How Do You Make a Theater Safe Again?

July 7, 2020

Last summer, months before the word “coronavirus” became part of our daily lexicon, American Repertory Theater artistic director Diane Paulus started working with an unexpected expert: Joseph Allen, an assistant professor of exposure assessment science at Harvard’s H.T. Chan School of Public Health and head of the university’s Healthy Buildings Program. According to Boston Magazine, Paulus was starting to plan out A.R.T.’s new venue at Harvard, and wanted to design a “healthy” theater.

So when COVID-19 began shutting everything down, the team had already put in months of work considering how to make a performing arts venue safe. To share their ideas with other theaters, A.R.T. published a blueprint online that will be continually updated. Although the “Roadmap for Recovery and Resilience for Theater” is not meant to be comprehensive or prescriptive, it offers several insightful factors to consider:

Improve ventilation and filtration

It’s become clear that the virus spreads much easier inside than outside—one study from Japan suggests you’re 20 times more likely to catch COVID-19 indoors. That’s mostly because wind blows away the droplets we breathe on each other.

So how can theaters combat the negative effects of being inside, where tiny droplets float around at head level? By bringing in more fresh air through better ventilation, and removing airborne viral particles through better filtration of recirculated air. Though this might sound like it would involve a major overhaul, A.R.T.’s Roadmap says it does not necessarily require significant capital investment.

In smaller spaces, like dressing rooms, theaters can even use portable air purifiers with HEPA filtration.

Reduce touch

Everywhere that contact can be limited should be in order to help reduce transmission. The Roadmap recommends installing automatic doors and bathroom equipment as well as no-contact payment at concessions, and making tickets and programs digital.

Objects should also be handled by as few people as possible. For instance, backstage crews could designate just one person to be in charge of a particular tool. Props could be the responsibility of performers using them, while costume changes could be rethought so they could be done without assistance.

Create physical barriers

Most box office staff have long handed out tickets from behind plexiglass windows. The Roadmap recommends installing similar plexiglass barriers at concessions and reception as well. The Wilma Theater in Philadelphia has taken this concept a step further and created a new arena-like seating structure onstage that puts wooden dividers between audience members.

Rethink restrooms

Restrooms might be one of the biggest challenges venues face. Everybody touches the same surfaces, and most audience members want to use the same small space at the same time during intermission, filling the air with potentially risky bioaerosols. The virus has also been found in stool.

The Roadmap recommends considering shorter shows that don’t require an intermission at all, or programming multiple, longer intermissions into performances so fewer people use the restroom at once. Theaters with available outdoor space could also park restroom trailers outside their entrances to increase capacity.

Additionally, hand washing and sanitizing stations could be set up outside bathrooms so those who just want to clean their hands don’t have to go inside the restroom. Plexiglass could be added between urinals. Sanitizing wipes could also be provided to everyone entering the bathroom to wipe down doorknobs, toilet seats and sinks to increase the frequency of cleaning.

For safer air, theaters should ensure restroom exhaust systems are functioning properly. This is also another area where a portable air purifier can be useful.

Keep maintenance staff safe

Cleaning crews are more essential than ever, and, as always, need to be kept safe. The longer theaters can wait after being used to have maintenance staff clean surfaces with soap (which removes microorganisms) and disinfect (which kills them), the less likely staff will be exposed to live virus particles.

Maintain moderate humidity

The Roadmap says that keeping relative indoor humidity between 40 and 60 percent reduces the viability and transmission of the virus. This level of humidity also has benefits for our respiratory system’s defenses.

Portable humidifiers can be added to small rooms. On a building-wide level, theaters can install a humidification system into the HVAC system and air-seal the building. (Of course, this needs to be done carefully to avoid condensation and mold.)

Keep learning

The A.R.T. team will update the Roadmap in the coming months as more information becomes available about which protocols are most useful. Future editions will include considerations for rehearsal and production.