By Bill Hirschman
Actors and audience will be separated by a minimum of 16 feet. Musicians in the pit may be separated by sneeze guards. Staff will ensure that only a specific number of patrons will be allowed in restrooms and elevators at the same time. And everyone, virtually everyone coming into a theater for any reason will be required to have their temperature taken.
As a handful of local venues gingerly tried to reopen in recent weeks and others prepare plans for the future, a regimen of detailed protocols ranging from parking to popcorn to Playbills is emerging in documents that define what performing arts events in South Florida may look like for customers, artists, staff and vendors when theaters can reopen fully.
At two venues that had already opened, bathroom attendants at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton cleaned after every patron’s use, and a staffer at The Foundry in Wilton Manors passed an ultraviolet scanner across every seat before and after a performance.
Such measures are listed in online videos and documents seeking county governments’ blessings — outlines that can be a succinct as a single-spaced coronavirus-prevention blueprint about a page long for the tiny Empire Stage in Fort Lauderdale.
But others are comprehensive and exhaustive. Fantasy Theater Factory at the Sandrell Rivers Theater in Miami submitted a 35-page multi-color brochure with copious photos of steps already taken. The Arsht Center’s game plan is 68 pages of recommendations in small type and detailed seating charts. Its list and that of the Broward Center still being developed are based on a 52-page report from a national Performing Arts Center Consortium (PACC) committee that involved representatives from the Broward Center, Arsht and led by the Straz Center in Tampa .
Across the region, administrators are planning how to make their venues as safe a haven as possible from the coronavirus that shuttered every house and crippled their budgets. Their hope is to protect patrons and staffers, but also to persuade customers that it is relatively safe to sit in an enclosed space with dozens or even hundreds of other people.
None are planning full-scale productions in the immediate future; those that were open last week have shut back down for a few weeks in the wake of the current virus spike. Their offerings were revues, cabarets and a film series, not Shakespeare. But the restrictions, accommodations and safety measures are expected to be the same when they begin to present more traditional fare.
“We’ve decided to take the lemons we’ve been given and make as much lemonade as possible,” said Larry Fields, executive artistic director at Fantasy Theater Factory, which manages the Sandrell Rivers Theater.
“Now we know that for some, especially for those who have underlying health conditions, it’s going to be a tough sell and we fully realize that. But our position has been that we want to be on the forefront, we want to lead the charge in returning to normal because the longer we continue to go through this, the habits once established are hard to break and we are deeply invested in keeping the art of live theater, live cultural experiences going,” said Fields.
His company, which received the county’s approval, had planned to reopen July 10 with a film series in its auditorium, but the Miami-Dade County mayor ordered all venues to close last week when positive test numbers rose.
None of the plans are one-size-fits-all prescriptions for all venues, although they often are derived from the same county guidelines and advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The consortium report in particular is wide-ranging so that individual centers can choose recommendations that fit their situation.
The Broward Center preparations and underlying philosophies have been developed with the Cleveland Clinic “giving us the best and latest information and guidance about how to safely do the things we want to do,” said Kelley Shanley, president and CEO. “I can’t imagine doing this without them.”
It’s not just the line by line list of mitigation efforts, he said, but the attitude for the long haul while still moving forward. “One of the most important things they said to us, and it goes beyond the Broward Center and even our industry, is we need to learn how to live with the virus and (how) we can function in our lives in a safe manner. You don’t have to stay holed up in our houses. And that was the most comforting thing I heard from them. That made me feel a little bit more confident about attempting to start to reopen certain parts of our business. But, of course, you have to do it safely. You can’t just do it.”
Both Miami-Dade and Broward counties are requiring theaters to submit such plans for their administrations’ approval before allowing them to reopen. Very few have done so.
These efforts bring an added expense in preparation as well as subsequent running costs at a time when revenue has been sliced in half if not more. Even before reopening, Fantasy Theater Factory estimated it has spent $15,000 including $5,400 for a company to provide ultra-deep cleaning to every inch of the facility.
The Broward Center is studying “changes we might make to the HVAC system to provide additional mitigation for air flow and transmission by air,” Shanley said. “We’ve looked at a variety of solutions. Most of them are not inexpensive. That’s something we’re evaluating right now and kind of waiting to see the science get a little bit further on it and be a little bit more definitive before we make a decision, but the costs of these mitigation measures are going to be significant.”
