A.R.T., Harvard Public Health Researchers Map How To Resume Public Performances

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As theaters begin to consider how they'll resume public performances after the pandemic subsides, two institutions are banding together to make sure performance spaces are prepared to mitigate the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

“It's going to really rely on producers,” said Diane Paulus, artistic director at the American Repertory Theater, “and in this case, the A.R.T. being a producer in a theater where we can make space literally and also metaphorically to change our practice, to pivot, to actually consider different behaviors.”

The A.R.T. and researchers from Harvard's T. H. Chan School of Public Health are beginning to assess what the future might hold. They’re calling this effort a roadmap for recovery and resilience, a living document that theaters across the world will soon be able to access to create an experience that keeps the health of all in mind. Before theaters reopen, they must address how they'll hold rehearsals, usher audiences through their doors, and generally keep staff and patrons safe.

“I think the goal would be to ultimately retain the joy and beauty of what theater means to us,” Paulus said. “But if the audience has to be at a lower capacity, that's one way to think about it. If the audience enters the theater in a way that de-densifies the kind of crushing experience of a crowd coming in, these are all things that we will systematically look at.”

Paulus mentioned the possibility of an outdoor venue. She was reminded of Shakespeare who wrote and produced some of his greatest works in the midst of the plague at the Globe Theatre.

Dr. Joseph Allen, director of the Healthy Buildings program at the T. H. Chan School of Public Health at Harvard, has experience with sick buildings. His forensic work has assessed everything from cancer clusters in buildings to outbreaks of diseases in hospitals. He has considered many types of radiological, chemical, biological and physical hazards.

“The phrase actually comes from the start in the early 1980s and it came from the period right after the 1970s and the energy crisis where we started to tighten up our building envelopes to save energy,” Allen said. “Well, we started taking them up so much that we stopped letting our buildings breathe. And with that came the rise in sick building syndrome.”

Though he said the scale and scope of a pandemic is nothing like we've ever experienced, the same fundamental principles apply. Tried and true strategies include increasing the amount of outdoor air that moves through the building and improving air filtration. Improved ventilation could be paired with enhanced cleaning and disinfection protocols as a layered system of defense. Just like hand washing, covering your couch, and staying home when you’re sick is a kind of social trust, everyone has a role to play, he said.

“I think we're at this point certainly where we all have a shared responsibility towards each other and we're going to do everything we can on our side and that's in our domain to make this a safe environment," Allen said, “But, you know, this is going to involve a great deal social trust and a lot of responsibility on the part of the people who come to these venues.”

Paulus emphasized how important it is to invite the audience to be a part of this experience, to acknowledge the real collective fear and anxiety that will exist for patrons, and share with them the kind of interventions that can expect to be put in place. She said the whole art of theater, after all, is an experience that is shared between the performers and the audience.

“The whole ritual of going to the theater, [is] something we need to think about,” she said, “while at its core retaining what we will desperately need and what we always need. A connection to our common humanity, which is what the theater addresses, which we're going to want to experience more than ever when we come out of this isolation.”

This segment aired on April 29, 2020.


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Cristela Guerra Reporter
Cristela Guerra is an arts and culture reporter for WBUR.



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