wear masks in the performance space at all times.

“We cannot live up to the requirements needed by Actor’s Equity, so that performance has also been canceled,” Swanson said in a video message to the community.

Hancher returned $151,017 in refunds for Boston Pops and $8,342 in full refunds for Bill Irwin’s show.

“We got word, and then we had to, unfortunately, share the disappointing news with our audience, which is hard,” Swanson said. “We don’t want to let our audience down. We’re here to bring people together, but we have to follow [the state Board of Regents’] guidance.”

Per regents’ guidance issued on May 20, “masks may not be required on the campuses of Iowa’s public universities, other than in campus transportation, research, or health care settings.”

Though Hancher is working toward a self-sustaining model, the auditorium still receives some university funding and is classified as a university building under the jurisdiction of the regents.

Actors’ Equity represents individuals, so negotiations for cast and crew members are on a case-by-case basis, making it difficult for Hancher to predict which upcoming shows may be affected by the regents’ policy, Swanson said.

It is especially difficult to predict which conditions may be negotiable, he added, because COVID-19 performance conditions are fairly new to groups like Actors’ Equity as well.

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Swanson said, for the time being, he knows the upcoming Waitress tour, which has currently generated $168,618 in gross sales, will not require audience members to wear masks. The tour does, however, have several backstage safety requirements, which Swanson thinks can be met.

“I’m very optimistic that we will not have to [cancel Waitress],” he said. “There’s also, as we all know, uncertainty. I don’t know what will be happening a month or two months from now, with the sciences. My hope is that we will get through the season. So, you know, I can’t promise, but I really feel optimistic.”

Waitress tours with the same production company as another highly anticipated musical, The Band’s Visit. Swanson said if all goes well with Waitress, The Band’s Visit will remain on the Hancher’s schedule as well.

Swanson said, to ensure that touring operations are handled safely, Hancher is hiring students from the UI College of Public Health to work as infection mitigation coordinators. Swanson said Hancher plans for the students to administer COVID-19 tests during Waitress’ run period at the theater.

“This was an opportunity that we had to face that none of us are excited about, but at the same time, it presents an opportunity for learning,” Swanson said. “The standpoint of Hancher is that we find ways to connect with students and give students opportunities to learn and to really experience real-life situations.”

Hancher is also working with UI Legal Services to ensure that all COVID-19 performance conditions are met without violating rules set by the regents.

While finding a balance between guidance from the regents and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention can be complicated, Swanson said, between help from the public health college, guidance from UI Legal Services, and the work of Hancher’s staff, he feels optimistic about auditorium’s ability to continue hosting performers.

“I’m trying to be as positive and optimistic as you possibly can when dealing with all of this uncertainty,” he said. “I think that’s the thing with this big, big world — it is uncertain. Every day is new. But, I’m real proud of the fact that we are involving students from our university to really help us, and in return they’re learning. It’s good for all of us. I’m looking forward to this season.”

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