While some theaters have privately been criticized for trying to open already, some see the decision as a matter of survival, not so much economic but as far as staying in their patrons’ mindset.
“It was a do or die moment, life or death moment,” said playwright-producer-actor Ronnie Larsen who was presenting Jennifer McClain’s one-woman autobiographical musical in The Foundry where he stages most of his shows. As a for-profit company, bringing in some revenue, even from a handful of patrons, can help offset the continuing rent payments. There’s also the goal trying to keep the genre alive while rigorously protecting his audience. But “I’d rather do five people a night than have it be empty and collect dust.”
The Wick was one of the last theaters to close and last month became one of the first to reopen with a series of weekend cabaret and dinner programs in its large lobby. Executive Managing Producer Marilynn Wick echoed Larsen’s profound commitment to keeping patrons safe. Measures range from dinner being served under plastic covers to cabaret performers using separate microphones.
Reiterating safety as a priority, Wick said, “We’re trying to entertain people (but also)… we absolutely want to stay open and in front of them. We don’t want to them to forge about us.” Although she plans to continue small presentations next month, she’s now expecting it will be January before she can mount full musicals again.
Several theaters such as Island City Stage in Wilton Manors have conducted surveys of their subscribers, most with the same results: about 30 percent won’t come back until a vaccine is available, about 40 percent say it depends on the safety measures and the feeling of being in the space, and 30 percent say they want to come back tomorrow.
Marilynn Wick has seen that first hand. Some patrons have been returning week after week to the Wick’s changing cabaret fare. She has sold out several shows with a 50-person capacity. “When they leave, they say ‘I had such a fabulous time. I can’t wait for the theater to open,’ she said.
MEASURES FOR MEASURES
Almost all of the plans examined for this story include obvious common measures now and for when they reopen:
—Staff wearing masks anytime they are within six feet of anyone before, during and after performances, in the office, backstage, in the lobby
—Hand sanitizer dispensers will be ubiquitous throughout the facility but especially in the lobbies.
—Extensive cleanings with alcohol-based wipes or sprays containing at least 70% alcohol before, during and after performances of any surface likely to be touched from door handles to elevator buttons.
—Staff in some venues will be expected to wash their hands, in some cases once an hour no matter what, and every half-hour if they deal directly with public, such as box office workers and ushers.
—Establishing training and support programs for staff.
—Encouraging staff to work from home and limiting on-site work to what is absolutely necessary.
Some changes in the theater-going experience will be easy to spot: Fantasy Theater Factory has taped off the water fountains. Show programs may be offered in advance (or after the show) by email or stacked in one location for patrons to pick up in their own; they will not be given out by the ushers.
Others won’t be obvious: Swapping out their standard air conditioning filters for the hospital-grade MERV filters, even those in the vacuum cleaners. The Wick has upgraded its air conditioning system to recirculate all the air in the facility once an hour.
Some efforts will result in customers being turned away. At Fantasy, everyone must allow their forehead to be scanned with a thermometer or be refused entry. Any patron with a reading more than 99.6 degrees will be turned away. Any employee with that reading will be sent home to work. Fantasy brings in many outside events, so actors topping that temperature will be barred entry and the event will be cancelled or rescheduled.
Indeed, one of the issues that will be quietly discussed over the coming months is how to diplomatically but firmly handle patrons who refuse to follow the restrictions.
Perhaps the most common question has to do with seating and social distancing – an area most theaters will deal with differently. In some large capacity theaters in Europe, seats are physically being removed. In this country, seats may be taped off.
The Arsht plan is especially specific about seating: Most charts have configurations of two and four seats together separated by three empty seats and with every other row being empty. This will cut capacity at the 2,400-seat Ziff Ballet Opera House down to 560; the 2,200-seat Knight Concert Hall to 384 seats (where the second Presidential debate is slated for October); and the 175-seat Carnival Studio Theater to 60 seats.
At Empire Stage with its living room-size audience seating, the audience capacity will be cut in half to 25 people at a time. Only two groups of four or less will be admitted into the theater. Chairs will be removed to prevent seating closer than that six feet apart. The Wick’s current cabaret places tables six feet apart with a capacity of 50 people.
