The COVID-19 pandemic has forced theaters around the world to shut their doors and face existential questions about the future. Theaters are asking how to safely reopen and how to responsibly welcome back audiences that may be wary of public gathering. Against a backdrop of anxiety and uncertainty, organizations around the world are left trying to decipher rapid developments in science as well as evolving protocols and recommendations. Audience members have questions about what will be done to ensure their health and safety. Artists and theater staff are wondering how their own roles might change, and what will be done to protect them. Recovery can feel like an ever-moving target, as the landscape is constantly changing and the specific approaches and timing for reopening will be contingent on government regulations and disease dynamics that vary based on location.
“This is an all-in moment for the world, and the arts have a critical role to play in our recovery. We will draw on decades of research and practice on how to keep people safe as we consider how to effectively minimize the risk of disease transmission in ways that will allow theaters to continue their work.”
— Joseph Allen, Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health; Director, Healthy Buildings Program
As the professional theater at Harvard University, the American Repertory Theater is in a unique position to engage with leading experts in public health. In order to distill essential questions and articulate both principles and a set of primary considerations around the challenges that theaters are facing, the A.R.T. has embarked on an initiative with the Healthy Buildings Program at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. Led by A.R.T.’s Terrie and Bradley Bloom Artistic Director Diane Paulus and Dr. Joseph Allen, Assistant Professor of Exposure Assessment Science at the Harvard Chan School and director of the Healthy Buildings Program, this interdisciplinary collaboration seeks to imagine a path toward recovery and resilience for theater following science-based public health principles.
Our approach, and progress, will be shared via this website—a living document that will change based on new experiences and insights. This roadmap considers areas and practices that may benefit from new protocols and interventions, including overall healthy building strategies, administrative procedures, and, in future editions, rehearsals, production operations, and audience interactions. The A.R.T. and the Healthy Buildings Program will consider the ways that choreography—which has always been integral to theater practice—can be extended offstage to public areas and reconceived in public health terms as a sequence of actions and interactions in order to anticipate, recognize, assess, and control hazards.
This roadmap also proposes strategies for pivoting to other models, including outdoor experiences and hybrid delivery. As the A.R.T. undertakes incremental activities in a phased approach to reopening, we plan to share experiences, questions, and challenges in future editions of the roadmap. Our understanding of scientific developments and progress on medical treatments, testing, tracing, and vaccines will continue to inform our thinking. A team of faculty experts at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, including Dr. Allen, is actively tracking fourteen priority areas they view as key elements in a path forward that can help save lives and the economy.
Health and safety are on the minds of staff, artists, and audiences, and health concerns will need to be prioritized as we plan a return. This roadmap will consider strategies that may require the investment of time and resources, a pressure that arrives at a moment when theaters are already facing difficult financial circumstances. Some of these interventions entail minor modifications to existing protocols, while others invite us to reconsider fundamental elements of our practice. In either case, there is no one-size-fits-all solution to this complicated and evolving situation, and theaters will need to develop their own plans based on their specific circumstances. Theaters will also need to develop their plans alongside organizations and unions that are discussing health and safety for their members, such as Actors’ Equity Association, which has offered four initial core principles as a foundation for supporting safe and healthy theater productions.
We offer this resource as a contribution to a wider conversation. While we hope that sharing how we are thinking about the challenges presented by the pandemic will be helpful to others, this roadmap is not a set of directions. Rather, it is a framework of ideas and considerations that others may want to take into account as they devise plans based on their own circumstances and needs. Each theater’s situation is different, and each will need to craft its own plan, informed by applicable governmental and public health regulations and guidance, other resources and information, and expert advice specific to its situation.
The A.R.T. and the Healthy Buildings Program have undertaken this roadmap in a spirit of hope and determination that theater will endure. Inspired by the collaboration that defines our field, theater companies around the world now have the opportunity to share strategies and discoveries with one another. The creativity, imagination, and empathy which have driven our artistic practice for centuries will help us rise to the challenges of this time. We know that the theater has a significant role to play in the worldwide process of healing that lies ahead.
COVID-19 and Boston’s Arts Sector
Diane Paulus and Joseph Allen discussed this Roadmap with the Boston Mayor’s Office of Arts and Culture in an online conversation with other Boston-area arts organizations on May 8.
Health and safety first. Reopening efforts should focus on the question of how to open safely rather than a notion that “we must open.” The health and safety of staff, artists, and audiences are paramount at every step in the roadmap. All decisions should be informed by local, state, CDC, and WHO rules and recommendations, and all measures should be grounded in public health science and infection control.
A layered defense strategy is warranted. There is no such thing as “zero risk,” and there is no singular solution to recovery and resilience. No individual control method is sufficient to eliminate risk, just as no one single entity or person has sole responsibility. Rather, the goal is to minimize risk by pursuing a multi-layered defense integration strategy with shared responsibilities across staff, artists, and audiences.
Timelines will be determined by disease dynamics. Theater staff and artists can begin familiarizing themselves with the interventions necessary to minimize risk. However, guidance from the scientific and medical communities; national and regional disease dynamics; and evolving local, state, and national policies will determine the timing for the implementation of these strategies.
Recovery will require flexibility and agility. It will be necessary to respond dynamically, and we can anticipate disruptions. Projects can start slow and scale up—or down—incrementally, in response to new knowledge. There will be a learning curve for all theaters, and it will be crucial to acknowledge that approaches will vary from venue to venue, and to leave room for plans to be modified based on new insights and advances, including developments in screening and testing.
Acceptance of new norms. This crisis will require staff, artists, and audiences to adapt to new behavioral norms. Just as past emergencies have reshaped global security and safety practices, alterations made to standard practices in the face of this new challenge may seem unusual at first but become routine, and even expected, over time.
Building trust will require transparency and open communication. At every point along the road to recovery, clear communication strategies to build social trust and provide reassurance among staff, artists, and audiences (and to share new knowledge among organizations) will be as vital as the interventions themselves. While some control methods may be immediately visible, others (such as ventilation changes) may not. Explaining all the steps, visible and invisible, that a theater has taken to minimize risk will go a long way in reestablishing confidence and trust. Collaborative efforts among staff, artists, and audiences will be critical to minimizing risk.
Ethics and equity must inform all responses. Recovery plans should include focused efforts to prevent stigmatization of or unlawful discrimination against any artists, audiences, or staff members. The A.R.T. is committed to a practice of equity, diversity, and inclusion in all its activities and operations.
About the Use of This Resource
This roadmap is provided for informational and educational purposes only. It outlines factors to consider regarding the general operation of theaters in an effort to reduce the risk of disease transmission, specifically novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 and the disease it causes, COVID-19. The roadmap is not intended as a set of directions. Each theater’s situation is different. Each will need to devise its own plan, based on its particular circumstances and informed by applicable governmental and public health regulations and guidance, other resources and information, and expert advice specific to its situation.
This roadmap does not purport to be comprehensive. It presents a set of ideas. It is not intended to supersede or substitute for guidance from government and health organizations, including, without limitation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the World Health Organization, the United States Government, and any States. The roadmap reflects information available at the time it was created. The situation is changing rapidly. The A.R.T. does not warrant that the information and ideas presented are up to date, nor does it warrant their accuracy or completeness or their suitability to any particular theater’s purposes. Applying ideas and information in the roadmap will not ensure prevention or mitigation of disease transmission. The A.R.T. assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions or for any injury or damage to persons or property arising from or related to any use of the roadmap.