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Alan Brown: On Temporary Venues

Hello, I’m Alan Brown.

This week I’d like to reflect on what the Audience Outlook Monitor research says about how comfortable people are attending different kinds of performance venues, and just brainstorm a bit about the short term and long-term future of our theatres and concert halls. Specifically I ask you to think about how we might re-define spaces in order to bring audiences back into a new habit of attendance.

Let’s get right to our first graph.

Here we see how comfortable audiences say they’d be attending different types of cultural facilities today, assuming they were open and following healthy safety guidelines. Along the bottom, you’ll see results for cohorts of organizations in Boston, San Francisco, Chicago, Cincinnati, Atlanta and Los Angeles. The yellow diamonds represent comfort levels visiting large theatres and concert halls, while the purple triangles represent comfort levels with outdoor venues. And you can clearly see a greater level of comfort with outdoor venues, although still on the low end of the scale overall.

The next chart similarly illustrates comfort levels attending venues that hold different numbers of people. Here we see a strong preference for small venues with 50 or 100 people, even with social distancing guidelines in effect. It’s interesting to note here that the largest gap between venue sizes is the gap between 100 and 500. At a very basic level, we understand this to mean that people will feel comfortable with fewer bodies in a space.

The next chart suggests that two-thirds of audiences across all our cities say that they’ll put on masks and adhere to distancing guidelines in order to attend our venues, and another 30% said “maybe.” Only 10% say they won’t cooperate with masks and distancing. This gives us a glimmer of hope that when we feel we can safely re-open, people will be willing to work with us. To me, this looks like a bright green light inviting us to innovate in terms of space design.

Finally, I’ll share with you just one response to an open ended follow-up question about why some people might not be ready to attend cultural venues. In general, the open-ended comments people are sharing through the survey are lengthy and highly articulate about what people are willing, or not willing, to do, and why. Often they use scientific language in their answers. They understand the comparative risks of surface transmission versus airborne transmission. Based on their comments, it’s safe to say that many of our audiences follow the news closely and are constantly educating themselves about the epidemiology of Covid-19. They’re extremely knowledgeable consumers, with a high appetite for information. And these are the people we’re designing for.

Over the years scholars have written much about the symbolic meanings that cultural venues take on, beyond their functional purpose.

My concern, quite frankly, is that, because of Covid, large theatres and concert halls are taking on a problematic symbolic meaning – namely that they’re becoming tacitly understood as dangerous places. Public officials signal this when they say that large theaters will be last to re-open. And now, with scientists saying the virus is aerosolized, the prospect of sitting for long periods of time in confined spaces with poor ventilation leads many people to a very dark place. In sufficient time, the fear of enclosed spaces will subside, for sure. But the real question is what can we do in the meantime, because the meantime might be six months or a year, or even longer.

Just as our communities have diversified demographically, so must our cultural spaces be diversified. This is a long overdue transformation because the infrastructure of facilities in a community is slow to change. Arts groups have long needed flexible, configurable spaces where they can present artistic programs in a range of formats for new and different audiences who are not attracted to conventional theaters.

We have the design and engineering capabilities. We have the technologies for quickly raising temporary spaces. If China can build a hospital in 10 days, surely we can build temporary cultural venues in a month or two.

But do we have the will to design new spaces that are radically inclusive, spaces that welcome and respect people from all walks of life?

We might:

· re-fashion existing theaters into new spaces, much as the Wilma Theatre in Philadelphia has done,

· or convert stages or lobbies into small venues,

· or build new venues within large flat floor spaces such as warehouses and armories,

· or raise tented or inflatable structures in city parks,

· or even convert old drive-in theaters.

In short, we need to create spaces that shift the psychological focus away from the risks of virus transmission, and instead re-assert that cultural spaces can be fun, safe and inclusive.

There isn’t enough capital in the system for every organization to re-imagine their venues. But working together at the community level, we very well might be able to address this challenge cooperatively, in partnership with businesses and funders.

And maybe, just maybe, what we design as temporary spaces, might play a more permanent role in broadening the audience for all sorts of cultural programs.

Thank you.


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