Rehearsals in PPE and other big changes to expect when theaters reopen in DC

Our columnist sums up the ReOpenDC Report recommendations for live theater—and adds some more for community consideration.

We will open again. The COVID-19 virus will neither darken nor silence us even with the many scary unknowns before us. We know reopening for DMV theater will happen. The date may be uncertain, but collective planning in DC is happening right now.

One example of that collective planning is the recent release of a report from DC Mayor Muriel Bowser’s ReOpen DC Advisory Group, which includes excellent guidance for theatermakers and theatergoers alike.

(The recommendations are specific to DC. Maryland and Virginia are different political jurisdictions and will have their own guidelines about reopening.)

The wide-ranging recommendations in the 80-page ReOpen DC report cover a broad array of residents’ lives—well beyond taking away the ghost lights of current live theaters— including education, health, work, and access to critical services. We at DC Metro Theater Arts have reviewed the report to bring you key highlights specific to live theater and the performing arts. (For a downloadable PDF of the full report, click here.)

The plan to reopen DC in four stages

The ReOpen DC Advisory Group—looking at the benefits, risks, and trade-offs and weighing metrics of health, opportunity, prosperity, and equity—recommends reopening in four stages: “three stages to follow the lifting of the stay-at-home order, and a fourth stage to begin when a vaccine has become widely available and administered.” Reopening DC is tightly connected to the overall health of DC, its residents, those who work in the City, and visitors, and the stages will be declared by the DC Mayor based upon DC Health guidance. As the report notes,

While DC Health’s gating criteria ensure that public health considerations determine the timing of reopening, DC Government must also make decisions regarding what can reopen and how. To inform these decisions, our 11 committees analyzed staging across 24 individual activities and business functions.

Where theater and the performing arts fit in

One of the ReOpen DC’s 11 advisory teams was the Faith, Arts, Culture, Entertainment, Sports, and Hotels Committee (FACES-H for short). Within that there was an Arts and Culture Sector Working Group, whose members included Amy Austin (president and CEO, theatreWashington), Michael Kahn (former artistic director, The Shakespeare Theatre Company), Deborah Rutter (president, The Kennedy Center), Molly Smith (artistic director, Arena Stage), and E. Brian Williams (founder and executive director, StepAfrika!). This working group

reached out to a wide variety of additional industry stakeholders and captured valuable input from the arts and culture community through an industry specific questionnaire. The group received 104 responses which also included a consolidated response from the Smithsonian Institution. This group also held focus groups geared towards artists in the creative industries including filmmakers, musicians, photographers and visual artists, gaining valuable insights from the creatives who will grace the stages of cultural institutions upon reopening.

The four stages of reopening and theater-specific recommendations for each 

For Stage 1 of the reopening, an overall decline in COVID-19 transmissions would be required.  In Stage 1 theaters remain closed. For theaters there is no change from the Mayor’s shutdown orders that have been in place since March 24, 2020.

• Stage 2 can happen when there is “only localized” transmission of COVID-1. At Stage 2, theaters could reopen with audiences of up to 50 people per venue and with physical distancing. In-person rehearsals would be allowed with PPE (personal protective equipment) but with no contact (such as kissing or stage combat). There would also be reconfigured seating and physical-distancing protocols in theater lobby areas.

• Stage 3 can be declared when there is “sporadic” transmission. Theaters could reopen with up to 250 people permitted, with physical distancing encouraged. Reconfigured seating and physical distancing protocols in lobby areas would be required.

• Stage 4 would be declared when there is an ”effective vaccine or cure.” At that point in time there will be what is best described as a “new normal” for theaters as health and safety limitations are diminished.

Other recommended theater-specific safeguards 

• Install sneeze guard/protective customer barrier in all areas where there is patron transaction and interaction such as at ticket booths.

• Reconfigure or mark seating arrangements to delineate physically distant seating.

• Register or keep visitor logs for all patrons to facilitate contact tracing.

• Develop patron movement flows to minimize face-to-face passing.

• Develop virtual experiences and performances to promote access to and engagement with arts and cultural offerings.

What more needs to happen, in my opinion

The ReOpen DC report is an invaluable first step as an initial blueprint. But there is a need for additional details and steps to be taken to reduce understandable anxieties of theatergoers, theatermakers, and the general public.

Let us consider some additional details. Call them further infection mitigation at the most mundane of levels. Why? Because we have only one time to get this right. Or theatergoers may not return after opening night. And these details need to be undertaken not only by theater venues individually but by professional and community theaters in collective action.

May I suggest a critical next step is a detailed checklist for the DMV theater industry? It would be a way for people to know what to expect throughout the DVM theater community, not just at one theater. It would build confidence with all concerned that first and foremost we in the performing arts have their health and safety as our priority, along with producing outstanding theater.

With a DMV-wide checklist, theatermakers and theatergoers will know what to expect whether at a big-budget or smaller-budget theater experience. A community-wide checklist can serve as a clear minimum for expectations at the most ordinary, granular, day-to-day levels.

A common checklist might bring reduced anxiety to patrons, performers, and the public at large, including those with underlying health conditions or those who are perhaps 60 and over. It can also reduce stress for theater staff, front-of-house folk, and even those who may become the most critical of personnel: the ushers.

Let me suggest a checklist that as an industry all individual theater companies have, use, and let the public see to provide clear, transparent expectations. And then let us overcommunicate. Let us think through together all the “what if’s” and even costs that are no longer artistic and creative budgetary lines of costs.

Examples to think about over the next weeks:

• What can everyone expect when they walk into a theater venue? Promise disinfectant wipe-downs of high-touch surfaces, bathrooms meticulously cleaned, more vacuuming, free masks, gloves, extra ushers, you name it.

• What can performers and production crew expect? Backstage, in the wings, promise wipe-downs, masks, gloves, you name it.

• What can in-house staff expect as their new responsibilities? Can they remove a patron who does not wear a mask, for instance?

• How do we mitigate risk at the most mundane of levels? Think water fountains, snack service, handing out of programs. Even this: how to leave a performance with social distancing.

• Being aware of legal tort issues. Why? Because in our current days, one should expect lawsuits. Perhaps larger venues with the means can provide legal guidance to DMV theaters in a collective?

• Add a new staff member to our theater lexicon: an infection-mitigation coordinator.

If we are truly in this together as a theater community, we will have few chances to get this right. The great art we create will be gone if we don’t. What do you think? We at DCMTA would like to know. And so do decision makers in DC, MD, and VA.

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