As we inch towards Labor Day in the U.S., traditionally the start of the fall season in the not-for-profit arts world, there are tentative signs of life in terms of re-gathering, along with flickers of hope — but renewed fear, too. Some of the most telling occurrences are coming from the film industry.
But are they simply outliers rather than harbingers of a more widespread return to indoor performances? It’s far too soon to tell but these initial efforts might provide some hints on people’s willingness to return to the indoors collectively — and the necessary follow-up results of those gatherings.
The Venice Film Festival — the only one of the “Big Five” festivals to open since the pandemic began — launched this week and although the attendance was sparser there was a sense of a return to celebratory gatherings — and glamour, too, including gilded masks.
Also from the commercial sector, Hollywood is finally releasing its much-delayed, big-budget, summer film “Tenet” in the hopes that audiences will be lured back to enclosed spaces — under proper safety guidelines, of course.
Elamin Abdelmahmoud writing in BuzzFeedNews shares his experience about seeing the film (complete with a mini-review) but I found what he had to say at the end of his essay most telling: “The sweet thrill of the summer movie now comes with an asterisk. An uncomplicated joy has become complicated. Before deciding to see ‘Tenet,’ my wife and I had to have a serious conversation about whether we were both comfortable with the decision. We’re all going to have to have those conversations now.”
It’s all about those conversations and comfort levels and even as the spread of the virus may have been reduced in some areas, in others it is rising — at least in the U.S. And it does nothing to add confidence to the general public when one reads this week that Hollywood star Robert Pattinson tested positive during the shooting for the film “The Batman” — even as the production was taking extraordinary measures for safety. The production was halted. The news was even more dire when it was learned that John Nolan, an assistant director on a commercial film shoot in Texas, died from the virus.
Tentative efforts to restart indoor performances are of great interest but while encouraging on one level these initial efforts are often problematic.
The new musical “Sleepless in Seattle” opened this week in London's Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre and its producer with considerable cheek urged “extraordinarily rich producers” to “get off their arses” and do more to bring live shows back to audiences, according to The Stage. He also admitted that the production is not economically viable with audiences that number 400. Perhaps he’d be in a better position to be inspiring if the show got stronger reviews.
Still, things seem to be ever so slowly inching forward. The first musical for the West End since March was just announced this week: Jason Robert Brown’s "Songs for a New World" at the London Palladium, with social distancing. For two performances.
Because the Covid crisis has affected the world at various levels at various times, sometimes it’s helpful to look at far-flung places — especially those whose virus numbers are minimal or have been greatly reduced — to see how they have reopened. In many cases, there's encouragement in these island settings, offering a kind of road-map (or perhaps it's more accurate to call it an off-road map, with its circuitous routing).
But it appears that even with a vaccine and a multitude of safety measures, we won’t wake up one a day and it will be suddenly “just be like it was before.” Things, no doubt now, will change incrementally.
Museums with their audiences of mobile visitors walking in their halls have gradually welcomed back patrons slowly this summer and more will open their doors this fall -- but also at a limited level. Still, there is more optimism in that arts sector. A lot of attention will be on the recent re-opening of The Met in New York where “administrators have spent months consulting with health officials to find a path toward reopening that would lessen the risk of exposure for employees and visitors,” according to artnet.com.
While our recent surveys at AOM still show strong hesitation -- if not outright resistance -- by some patrons at the prospect of returning to indoor spaces, one can look to the work that New York City is doing in presenting a well-thought out, well-marketed and coordinated plan that could inspire confidence when the time comes for the lifting of restrictions.
That will surely be the "What now?" moment for many arts organizations and institutions.
-- Frank Rizzo