Theatres have a unique challenge when it comes to social distancing and sanitation: They have to protect people on stage, behind the curtain, and in the audience. The Utah Department of Health has a lot of helpful guidance for how to reopen safely, particularly for protecting audiences and at-risk populations (links below). As an epidemiologist who has worked in both infectious disease and environmental health, I want to walk you through some of the mechanics of producing a play using the state’s guidelines.
Focus first on removing opportunities for infection and changing behavior. Even in hospitals, masks are considered the least effective way to prevent infection. Use the Hierarchy of Controls to prioritize how you protect your cast and crew from infection.
Start by selecting a script that makes social distancing easy. It’s a good time to put on a one-woman show instead of a musical romance with a large chorus, dancing, and kissing.
Consider plays with small casts and that allow actors to fill multiple roles. When legally permissible, cut scenes, lines, or characters to allow for social distancing. Even if you rehearse with smaller groups, that means the cast won’t have practiced social distancing when they’re all together for performances. Avoid this problem by cutting down your cast.
Think about the mechanics of your show, and select a script that will minimize the following:
- Cast members grouping on or off stage
- Close physical contact, including dancing and kissing
- Crowded changing rooms
- People helping each other with costumes and makeup
- Props and set pieces being touched by multiple people
- More than one person in the control booth or other confined spaces
Minimize your cast. Have actors fill multiple roles. Consider casting multiple members of the same household. This is not a good time to cast people who are high-risk or have high-risk family members, and it may be necessary to publicly ask these people not to audition. Have either a double cast or enough understudies to fill in, not only if a cast member is sick, but if they have even been exposed to someone who is sick.
Choreography and Stage Direction
Adapt wherever you can so people are six feet apart and are not touching the same surfaces. It might seem unnatural to have actors standing so far apart, but audiences will understand, and many will feel more comfortable watching a play that reflects our current social norms.
Limit the use of changing rooms by multiple people. Have actors put on their costumes at home, when possible. This will free up changing rooms for actors whose costumes must be changed at the theatre. If a costume change requires assistance, use a member of the actor’s household. Provide wipes so the actor can sanitize surfaces and leave the room clean for the next person.
Actors should apply their makeup at home when possible, and their makeup should either be self-applied or applied by a member of their household. If makeup must be applied in the theatre, provide wipes so the actor can sanitize surfaces and leave the space clean for the next person.
Props and Set-Pieces
Limit props that change hands and set pieces that are touched by multiple people. Consider whether crew members will be able to maintain distance while moving set pieces. Provide wipes, and put someone in charge of sanitizing props and set pieces between use.
Adapt your use of lighting and sound so only one person is in the control booth at a time. Provide wipes so they can sanitize the controls and other surfaces before another person uses the booth.
Although for many theatre companies in Utah, the post-show reception line and mingling with actors is a tradition, it is currently against state guidelines. Reception lines and mixing between the cast and audience should be avoided all together. It would be difficult to space actors far enough from each other and audience members. Additionally, people will naturally revert to habit and get closer than is safe while talking and greeting one another, especially in a group setting.
The state guidelines require someone to be in charge of sanitizing high-touch surfaces. I recommend going a step further and putting someone other than a director or producer in charge of overseeing theatre safety and keeping up-to-date on current state safety standards. The director will be too busy putting on a play to simultaneously think about sanitation and social distancing.
The safety captain will keep an eye on the nuts and bolts of the production and suggest adjustments for keeping people safe. Everyone, including the director, needs to acknowledge the safety captain’s role so they feel empowered to speak up anytime the cast or crew are endangered. A safety captain should be empowered to overrule the director when necessary, and everyone should be aware of her or his authority.
Create a culture of safety. People should feel comfortable raising safety concerns. Print out safety procedures, read them aloud, and put them on display. Ask everyone to sign a form agreeing to safety standards. Remind cast and crew members of safety procedures regularly and reward people for engaging in behaviors that keep people safe.
Finally, get creative. Utah’s live theatre community is full of creative and talented people. This is your chance to innovate and put on shows in new and interesting ways. Moreover, audiences are united in an unprecedented way, and their reality has completely shifted over the past few months. Use your audience’s unique paradigm to your advantage. You won’t be able to put on the same kind of shows you could last season, but try to see that as an opportunity to do something new.
Please feel free to contact me for guidance at juliashumway at gmail dot com, and follow the links below to stay current on Utah’s safety standards.
- Guidance for Events, Cultural Arts & Entertainment
- Guidance for protecting High Risk Individuals
- Guidance from the Utah Division of Arts and Museums
- Guidance from the Utah Cultural Alliance