You may have recently read articles about the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on theatre organizations. Shakespeare’s Globe in London made headlines this past week when their report to a UK government committee researching the economic impact on arts and cultural organizations outlined the financial difficulties their institution will face in the coming months. The economic impact of the pandemic on arts and culture organizations is an ongoing concern, and you will undoubtedly hear more about it going forward, including from Pigeon Creek. What has received less coverage in the mainstream press (by which I mean press targeted at general audiences, rather than that directed at those of us in the theatre industry), is the specific safety risks and logistical concerns associated with live performance events. Here is a relatively brief outline of the kinds of things that theatre organizations will be facing in order to return to live performance. This blog covers the basic minimum considerations for performers and theatre venues. Keep in mind that I have not included aspects of production such as set and costume construction, which will have their own lists of concerns. Many in the industry warn that any return to live performance before the existence of a vaccine and/or reliable treatment for COVID-19 will present too heavy a burden for all but the highest budget, highest resource organizations to take on.
In terms of potential viral transmission, in-person rehearsal is an extremely high risk activity for the actors. Rehearsal involves a group of people in an enclosed space, often in close physical contact, talking a lot with projected voices, which means a lot of respiratory droplets flying through the air. Case studies have been done about a choir in Washington which had a single rehearsal turn into a COVID-19 super-spreading event (the CDC report on that event is here). The way in which actors project their voices is very similar to what happens when singers perform. Not only that, but rehearsal brings actors into an additional group of people, so that they are not only regularly interacting with those in their own households and their other workplaces, but they are now bringing whatever germs they may be carrying from those places into the rehearsal room. Online rehearsal can help to reduce contact time between actors, but online rehearsal by itself is not adequate for preparing a show that will perform in-person. Some larger organizations, such as Broadway producing organizations, are discussing the possibility of actors living together in quarantine, but smaller organizations that have no housing available for actors or no way to require actors to give up their day jobs, do not have cast quarantining as an option. Some theatres have proposed starting live performance by producing exclusively one-person shows, which may be a viable option for theatres whose mission and artistic vision are served by scripts which they can produce in this way.
Once a rehearsal period ends and a play goes into performance, actors spend a lot of time in close quarters backstage, sharing dressing rooms and restrooms. They often handle the same props, which may be passed from character to character within a play’s plot. Actors do costume changes in backstage areas, often with the help of castmates or crew members. In general, actors and stage crew are in much closer physical contact with each other than co-workers who work in something like an office or retail environment. The smaller the theatre venue, the closer and more confined you can assume the backstage area is. Some speculation on theatre industry social media has suggested that smaller venues may open first, because of their smaller house capacities. In fact, the smaller a theatre venue is, the harder it is for actors to maintain any distance in the backstage area, and the harder it is to keep audience members out of the range of actor respiratory droplets during performance. Theatres will have to define entirely new protocols for actor and crew interaction and behavior in backstage areas.
Front of House
When we think about audience members entering a theatre space, a large number of safety issues come up. Any theatre venue will have to consider first of all how to run their box office operations. Box office staff normally have significant contact with audience members — talking, exchanging cash or credit cards, handing out tickets and programs, etc. Audience members have to stand in line at box offices, and will have to socially distance. Theatres will have to determine if they will require staff and audience members to wear masks, who will enforce mask policies, and how they will deal with audience members who refuse to comply with mask and social distancing policies. Theatres will have to determine whether they will do temperature and health screenings of audience members and staff. Theatres will have to determine how they will keep audience members seated in a socially distanced way, how they will maintain enough distance between actors and audience members, how they will clean and disinfect audience seating, and how they will prevent audience members from moving from one seat to another during a performance. They will have to determine new policies and protocols for audience restrooms. They will have to determine how to maintain social distancing during any intermission in performance, and during audience exit from the theatre space, and decide how they will handle emergency exiting should it become necessary. Theatres will also have to consider their current policies for severe weather and active shooter situations — if it becomes necessary for an audience to shelter in place, how will the theatre maintain social distancing? Each theatre venue will also have to develop a contact tracing process for audience, staff, and performers, in the event that an exposure occurs in the venue. In many cases, any theatre or performing organization will have to submit a comprehensive plan for these issues to their liability insurance provider before that provider agrees to cover live performance, in order to provide evidence that the theatre has taken reasonable precautions and fulfilled its duty of care for staff and patrons.
All of the necessary precautions for resuming live performance under current conditions will present considerable added cost for theatres. Cleaning crews will have to be hired, or if already in place, be paid for more frequent cleaning and disinfecting. Insurance costs may increase as liability providers adjust to the new risks involved in producing theatre. Security personnel may be required in order to enforce new audience policies. Theatre staff will have to undergo significant training, possibly supervised by hired public health experts. Physical adjustments and renovations to theatre spaces may be required. Meanwhile, theatres have already lost considerable revenue from canceled performances, and house capacities may be reduced in order to create social distance, resulting in lower potential for ticket sales.
What is Next for Pigeon Creek
First, there are currently state-wide restrictions in Michigan that keep us from performing, regardless of any other concerns. Live performance venues have not yet been opened as part of the state’s phased re-opening plan. When those venues are opened, there will very likely still be restrictions on the number of people allowed at any public assembly. But even if our rehearsal and performance venues opened tomorrow, Pigeon Creek would not be immediately resuming live rehearsal or performance. As the Event Safetly Alliance says in their current Reopening Guide for live event producers, “A government directive legally allowing you to reopen does not mean you can do so safely.” In our case, because we are a touring company that performs at venues across the state, we have the added complication that all of the issues raised in the Front of House section above are almost entirely out of our hands — they are determined by the individual venues, and if a venue does not have an adequate plan in place, we will not feel safe about working with that venue. We also have a particular artistic style that seeks to create an intimate, immediate relationship between actors and audience, which creates closer physical proximity between actors and audience than in conventional, “fourth wall” theatre, and that style of performance currently creates higher risk of virus transmission. We have postponed our planned spring and summer 2020 productions until our 2021 season. We are continuing to evaluate our plans for the fall, based on information coming from theatre industry organizations, liability insurance providers, local health departments, and the state of Michigan. The safety of our performers and patrons is our first priority. Live performance is the heart of our mission and artistic vision, and we are bursting to get back on stage, but we will not do so in ways that put performers or patrons in jeopardy. While we wait to return to our stages, we will be presenting digital programming during the summer of 2020. For more information about upcoming digital programs, please visit our CURRENT SEASON page, and subscribe to our Youtube Channel, which already hosts some great socially distanced Shakespeare!