It’s 2021 and we’re going to the theatre.
Clutching our phones containing our e-tickets and travel affidavits, we join the outdoor queue of face-masked theatregoers. We no longer bunch up in a jumbled line/mob and push toward the door. We wait distantly and impatiently six feet behind the preceding patron until we approach the motion-sensor door. We place our clear plastic purses on the security table, pass through the metal detector, smile at the thermal camera, and step up to the hand sanitizer.
Only then do we hold out our tickets to be scanned by gloved ushers and walk into the hall. We count our way to our selected seats, buffered from all sides by empty ones to separate the next group. The sterile doctor’s-office paper crinkles as we sit in our seats, still a bit damp with antiseptic. Finally, we settle in to watch Romeo and Juliet fall in love from opposite ends of the stage.
Is this what we have to look forward to, post-pandemic?
“It’s disconcerting for everybody,” said Joshua Dachs, principle of Fisher Dachs Associates, a theatre planning and design firm in New York City. “Nobody knows how long it’s going to go on or what it really will be after.”
The design and construction of performing arts centers will undoubtedly be affected by the COVID-19 crisis, just as they have by every other historical threat to theatregoers. Around the turn of the 20th century, theatre fires resulted in asbestos fire curtains strung across prosceniums and metal fire escapes on Broadway facades. The flu of 1918 spawned new codes and standards for building ventilation. The 9/11 terrorist attacks temporarily kept patrons from purchasing tickets in advance, and the threat of active shooters has led theatres to institute contingency plans to deal with violence that’s not onstage.
The theatre field will weather this current threat, too, but it may experience both architectural and operational changes as it battles to assuage a new fear among patrons.
Where theatres were once revered for intricate architectural detailing and lush velvet draping, or for flexibility of layout, they will soon be judged on apparent sanitization and easy-to-clean surfaces. Gone are the days of gawking first and foremost at gilded ceilings. Bio-security will soon become the most admired display as returning patrons seek assurance of the cleanliness of public spaces.
Architect Scott Wilson predicts the addition of hand-sanitizer and hand-washing stations everywhere. Wilson, founder and director of Wilson Butler Architects, a firm specializing in arts and entertainment architecture, likens the change in the theatre entrance experience to circulation routes on cruise ships.
“Cruise ships are currently the poster child of the coronavirus, but in reality, they’re no more vulnerable than stadiums or economic centers or theatres,” Wilson said, describing the hand-washing vestibules that separate rooms on ships. He expects disease-spreading prevention measures to be incorporated into how patrons enter performance venues, requiring larger lobby spaces or outdoor sanitation thresholds. “There’s going to be a procedural thing that will have to be accommodated by the architecture,” he said.
The proposed addition of hand-washing stations and health screening areas means that theatre lobbies will have to grow. The whole theatre building will have to grow, in fact. If social distancing becomes a commonplace circulation pattern, theatres will require more space in the lobby, around the box office, at the bar, and in line for the restrooms. Not to mention in auditorium seating. But if a theatre only sold every other seat, leaving empty spots between each patron, they would stand to lose more than just audience members and ticket revenue. They would also lose the collective energy of a full audience response.
They would lose community, in short.
“When the performance begins, the hush that comes over the audience or the laughter that ripples around the audience or the gasp when something dramatic happens onstage—that’s what’s really exciting about being in a performance space,” said Byron Harrison, partner and acoustics principle of Charcoalblue, an international theatre, acoustic, and digital consultancy service. Harrison said he worries that separated seating endangers that natural communal reaction.
“If we have to be socially distant while in a theatre, just being too far away from someone else who’s laughing—it’s so subtle, a sharp intake of breath—it’s that sort of thing that we guard against if we really want those spaces to be live and exciting,” Harrison said.
An audience response, or lack thereof, is perceptible onstage. In a socially distant theatre, not only would performers have to tell the story without close interaction to one another. They would also look out over as many empty seats as filled ones.
But this theatre-half-empty situation provides an opportunity for future theatre builders. Mobile furniture and architectural innovation provides flexibility within a design. The Yard at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater, designed by Charcoalblue and Adrian Smith + Gordon Gill Architecture, can accommodate audiences ranging from 150 to 850 with mobile seats and nine flexible seating towers. Perhaps post-pandemic performers could look out to see only the seats that were sold, creating a full-seeming house despite the size of the audience.
However, since existing theatres aren’t likely to unbolt half of their seats and store them between last season’s wigs, we may look for disease-prevention solutions other than social distancing—especially for performers and back-of-house staff, who exit the stage and cram into shared dressing rooms, tight practice spaces, and overflowing costume shops, as well as for orchestra members who sit in a pit of spit and shared air.
