Helen Baker, an assistant clinical professor at Emory University, has been an unofficial nursing expert for Actor’s Express in Atlanta, offering advice on, for instance, realistic stage blood. “I don’t know if they always appreciate my commentary,” she says with a laugh. Baker, the wife of the company’s managing director, Alex Scollon, is now officially collaborating with Atlanta theatres to procure more than just realistic sanguine fluid: She’s working with the Nell Hodgson Woodruff School of Nursing at Emory University to research protocols that would allow Atlanta theatres to safely reopen.
A total of 18 Atlanta-based performing arts organizations have volunteered to participate in the research project, a cohort that includes, in addition to Actor’s Express, 7 Stages, the Alliance Theatre, ART Station, Atlanta Lyric Theatre, Aurora Theatre, Center for Puppetry Arts, Dad’s Garage, Dance Canvas, Found Stages, Georgia Ensemble Theatre, Horizon Theatre Company, Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company, Out Front Theatre Company, Stage Door Players Synchronicity, and Terminus Dance Theatrical Outfit.
“Atlanta is a very collaborative theatre community,” effuses Scollon. “I’ve been in town seven years, and I’ve been amazed at how collaborative the organizations here are. From day one when COVID hit, organizations immediately came together to create a sort of a digital clearinghouse for online produced work.”
Gathering sources for the project was an easy task, as the tight-knit arts community regularly communicates with biweekly check-ins about the evolving conversations around the coronavirus.
“Theatre people are all about working through challenges to get things done, and this project is a great example,” says Chandra Stephens-Albright, managing director of True Colors Theatre Company and a member of the project’s steering committee. “In this case, it’s less about duct tape and extension cords, and more about a thoughtful, science-based approach to addressing a very real set of challenges.”
Led by three Doctor of Nursing Practice students, and a steering committee of 12 theatre staffers, the research project began in April with the creation of an in-depth assessment tool. A group of Bachelor’s Public Health nursing students interviewed theatre staffers about general theatre operations, from the rehearsal process to front of house to backstage, then analyzed the data to create safety protocols.
The team of nurses is now working to provide each participating organization, whose budgets and performance space sizes vary, with specific guidelines based on their respective needs. The data will be released at the end of August.
“My hope is that we can get this SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) into really good shape and then share it across the wider theatre community so that any community that is looking at it really can go in and say, ‘Okay, this is what they put together in Atlanta,’” says Scollon. “Does it work for us here? How do we adapt it to a really small organization or a really large organization?”
The research looked at everything from in-person auditions to theatre entrances, from backstage prop handling to intermission bathroom lines. One area of concern expressed by theatre companies in the survey was the use of real food props, so the nursing students put together a guide of how to best handle shared food props onstage.
“The patron experience is what we were focused on when we initially shut down in March, but as it turns out the artist experience is quite possibly the hardest one to solve,” says Gretchen Butler, managing director of Theatrical Outfit. “How do you keep actors, even a small group of say two to four, plus a stage manager, plus a director, safe in a rehearsal setting for the length of time it takes to rehearse a show? That’s what keeps me up at night.”
Over the past few months, recommendations for artists and audiences have shifted as health practitioners have learned more about the coronavirus and how it is spread. “My vision of where we would be in August is wildly different than where we actually are,” concedes Morgan Clark-Youngblood, a Doctorate in Nursing Practice student who is helping to lead the research. “We hope to create documents that have information and operating procedures that can really be flexible and follow theatres as COVID changes, and as our communities are impacted by COVID.”
Theatre companies are looking to health officials for help in making decisions around when and how to reopen. “We have been faced with fluid requirements that not only change from month to month, but that also vary from city to city, and between federal, state, and city,” says Stephens-Albright. “Our primary concern is making sure our artists, staff, and audiences are safe. That comes well before selling tickets. Until we have a sense of how to create a safe environment, we are going to stay off the stage.”
Butler concurs: “We’re all hungry for knowledge, and eager to make the best choices, but none of us are medical professionals. Prior to connecting with Emory, we were relying on webinars and news reports, like so many others searching for clear information. Having a team of people in the medical field specifically assess our building and our processes and suggest adjustments is invaluable.”
The preliminary data show that organizations plan to approach reopening slowly and carefully, and they remain open to adapting their operating processes. “I was really encouraged around a lot of the artistic questions around adaptability in the rehearsal room, which is a space where it can be hard to adapt because we have been doing it the same way for so long,” says Scollon. Across the board, organizations noted that they would willingly adapt to a hybrid of in-person and virtual rehearsals.
Not only will the data help to guide the theatre community through the eventual reopening process; the project also filled a need for the School of Nursing. Many in-person clinical rotations were paused because of the coronavirus, and a lack of PPE for all the students moved some of the learning online. This research project provided a clinical opportunity and required credits for graduating students.
“This was a way to develop an allied alternate clinical without exposing our students to any risk, because everything was done over Zoom or telephone,” explains Baker. “It was a really great opportunity for the School of Nursing. That’s what our job is—to get new research, find new protocols that are in place, and see how they can adapt to the situation that you want to adapt to. So we thought it was a really good fit.”
In addition to serving as an assistant professor, Baker is also a member of the COVID task force and is the school’s global and community engagement coordinator. The school’s community partnerships have also been on hold because of the pandemic, so this virtual collaboration with performing arts organizations filled that void.
“The shutdown was the time for all organizations to really evaluate what they’re doing, how they’re doing it, and figure out where their partnerships can come from,” says Scollon. “We were able to take this time and think: How do we use these partnerships? How do we use our relationships?” The partnership with the Emory School of Nursing was embraced by the board, the school, and the community. “It was a really special time to be able to do all of this.”
This collaboration between the theatre community and the nursing students included learning on both sides. Morgan Clark-Youngblood grew up going to the theatre in Atlanta, but this research project offered an unparalleled peek behind the curtain. For her part, Clark-Youngblood worked with eight theatre administrators to conduct research on safety protocols for artists.
“I’ve been really surprised—you don’t get this point of view as a theatregoer,” she says. “There’s so many moving parts backstage and with artists—it’s kind of a nuanced dance, especially when we’re thinking of infection control.”
Baker, an avid theatregoer herself, concurs: “You sit in the audience and you just think magic happens, right? So there was a lot of learning from both sides.” This experience has helped her to better understand her husband’s job, and vice versa. “It’s been really fun,” says Scollon, noting that they’ve been working from home together.
In the School of Nursing, the research project spurred conversations not only around how to reopen, but why. “Social gatherings are so important for our health,” explains Baker. “We don’t think about it as a health-promoting thing, but it is really important that we have community. We had some really good discussions around why the arts are so important to us as a community.”
Clark-Youngblood is proud of the work she and her fellow students were able to do during this unprecedented time. She concedes that the state of Georgia’s lackluster response to managing the spread of the coronavirus has “taken the wind out of her sails,” but working with the theatre community has buoyed her spirits. “It’s one of the easiest research projects I’ve worked on just because we’ve had people so excited and really support us and help us out. The theatre community has been willing to hop on any calls or talk to us for any number of hours. I’ve been proud. They’re really committed to following recommendations.”
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