Managing Performance Spaces “Post” Covid
In pandemic life, every day brings fresh concerns and more questions: What do we know about variant [fill-in-the-blank]? Should I get another booster? Is it best to wear a mask?
Theaters and other performance spaces, where audiences sit cheek to jowl before performers, bring a whole other level of concern and questions, especially for those managing the experience.
To find out how they’re navigating springtime Covid-times, we interviewed Keith Marks, executive director at Next Stage in Putney; Lisa Mitchell, executive director at Town Hall Theater in Middlebury, and Jon Potter, executive director at Latchis Arts in Brattleboro, which comprises four theaters and art exhibition space.
Answers have been lightly edited for length and clarity.
1. With this new phase of Covid (endemic? post-Omicron?), how are you navigating things in your organization now? Are there specific tools/websites that you use in your decision-making around performances/events?
[Keith, Next Stage] Next Stage has the good fortune of having the Chief Medical Officer for Brattleboro Memorial Hospital on our board of directors. She has been instrumental in helping the organization navigate the reading of the tea leaves around COVID. Next Stage is utilizing the new CDC map that is updated weekly. The map reflects a risk warning level through green, yellow, and red. When the metrics have our county in green, our policy is masks optional and no social distancing. Another change in policy is allowing everyone into our space. According to Dr. McGraw, there is no statistical evidence to show that unvaccinated populations pose any more of a risk to vaccinated ones. When our county is yellow, we require masking indoors. When the map goes to red, we will reconsider the safety of our community in regards to bringing people inside the theater. [Ed Note: View a video about the decision-making behind Next Stage’s Covid policy.]
Another aspect to our programming, in relation to COVID, is that Next Stage launched an outdoor events series called The Bandwagon Summer Series. There will be 20 events happening all over Windham County from May through October. This was a series created in response to COVID. The response from the community has been so overwhelmingly positive that we are now imagining it as a staple of our programming. These outdoor shows allow for our community to gather while keeping everyone safe, wherever the CDC map might be that week.
[Lisa, Town Hall Theater] Lifting [masking and proof of vaccination or negative PCR test] requirements has been a significant source of discussion and deliberation, as public health is paramount. We consult a variety of national, state and local public health resources, keep close tabs on case rates in our county, and stay tuned to how other arts organizations are proceeding. Even still, there has not been clear cut guidance for venues.
[Jon, Latchis] Since we work with community partners who present live events in our theaters, we have been working with the partners to determine protocols for each event, deferring to them if theirs are more stringent. It’s important to respect their wishes and create the conditions they feel will give them the best success. For our own guidelines, we rely on the CDC guidelines for Windham County, but we do adjust to tailor for specific events. For example, our Met Opera simulcasts typically attract an older audience, so we ask for proof of vaccination or recent test, and require masking. For live events this winter and spring, we have encouraged partners to reduce capacity and make the seating general so that patrons can trust they will be distanced.
2. What goes into preparing the performance space for an event currently?
[Keith] As I mentioned, the protocols are typically assessed after checking the CDC map. We invested in two UV lights in our air handler to have one level of air purification. The theater’s air is cleaned prior to audiences arriving. If the CDC map is yellow, we require all volunteers and audience members to mask. We make sure to have plenty of masks in the building for anyone who might not be aware.
[Lisa] We have invested significant time and resources in order to present a rich variety of arts experiences indoors and out. Thanks to Vermont Arts Council grant support, we purchased outdoor heaters, which allowed us to host outdoor bars. Outside is the only place we have been offering beverages and food since re-opening. The Warren Miller ski crowd loved it! Winterfest depended on infrastructure like that too. This grant also helped us pay a small army of card-checkers for a series of sold-out performances. Our cleaning protocols and products have intensified too. We are a 210 seat theater and could not afford to offer performances in a socially distant way. Despite a high level of public safety protocols and requirements, we have been living the challenge of lagging ticket sales, as well as massive cancellations when Omicron spiked, rocking the first quarter of 2022. THT is embarking on our second outdoor season, joyfully so. Still, the truth is, we are working harder, with fewer staff, and lower return. If it were not for generous grants and donations, THT would not be here today.
[Jon] We have worked with presenting partners to agree to reduced capacity and general seating to encourage distancing. One of our partners asked for and received a commitment from us to have no food or drink in the theater for their events so that masks may be worn at all times. Prior to a big event, all our seats our cleaned – a big task for our 750-seat Main Theatre, and we treat the air in all four of our theaters with UV-C light using a device we hand-built. We also treat the air and clean in the dressing room and backstage areas.
3. How much more complex has the prep become?
[Keith] At the moment, the prep has been mild. What has taken an incredible amount of time are the conversations to get us here. We can’t help to think about the productivity lost in the months of conversation at the board and staff level to get us to a policy that feels manageable and keeps everyone safe. At the height of the pandemic, it was easier to manage because the governor was setting out policy. As the politicians wanted to stay out of the policy arena, in regards to COVID, the weight of the burden was placed at the feet of the business owners/operators. Each organization was forced to wrestle with the implications of health and safety compared to financial sustainability. In addition to running our small arts organization, we needed to acquaint ourselves with health and safety protocols, virology, public health, and a host of additional satellite tangents to consider. Each organization walked blindly, and that amount of wasted time and resources could have been better utilized for our community in other ways.
[Lisa] The amount of detailed planning and preparation for events, which could potentially be canceled or poorly attended, has been massive. I remember our first outdoor event with Bread & Puppet in the pandemic when I borrowed a field painter, bought a bunch of flags, worked fastidiously to create pods and to track contact tracing for every participant prior to the show and at “the door.” It was uncharted territory and incredibly labor-intensive for a limited attendance outdoor show, which was the recommendation then. There have been new hurdles and ways of doing things throughout the pandemic. It may not be over, but we sure hope it’s winding down.
[Jon] These steps have added more complexity, but a manageable amount. A bigger challenge has been handling the many queries from members of the public about our protocols and navigating a space where some people want much more stringent protocols and others are upset that we require masks and vaccines at all.
If you’d like to share how your organization has been navigating the current Covid times, drop us a line.
Looking for resources? Check out our Covid-19 resource page for organizations.