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Arts Leaders Scope Out The Shape Of Live Theater In A Pandemic

Kranzberg Arts Foundation Executive Director Chris Hansen stands in the empty Grandel theater. The Kranzberg will soon start training hundreds of local arts professionals in its coronavirus safety protocols. [5/7/20]
David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Kranzberg Arts Foundation Executive Director Chris Hansen stands in the empty Grandel theater. The Kranzberg will soon start training hundreds of local arts professionals in its coronavirus safety protocols.

Leaders of most St. Louis-area theater companies don’t know when they’ll invite audiences back for live performances again during the coronavirus pandemic.

But they’re plotting the shape of live theater in an environment where social distancing is paramount and ticketbuyers may hesitate to return. 

Kranzberg Arts Foundation has taken the lead, developing a comprehensive set of new protocols that could serve as a model for local performing arts organizations.

“The public needs a general sense of safety and well-being in all arts and culture venues, because if they go to one and they have a bad experience, the psychological impact of that will probably prevent them from going to another,” Kranzberg Arts Foundation Executive Director Chris Hansen said.

The new policies include contactless ticket scanning, daily temperature tests for cast and crew members, seating patrons earlier to avoid groups of people gathering in lobbies and having ushers spread out patrons within the theater. 

Kranzberg Arts Foundation will enforce the new rules at all of its venues, including the Marcelle theater and .ZACK in St. Louis’ Midtown neighborhood and the Grandel theater in Grand Center. 

When these venues are able to open, they will seat only 25% of their usual capacity, with that percentage increasing over time. Hansen said that at some venues ushers will have the flexibility to seat families together in adjacent seats but separate them from other parties. 

One result of these safety measures is that productions will earn less revenue because of the reduced capacity, and incur added costs.

“One of the greatest challenges for us from a budgetary perspective is looking at what it means to potentially have anything from half to greater than half of our tickets not available,” said Joe Gfaller, managing director of Metro Theater Company, one of the Kranzberg’s resident theater companies. The troupe is planning to perform at the Grandel in October.

“We are ready to make that sacrifice in the best interests of everybody,” Gfaller said of reduced ticket sales, “but it requires us to be nimble.”

“Sobering” presentation

Hansen said he hopes the Kranzberg Arts Foundation coronavirus plan will provide a template for other local organizations working to figure out how to stage live theater safely during a pandemic. This month he’ll begin training his staff, followed by members of groups scheduled to perform at Kranzberg Arts Foundation venues.

“We’re talking about hundreds and hundreds of people who need to be on the same page,” Hansen said.

Hansen also has outlined the plan for members of the newly formed St. Louis Theatre Community Task Force, a group of local theater leaders who are sorting through the practical realities involved in resuming performances. 

The task force also received guidance from Dr. Shephali Wulff, an infectious disease specialist. 

Wulff said theater companies may need to schedule a day in between each performance to allow for extra cleaning of facilities, avoid air conditioning at indoor venues to prevent circulation of virus droplets, and hire many extra understudies in the event that any cast members test positive for coronavirus and must quarantine. One infected actor’s positive test could also trigger quarantines for the entire cast, she said.

Wulff’s presentation was “sobering,” said Sharon Hunter, producing artistic director of Moonstone Theatre Company.

“It was stunning. I think a lot of people were very taken aback in some ways by a lot of the things that she said, just because it was so real,” Hunter said. 

Moonstone Theatre Company was due to stage its inaugural production in July. Hunter, who organized the theater task force, postponed that show to next year but plans to stage a play at the Marcelle in November.

Once Kranzberg Arts Venues like the Grandel theater reopen, they will do so with limited capacity. [5/7/20]
Credit David Kovaluk | St. Louis Public Radio
Once Kranzberg Arts Venues like the Grandel theater reopen, they will do so with limited capacity.

“A significant model shift”

Some theater companies are further along in their reopening plans than others.

Kranzberg Arts Foundation venues are closed through the end of May, at least. If its leaders don’t think a June 1 reopening looks feasible as of mid-May, they will push the reopening back a month and reassess. 

Shakespeare Festival St. Louis announced plans to stage its production of “Much Ado About Nothing,” originally scheduled to begin in May, in August. The company plans to use its usual summer venue, Art Hill in Forest Park. 

Leaders of the Muny, whose 11,000-seat home in Forest Park is easily the region’s largest venue dedicated to live theater, recently announced their intention to begin a truncated summer season on July 20, if it’s safe to do so. They will decide by June 8 whether to proceed or postpone to next year. 

Managing Director Kwofe Coleman said at the time that the organization was focusing on safety issues including audience members’ entrances and exits, movement around the Muny’s spacious grounds and access to bathrooms.

Coleman added that the Muny was making all of its usual seats available for sale, and not making plans to space patrons out.

“If the reality was that you can’t sit next to an individual come July 20, then we’re looking at a really different situation. That’s a significant model shift that might not be one that’s feasible at this moment,” Coleman said. 

Public health experts have said that the coronavirus dissipates more quickly outdoors than in enclosed spaces, like the Kranzberg Arts Foundation’s facilities and other venues used by most local theater troupes.

Concerns about a hasty reopening

Though it’ll be necessary for local officials to lift restrictions on large gatherings before any shows can happen, Hansen said that move will be just one step in the process that leads to reopening. He said all relevant staff must be trained, the new protocols should be tried out and tweaked if necessary and audiences must feel ready to return.

Andrea Hoeschen, the central regional director of Actors' Equity Association, the national union of actors and stage managers, cautioned task force members against reopening theaters before new safety protocols are fully ready.

A bad experience at one theater, she said, might prompt audiences to stay home after that.

“The one thing we absolutely do not want is to start this process early in an eagerness to get back to work and shoot ourselves in the foot and kill theater for good,” Hoeschen said.

Follow Jeremy on Twitter: @jeremydgoodwin

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Jeremy is the arts & culture reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.