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Panelists Kelli Herod; Kelly McCreary, BC ’03; and Ruthie Fierberg, BC ’10, discuss the effects of COVID-19 on the entertainment industry with moderator Elena Blekhter, BC ’10.

As a result of the ongoing pandemic, the entertainment industry was forced to shut down production almost entirely. While the theater industry remains essentially dormant, with in-person productions extremely limited, according to Ruthie Fierberg, BC ’10, film and television opportunities are starting to emerge with strict COVID-19 protocols in place.

In a panel hosted by the Athena Film Festival titled “Entertainment on Lockdown: How COVID Has Changed the Industry,” three women who work in television, media, and theater discussed the effects of COVID-19 on their respective areas, the impacts on their jobs, and how the industry may look after the pandemic.

Moderated by Elena Blekhter, BC ’10, a consultant for Spotify in the Scripted Podcast division and, more recently, a co-executive producer for Netflix’s new series “Ginny and Georgia,” the panel examined the shift that occurred beginning in March 2020 from in-person production to remote work.

Fierberg, the host of the podcast “Why We Theater” and formerly an executive editor at Playbill, spoke on the stark numbers of theater actors and behind-the-scenes crew members that are currently out of work due to Broadway’s shutdown. Nevertheless, she expressed optimism over a staggered re-opening of shows, though she acknowledged that smaller community and regional theaters may not have the same opportunities.

“Broadway will be back. That is not a question of if; it is a question of when,” Fierberg said. “Those buildings are historic, and a lot of them are landmarked, so you also don’t have to worry about someone repossessing the space, whereas smaller theaters off-Broadway or regionally who aren’t able to pay their rent to a landlord, they will close down.”

Fierberg also noted that, unlike the gradual reopening of indoor dining and movie theaters, operating with limited capacity is not financially viable for Broadway theaters.

“Socially distanced theater is definitively not profitable. Ninety percent [capacity] houses of theater, depending on how long they run, are sometimes not profitable,” Fierberg said. “The nonprofits are going to have an advantage here.”

Meanwhile, television is very much alive—with safety precautions in place. Kelly McCreary, BC ’03, best known for her role as Dr. Maggie Pierce in the medical drama “Grey’s Anatomy,” explained the show’s on-set COVID-19 protocols.

“The days are structured with a little less work to get done, while at the same time, our hours are shorter—which is to keep people healthy, to make sure that people are able to go home and get rest,” McCreary noted. “In a way, that is so much more respectful of our humanity than our habits in this industry were in the past.”

Unlike many other television shows, “Grey’s Anatomy” adopted a COVID-19 storyline when it resumed production in fall 2020. McCreary explained this storyline adaptation as an opportunity to make an imperative statement about the pandemic and honor frontline workers.

“We have these meaningful connections with these people who we keep paying lip service to, saying, ‘Support them’ and ‘Encourage them’ [and] ‘Give our essential workers the resources that they need and the emotional support and everything,’” McCreary said. “This was our way of actually putting our money where our mouths were, and this season really is dedicated to frontline health workers and to telling their stories as they’ve been told to us.”

Alongside “Grey’s Anatomy,” McCreary touched on the overall rise of storytelling and creative outlets due to the social isolation created by the pandemic.

“Just look at TikTok alone: I mean, even just people who are bored are getting incredibly creative and using their time to make things and express themselves and learn new skills, so they can create and express themselves. I don’t think that’s going away. I think there’s going to be a lot of really awesome content,” McCreary said.

To conclude the event, the panelists considered the increased awareness of racial injustice and violence toward people of color, which has come to the forefront of the entertainment industry following the Black Lives Matter movement and industry-specific initiatives such as We See You White, American Theater, a declaration of anti-racism and representation demands from BIPOC theater artists to American Theater.

“We were also awakened to the existence of the other pandemic that we’ve been living [through in] this country since its inception, which is that of injustice and violence toward non-white people in this country, particularly Black people … but [also] almost every other non-white ethnic group,” McCreary said. “I think that there has been a burst of storytelling about communities that have been on the margins, [which] people have developed an appetite for hearing, that I don’t think will go away.”

Kelli Herod, the vice president of postproduction for Smithsonian Channel, spoke on the importance of increased representation specifically within the media. While the pandemic has illuminated racial inequities present within the industry, artists have taken it upon themselves to amplify underrepresented voices.

“There’s also [the fact that] COVID has adversely affected communities of color just so much more, so I think the storytelling aspect of it … is this exciting new change that we’re seeing,” Herod said. “I definitely hope it sticks around, for the simple fact that if people can’t really see their stories or see themselves in the media, other people can’t see their stories as well. It’s just one more thing that stands between us all really understanding each other.”

Deputy Editor Katie Levine can be contacted at katie.levine@columbiaspectator.com. Follow her on Twitter @itskatielevine.

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Katie Levine Athena Film Festival Elena Blekhter Kelli Herod Kelly McCreary Ruthie Fierberg Entertainment on Lockdown: How COVID Has Changed The Industry
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