Another kind of solution may come in the form of touch-less fixtures and easy-to-clean surfaces. While it’s relatively easy to replace sink handles, soap dispensers, hand dryers, and even doorknobs with motion-sensor alternatives, some building features have to be touched. To prevent the spread of disease through shared surfaces, designers may replace features like stair banisters and seat armrests with materials that can be easily wiped down with more caustic cleaning solutions. As health professionals and material manufacturers discover specific materials that do not harbor germs, new buildings can be designed with those, and existing buildings can be retrofitted.
“There are metals like copper that have antibacterial properties,” Dachs said. “You use that kind of material or some other antibacterial material more frequently on things that people have to touch that can also be washed a lot.”
Most theatres are outfitted with porous, sound-absorbing materials that help create the acoustic environment of the space. Theatre managers and acousticians may have to consider the replacement of fabrics, fibrous installations, and soft woods that absorb sound but can also provide a space for bacteria to grow. On the other hand, replacing sound-absorbing materials is not as high a priority as retrofitting other materials, as they haven’t been proven to hold live pathogens any longer than other materials, and patrons don’t often touch them.
The real threat to the acoustic balance of a performance space? The patrons themselves.
“If we have big changes in seating density in performance spaces—if either the public health experts or the public themselves demand more space between rows, more space between individual seats—that changes the relationship between the amount of surface area that functions as sound absorption and the rest of the volume of the room,” Harrison said. “And those are the things that play into the equations that we work with to predict how sound will respond in a room, including reverberation. If we increase the audience area by spacing people out, that will change rooms quite substantially.”
Another way to create a more healthful environment is to increase the amount of fresh air in performance spaces. Ramped-up ventilation systems with advanced filtering systems, like those in ultra-energy-efficient office buildings, could bring in more clean air. Research in building ventilation has shown that recirculated air and improper filtrations can contribute to medical concerns for the building’s occupants, in a condition called sick building syndrome. Additionally, reducing recirculated air actually provides an opportunity for theatres to become more sustainable.
Using passive thermal and ventilation systems not only provides more fresh air to occupants but also reduces energy usage, saving money in operational costs and reducing the building’s carbon emission. Buildings like the Alice Busch Opera Theater at the Glimmerglass Festival in Cooperstown, N.Y., flood the theatre space with fresh air, creating an indoor/outdoor experience. Bringing the outdoors into a performance space, or rather moving a performance outside, easily alleviates concerns about recirculated air and provides room for social distancing. This may prompt performance venues to work within the constraints of their climate, perhaps altering the timing of a season or mitigating controlled environments for performers as well as keeping patrons out of the rain.
All of these accommodations—sanitization, flexible spaces, material changes, and ventilation updates—will require money. Increasing the size of the venue for social distancing requires a ton of money, as the easiest way to cut construction project costs is to cut space, to build less building. Theatres can’t magically invent income, especially with current performance cancellations. If venues reopen under social distancing guidelines, theatres must take on the financial burden of only selling half of the seats and perhaps reducing the number of the performers if the stage and backstage cannot be used to capacity. This would put performance venues, already shaken by current economic uncertainty, in a tenuous financial situation.
“Philanthropy tends to flow rather generously when the stock market is at all-time highs,” Wilson said. “When the stock market affects a very generous artistic philanthropic family or foundation, they are going to pause and hesitate whenever they write a check. So that remains to be seen.”
But the current economic crisis could result in a silver lining for venues looking to take on new construction projects. Economic shifts might stabilize the soaring construction costs of the last five years, allowing owners’ funds to go further than they could before the pandemic. Still, changes in construction costs are difficult to predict, as is the completion of buildings currently under construction.
Some projects, like Wilson Butler’s renovation of the Parker Playhouse in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., will proceed; some have been delayed; and some may never happen. Pat Arrington, vice president of JE Dunn Construction Group, headquartered in Kansas City, Mo., is addressing his projects in a way that is best both for the client and for the safety of construction crews.
“Project by project, owner by owner, city by city, we have to step back and reexamine our contracts,” Arrington said. Construction, as an essential service, is continuing with increased precautions, but as buildings come to completion, they are still not opening under local health advisements. “We have hired third-party (building) inspectors, but the inspectors are not issuing a certificate of occupancy at this time.”
Despite the uncertainty of the construction market, many are hopeful that the theatre industry will return to normal, or rather the new normal, after the coronavirus pandemic. The field will take COVID-19 in stride, just as it has with other historical threats. Precautions that are visible and apparent to the public will accelerate patrons’ comfortable return to the theatre. And perhaps the artists and performers will lead the new normal in theatre design and construction.
“We may find that the art changes as a result of this crisis, and that leads to new building types,” Dachs said. “It might not be an intentional choice by the producer so much as an evolution on the part of the artists, which is what has always driven change in theatre design.”
Kate Mazade is a Goldring Arts Journalism graduate student at Syracuse University.
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