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August 14, 2020: On Building Alternatives

During this pandemic time, many arts groups are discovering in profound ways that what’s important is the art, not the building.

Shiny new edifices may be seen now not as grand temples for the arts but rather formidable, scary and even dangerous places to be.

A lot of money was spent globally on cultural buildings that were completed last year. Nearly $8 billion, point-of-fact, according to a story in The funds spent on cultural capital projects — that were $10 million and up — echoed the same amount spent the previous year, citing a survey by AEA Consulting. That’s a lot of bricks and mortar aimed at “the old normal.”

“The lasting effects that lockdown will have on the design of arts buildings remain unclear, as will the changing social expectations of public spaces…Projects currently on the drawing board will be reexamined and tested rigorously against new expectations,” AEA writes in the report. “As public health redefines how we gather physically, many existing arts spaces will end up adapted for new patterns of use.”

So one can surmise that it’s back to the drawing board for many of those proposed new edifices for some significant tinkering.

Or at least to the re-imagining room.

If a return to “like it was” isn’t in the foreseeable future, there’s some hope in adapting existing venues to account for the changing pandemic times. Take one example as reported in UK's The Stage where a British architect proposed a way to reconfigure commercial and not-for-profit theaters "so they can safely live in a socially-distanced world but still manage to get to 60 percent capacity."

Still concerned about health and safety issues? Yep, there’s an app for that.

“Producer Jamie Hendry has revealed plans for a "ground-breaking app" that he hopes will be the key to Covid-safe theatregoing, allowing audiences to certify their health to guarantee entry,” wrote Georgia Snow in UK’s The Stage. “In a partnership with Prova, the creators of a health pass app, Hendry has created Ents, which will combine theatre ticket bookings with an individual’s Covid-19 health status to allow entry.

Of course outdoor venues give performing arts group the most breathing room — literally. But not all climates are equal and the al fresco alternative has a short shelf life for many in more northern exposures. Still, the resilience of artists and arts groups to engage with audiences no-matter-what is inspirational and may have long-term benefits.

In the Massachusetts Berkshires, several theaters have moved their productions — or created new special ones — outdoors. But not without its challenges.

Josh Getlin writes in The Los Angeles Times for a production of “Godspell:” “For the artists, it’s a brave new world. (Full disclosure: My daughter is in the cast.) They perform six feet apart in the musical about Jesus and his disciples, flanked by plexiglass shields on wheels that protect them and the audience as they sing. For good measure, in their pockets they also have masks, which they put on periodically during the show.”

Over in the UK, theater festivals have adapted by stepping outside their traditional edifices, too, but echoing the headline in The Guardian: “It’s a Herculean Effort.”

Some took to big top tents, others in spacious shopping centers and town squares, while one headed to the beach,

“Now, Brighton [fringe] boasts a brand new Warren venue on the beach. Comedy, music, magic and anarchic theatre will be staged outdoors, with audiences watching from picnic tables…Rather than purchasing individual tickets, audiences book one of 50 tables, which fit up to six people. Masks must be worn until audiences reach their table, drinks are ordered online and there’s “shed loads of hand sanitiser” available.”

Over in Canada, one event drew more than 500 cars to a parking lot for an evening of music. “Dubbed Classical Flight, the benefit concert took place in a large parking lot near — where else? — Montreal-Trudeau International Airport with the public seated in their cars and listening via FM radio transmission….Tickets started at $100 per vehicle and the event's maximum capacity had been set at 550 cars. Giant screens were added to improve stage visibility.…”

Was it a perfect musical environment for Orchestre symphonique de Montréal? Hardly, but it offered an experience that audiences were more than willing to take in, appreciate and will surely remember.

As much as arts groups yearn to return to the safety of that solid and secure nest, sometimes you just have to try to fly, too.

— Frank Rizzo


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