Reopening the Performing Arts

Earlier this week, I attended a combined band/choir concert at the college where I teach. It was their first performance in 17 months and was an outdoor event on a warm Texas early evening. The audience was invited to bring their own chairs and many did.

While the concert itself was interesting, the audience was equally interesting. The audience arranged itself into rough rows with people who came together sitting together. Between every group there was a space: without direction, the groups had socially distanced themselves. About half of the audience was masked.

The concert seemed to provide a concrete example of the way people are feeling in May 2021: anxious to get out and do things, but cautious because there’s still a pandemic going on. And, of course, there are those who have pretty much ignored the virus from the beginning in the mix as well.

One wonders what this bodes for performing arts in the future. Some movie theatres are already open. Broadway is scheduled to reopen in September. But will the audiences be comfortable with going back inside for their entertainment? If the concert I attended is any indication, audiences who voluntarily social distance outside will certainly want to be socially distanced inside. To accommodate that need/desire, some ticketing software companies have added a social-distancing feature to their software which automatically creates a “bubble” around sold seats. Then there is the question of masks: will an audience be comfortable wearing masks for the entire length of a performance? Will they be comfortable with no one in the audience wearing masks, or some wearing masks and some not?

With all that social distancing, at what point will performing arts, which struggle to make a profit under the best of circumstances, be able to support themselves? How will they manage to survive if social distancing limits them to 50%-75% of capacity? Or, if they operate at 100% capacity, will audience members be comfortable enough to purchase tickets?

In addition to the question of finances, there is the question of audience response. It is well-known that a tightly-seated audience will respond better than when audience members are separated by empty seats. If a significant portion of seats are empty due to social distancing, what will that do to the audience response? And what, in turn, will that do to the performance?

As difficult as performing arts have been during what we hope was the height of the pandemic, the return to “normal” may be just as difficult. Just as we had to climb the learning curve of virtual production and adapt our techniques to streaming, we will have to adapt again—to the “new normal,” which will not be, cannot be as things were before March 2020. Then as the situation hopefully improves we will have to adapt again, and again, and again.

And we will. The world has seen pandemics before, and the performing arts have survived. And so will they this time. However, I suspect, they will be changed. Indeed, some performing arts companies have already announce permanent changes based on things learned during the pandemic. So we may never go back to “the way things were before.” And that, once we figure it out, will be just fine.

Date: Sunday, 9. May 2021 22:49
Trackback: Trackback-URL Category: Audience, Theatre

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