Since the start of the pandemic, Tessitura has talked with thousands of cultural professionals about their challenges and successes. We have synthesized our learnings into Six Traits of Forward-Looking Cultural Organizations. This post examines Trait Five: Enable Safe Gathering.
We are an industry that exists to bring people together in person. I’ve heard from countless culture professionals that the hardest part of this pandemic is the pain of seeing their buildings and theaters empty. And so, even as our industry observes safety protocols and grudgingly embraces digital delivery of everything, it comes as no surprise that many cultural professionals are still stubbornly finding new ways to safely connect in person.
We are the original creative industry, and our boundless ingenuity has never been more on display than right now.
We are the original creative industry, and our boundless ingenuity has never been more on display than right now. The number of clever ways to safely bring culture to in-person audiences is seemingly endless. Here are four of our favorites:
1. Embrace the Outdoors
For organizations that have the space and climate to pull it off, outdoor experiences have provided a safe alternative. Gardens and zoos were among the first cultural organizations to reopen for this very reason. In fact, as the pandemic eases (and it will!), national data shows that cultural audiences will be likely to visit outdoor attractions most readily.
With this in mind, performing arts organizations are figuring out how to play outdoors as well. As my colleague Ragan Rhodes details in this recent article, Miami City Ballet is taking advantage of their mild winter to stage Nutcracker in the Park in downtown Miami. Their reimagined production includes live performance and projected video.
Over the summer, Bravo! Vail Music Festival in Vail, Colorado, built a mobile stage for outdoor concerts they dubbed the Bravo Vail Music Box. The stage was hitched to the back of a truck and driven around to parks, community centers and other outdoor gathering places in the Vail Valley. Each concert featured a world-class soloist or small ensemble and thanks to sponsors, was offered to the community at no charge. As part of the Music Box package, the Bravo! staff provided guidelines to the audience in how to practice safe social distancing.
2. Encase your Audience in Steel and Chrome
As most audiences already own their own ready-made mobile “bubble” in the form of an automobile, why not cater to it? The Alliance Theatre in Atlanta has transformed their annual Christmas Carol into a drive-in parking lot pandemic pageant. Among other innovations, the set is constructed of shipping containers, with each serving as its own mini stage keeping the actors each at a safe distance. This season, honking is the new clapping.
Drive-ins aren’t just for theater, of course. The Grand in Wilmington, Delaware has had success with The Grand’s Concerts by Car series, featuring live concerts by local bands. Meanwhile, Austin Opera’s Blue Starlight Opera Series brings high-def recordings of their operas to a classic Austin Drive In. No word yet on whether they are programming Car-men.
This season, honking is the new clapping.
And finally, all across the land, Zoo Lights are being transformed into Drive-Thru-Zoo Lights, like at the Dallas Zoo, which has reimagined their sprawling campus as a 1.3 mile holiday light extravaganza.
3. Redefine the Stage
While outdoor options may be safest, some organizations are safely welcoming audiences into their indoor spaces. This is what the Birmingham Hippodrome in the UK managed to do this fall. Birmingham's primary performing arts center, the Hippodrome realized there was no safe or economically sound way to fill their 1,850 seat auditorium while the pandemic raged on. So they asked themselves a different question. Rather than socially distancing the auditorium, what if they socially distanced their entire building? What if the Hippodrome itself was the stage?
With that, they transformed the entire facility into a gallery, bringing the immersive Van Gogh Alive experience to Birmingham, with tens of thousands of visitors safely wandering the Hippodrome.
The Hippodrome reimagined their space — focused on the entire facility rather than their stage as the focal point — and were able to welcome nearly as many visitors on a single day than they would during non-pandemic times.
Meanwhile, the Atlanta Opera has debuted their Molly Blank Big Tent series, presenting six operas in a circus tent on the baseball diamond of Oglethorpe University. Their artists are socially distanced on stage and the audience is socially distanced in the tent. But even more than that, all audience members must complete an online health check survey before attending the show — a seamless experience thanks to Tessitura technology partner InstantEncore.
4. Encase your Volunteers in Plexiglass
As the World War I Museum and Memorial planned to reopen in June, they hit a snag. Like many museums, most of their volunteer tour guides are senior citizens - the most vulnerable population. The volunteers were ready and willing to return, as long as the museum could ensure their safety. Beyond social distancing measures and mandatory face masks, the museum considered other safety measures. At any fixed location where guests and volunteers would be in close proximity (a registration desk, for instance) they installed a plexiglass shield.
But how could they protect the volunteers while they were giving a tour?
Their solution was genius: a human-sized plexiglass shield on casters. The Museum worked with a local exhibit designer to build a series of shields on wheels that the volunteers roll around with them throughout the tour.
There are so many other smart protocols Tessitura organizations are using to ensure safe gathering. My colleague Dana Astmann shares seven tips for safely reopening in this recent article.
Whether it is embracing the great outdoors, coming to terms with cars, or rethinking your spaces, there are a wealth of possibilities for creating human connection even in times of pandemic.
Digital-only connections may be a fact of life for cultural institutions for a while longer. And I have no doubt that digital delivery will end up as a welcome and permanent part of arts and culture life long after the masks have come off. But to me, there will never be a replacement for the in person experience. Whether it is embracing the great outdoors, coming to terms with cars, or rethinking your spaces, there are a wealth of possibilities for creating human connection even in times of pandemic.