As I scan news articles worldwide one thing is clear during these cloudy times: every country — indeed, even different regions of countries — finds themselves at various stages of the pandemic, and as their numbers rise and fall and rise again, each responds with a wide range of approaches to the prospects of re-opening.
American Theatre magazine this week anecdotally surveyed the field and came up with a stunning sweep of regional U.S. responses, strategies and initiatives.
Over in England, now buoyed with a nearly $2 billion bailout for culture and heritage groups, the approaches to re-opening have been many, too, with some falling under the category of stop/start/stop.
Last week the U.K. culture secretary gave the green light for outdoor theater, opera, dance and music shows with socially distanced audiences. Cheers all around.
But then a few days ago concern growing over coronavirus "hotspots" in some locations — including Liverpool, where a major tour in drive-in venues of the hit musical “Six,” had sold out — was cancelled. The tour had been designed “not as a money-maker but to put dozens of freelancers back to work,” said a BBC report.
Then, Variety reports today an easing Aug. 1 with indoor performances.
Still efforts continue in the all-important audience quest. Variety reported this week that Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber brought to the 2,300-seat Palladium Theatre in London $300,000 worth of heavy-duty virus-monitoring equipment from Korea — “the key instruments in an elaborate plan to get the theater sector up and running without the need for social distancing….Still, there are no dates for reopening live indoor shows with audiences, and social distancing rules of at least one meter (a bit more than three feet) mean theaters can operate at only 30%-40% capacity.”
Viable business models have not yet emerged. Still, one has to admire the determination and ingenuity that many arts groups have devised in seeking ways to get audiences — any audience — back.
Take a small, 146-year-old theater in the seaside community of Dunoon in Argyll, Scotland where an architect has come up with a prototype to protect audiences, "including a removable transparent acrylic screen that wraps around the sides and back of each seat, providing a psychological buffer between members of the audience, if not a full-height cough-proof barrier." “According to The Guardian, with the recent relaxation in government guidance to one-metre distancing as a game-changer, “it might now be the site of the first post-viral theatre seat.”
And talk about timing, as it turns out American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus started working last summer with a Harvard expert at “exposure assessment science” with the aim of designing a "healthy" theater. Dance Magazine offered a peek at some of the work being explored, centering on better ventilation, limiting physical contact, creating physical barriers, rethinking restrooms and cleaning crews and moderating humidity.
With Covid-19 rising in most states in the U.S., it’s all about safety issues, and audience willingness to return to theater is be trending down, according to a follow-up survey in the Washington D.C. area by Shugoll Research. Just 16 percent of respondents said they would consider rushing back to reopened theaters, down from 25 percent in April, and a full 75 percent plan to wait a few months before returning, up from 49 percent from that earlier survey.
One more thing for arts groups to note from that second survey: respondents were asked their views on systematic racism in D.C. theaters and 50 percent of respondents agree there is “and 70 percent support the idea that area theaters must respond to the concerns expressed by artists who are Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).”
That’s data that shows when arts centers re-open, institutional leaders are going to be dealing with more than hygiene. As Aeneas Sagar Hemphill writes in American Theatre magazine:
“With industries disrupted across the board, people have more time to reflect on the inequalities and traumas of the structures they work under. This is no less true for the theatre industry. With initiatives like the We See You White American Theater campaign, artists of color have directed a spotlight on the ways the theatre industry has stifled them and are demanding fundamental change. Not only must we ask how theatre will survive, we must also ask what theatre even is and should be in and beyond this age of social distancing and revolution.”
— Frank Rizzo