At Fantasy’s black box theater, its normal 174-seat bleacher layout has been re-configured to allow for 12 four-seat groupings and three-seat groupings for a total of 44 patrons. A 6-foot buffer will be set up between each grouping. Only groups from the same household will be permitted to sit together in groups up to 4 people. No groups larger than 4 persons will be seated together.
The consortium report suggests eliminating seating adjacent to aisles.
Just moving people in and out to reduce contact will be a major challenge. PACC suggests opening the auditorium at the same time as the lobby; “loading” the auditorium from front to back; avoiding bottlenecks by “unloading” the auditorium in sections and not letting people congregate afterwards in the lobby. Fantasy will keep all doors propped open except for restrooms. Signs will be everywhere in the Broward Center “to help or navigate (patrons) from outside the building all the way to their seat,” Shanley said.
Cherished after-show traditions will be discouraged, ranging from eliminating fans waiting at the stage door for autographs to banning backstage tours and visits. Hugging, hand shaking and other physical contact on premises will be verboten. Tours at the Arsht will be suspended.
Among the other measures:
Ticketing: Empire strongly suggests buying tickets online. The Wick will not exchange tickets on site. At Fantasy, general admission will be changed to assigned seats. At some houses, physical tickets will not exist; patrons will show receipts on their smart phones or provide their names at the box office to check against a list. In others, like the Arsht, tickets will be scanned with a touchless system. Patrons will provide their name, address and phone numbers when purchasing tickets to facilitate contact tracing if necessary. The consortium report suggests avoiding cash transactions and printing out the ticket at a machine away from the ticket booth. Social distancing will be enforced in line at the box office.
Concessions and food service: Among several precautions, a plexiglass type of barrier will divide staff from the patrons at the Arsht and Fantasy Theater Factory. Food and non-alcoholic beverages will be pre-packaged. Souvenirs might be sold online so they can be delivered to homes or at worst in an on-site pick-up location. The Wick is delivering drinks with paper covers. Its kitchen staff prepares meals with a plastic cover before giving to the server. The Arsht, which hosts individual events with food, mandates that no space will have more than 50 percent occupancy, tables will be set at least six feet apart, and buffets will be outlawed.
Masks: Depending on factors, the staff and actors will be expected to use the masks except when on stage performing. At Fantasy, patrons will have to use them “when social distancing of six feet cannot be achieved, except for members of the same household. Facial coverings are not required for children under 2 years old and persons who have trouble breathing due to a chronic pre-existing condition.” At Empire, masks are recommended for patrons but not specifically required. At the Wick, masks may be provided if patrons don’t bring them.
Actors and backstage crew: Numerous precautions are listed for off-stage activity from the dressing rooms to the rehearsal hall. Fantasy will have no more than three actors to a dressing room – an issue that may stymie small theaters with tiny communal dressing spaces. Guidelines on the complexities of rehearsals, dressing rooms, on stage contact and many other issues are still being debated by the Actors Equity union, which will not allow its member to sign a contract until the specifics are worked out – and agreed to by individual theaters. No more than four people can congregate in the green room. Visiting companies and staff will be required to wear face coverings at all times. The Arsht will install protective barriers between make-up stations.
Restrooms: The Wick will have an attendant on duty throughout the evening to reclean after every use. The Arsht will have all bathrooms cleaned, including in the office space, every two or three hours.
Parking: In the early stages, valet parking will be suspended at the Arsht. Staff will not enter a car at the Wick (even to retrieve a walker) unless specifically asked to.
An immense amount of time and planning has gone into most of these plans for the twin goals of providing a safe environment and one that makes patrons more comfortable in returning regardless of government approval and health department guidelines.
“When it comes time to reopen we’re going to be prepared to do it safely and in an organized way and do the best we can in a way that also doesn’t seem to impose a big burden on the folks who are attending,” Shanley said.
“That’s the thing I feel the most confident about: our ability to use our plans that we’ve put together in an effective way, create a safe environment and make all of that work, as difficult as that will be. That’s the thing I feel the most confident about. What I feel the least confident about is knowing when that will be.”