Image: A medical mask. Photo by Ri_ya on Pixabay.
People suck. Not us, the others. (Yes, I stole that last bit from Ellen DeGeneres.) Allow me to explain. Get comfortable, this may take a little while.
I was very excited to win a 10-play pass for Toronto Fringe 2022 after filling out their survey in the Spring—especially as I’m now attending as a “civilian”, which means I have to pay for my pass again. Unfortunately, after my experience at my first show on the opening day of the festival, I decided to bail on Fringe this year.
One of the main reasons I’d chosen to attend was the audience mask mandate (see Toronto Fringe 2022 COVID-19 protocols). When I arrived at my first show, The Sorauren Book Club at Al Green Theatre, everyone was masked in the ticket holder line—but once seated inside the house, a whole bunch of people removed their masks. So, I made a difficult decision and exited before curtain time. I let the venue FOH and box office folks know about the situation. They were kind and understanding, and offered to issue a reminder—but we all knew that there was no guarantee that those audience members would comply for the duration of the performance once the lights went down.
In my heart, I wanted to believe that Fringe audiences would be respectful and mask up—and many did—but a significant number at that performance didn’t, and that’s troubling. It’s sad and disappointing that people would disrespect performers, fellow audience members, Fringe folks and the festival in this way. I appreciate how Toronto Fringe took great care to make arrangements so we could all have a safe and enjoyable festival experience. But it’s up to us to make safety measures work. And, yes, while I based my decision on a single experience, ongoing observations of mask mandate compliance tell me that there will always be folks who choose what’s easy and convenient over what’s right. And with mask mandates no longer applying in most public indoor places, there are those who just won’t bother, even if the space requires a mask—including medical offices! So, after leaving the Al Green without seeing the show, I contacted the festival box office and Patron Services Manager about my experience, and cancelled the remainder of my bookings. And then I reached out to folks who’d invited me to their shows, including Tricia Williams from The Sorauren Book Club (which did very well, including winning Patron’s Pick for Al Green), to send regrets. I was heartbroken.
Yeah, but it’s only Fringe. What’s the big deal? It wasn’t just about missing Fringe; it was what it represented. For many of us who live alone—some unable to join a “bubble” and already working from home—the prolonged periods of isolation, with lockdowns and limited contacts, have made for an excruciatingly long, lonely couple of years. The excitement and anticipation of summer festivals returning after an Omicron winter was cause for cautious optimism, and even celebration. And just as my own personal living room dance party was getting started, the music came to a vinyl-screeching halt as yet another variant brought yet another wave—and public health awareness and practices aren’t nearly as ubiquitous as they need to be. Like my GP said when we were discussing boosters during my checkup last week, “There’s a lot of COVID out there.” (As I have no risk factors, and unless public health officials recommend otherwise, I’ve decided to wait till the Fall to get a second booster, aka fourth shot.)
As I didn’t want to risk inadvertently hurting the festival, I chose to hold off on posting this till after Toronto Fringe closed. I recognize that my experience with this one performance may have been an infrequent situation for the entirety of the run, as well as the venue and festival overall. However, I chose to not take any chances, and not spend more time—including travelling on public transit for commutes of 10-60 minutes (one way), where many are unmasked—attending shows with the possibility of a similar outcome. This is not on Toronto Fringe. This is on those audience members who chose to ignore the festival’s mask mandate.
Performers need to be unmasked in order to do their job—and the very least audience members can do is put on a mask so they’ll be safe, and able to continue to entertain and inspire us. Not to mention consideration for fellow audience members, and venue staff and volunteers. Some folks don’t get, or care, that their “personal choices” can have negative—even serious—impacts on others, especially during a global pandemic. And even though spaces, including theatres, have different protocols—just because you don’t have to wear a mask doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t wear one.
Unfortunately, that lack of care and awareness has been exacerbated by government decisions to lift mask mandates, which many of us—including health care and education professionals and organizations—believe was a mistake, especially given the emergence of new, more contagious Omicron variants.
Masks are a good, simple way for us to take good care of ourselves, each other and the health care system. Yeah, they’re uncomfortable and take getting used to. Nobody wants to wear a mask (no disrespect to those who enjoy them—you do you). But they’re one of the best public health tools we have; and the vast majority of us don’t have a legitimate reason not to wear one. However, masks have been politicized by those who want to “get back to normal”. For them, masks are a reminder that all is not well, so removing mask mandates—taking away the predominance of masks—bolsters the illusion that COVID-19 is over and we’re all good to be “open for business” again. Such actions and beliefs are disheartening and dangerous, as they demonstrate greater consideration for corporate and political interests than for people’s health and well-being, especially the more vulnerable among us.
We each have our own levels of risk tolerance, and apply boundaries accordingly. And many of us are doing what we can to take good care, including making decisions about when to get a second booster (see opinion, info and a link to NACI guidance). We may be finished with COVID, but COVID isn’t finished with us.
Big shouts and gratitude to the Toronto Fringe FOH, box office staff and volunteers at Al Green Theatre, and the festival box office folks and Patron Services Manager Lucy McPhee, for their active listening and kindness; and to the audience members who kept their masks on—they’re the “helpers” we need to look for in situations like this.
And a big shout-out to stellar performing artist and fierce theatre etiquette proponent Patti LuPone, for saying what a lot of us are thinking. She’s my fucking hero and I wish I’d had the guts to show even an ounce of her chutzpah that day at Al Green. (Then again, maybe not—you wouldn’t like me when I’m angry. And, yes, I stole that one from Dr. David Banner aka The Hulk.) Or better yet, that Ms. LuPone had been in the theatre with me. Put the fear of LuPone into them.
So, yeah, people suck. But they can also rock.