Answering Your Questions About The Performing Arts And The Pandemic

Stan Bunger
July 22, 2020 - 2:04 pm

    As we continue to navigate these unprecedented times, KCBS Radio is getting the answers to your questions about the coronavirus pandemic. Every morning at 9:20 a.m. Monday-Friday we're doing an "Ask An Expert" segment with a focus on a different aspect of this situation each day.

    Today we're focusing on how the performing arts are adapting during the pandemic with Jennifer Bielstein, executive director of the American Conservatory Theater.

    So you came to San Francisco a couple of years ago, the big job, this great regional theater company, and you could never have anticipated this.

    No, definitely didn't anticipate this. I don't think any of us did, but we're figuring it out. We are.

    So let's talk a little about, you know, how something that is of its very nature about people coming together, right? You get an audience, you get actors and actresses, you get a stage, you do it all in a real place. How does that work - or can it - in these times?

    Well, we're definitely a performing arts organization in the final stages of reopening and recovery in terms of these efforts, locally and nationally. So it doesn't really work. I mean, we do exist to bring people together and in groups. And so as we start to consider how we do come back, our different organizations are looking at how to do that with social distancing, you know, with creating space that people might be seated. If they typically come to the theater in pairs, they might be seated in pairs and then have six feet between them and the next couple, if you will, who are attending the theater. Looking at ways of staggering entrances and exits and minimizing crossover in those paths. But we're not even allowed to do this yet at this point, but we're looking at all of those safety protocols: increased sanitization and mask wearing, mandating mask wearing for attendees and people working for the theater when we do reopen.

    Anything going on elsewhere in the world that you're able to take any cues from?

    Sure. Well, you know, there are some performing arts organizations who are beginning to have performances outdoors, maybe with one or two actors. Some are actually having those actors wear the newer masks that have the clear shield so that you can actually see the movement of people's mouths. And then also we're really moving to the digital realm in a lot of what we do. So for ACT specifically, when we were shut down mid-March we actually captured recordings of the two productions that we had going. So one of them was a play called "Toni Stone," opening night was Wednesday, March 11th and then unfortunately we could no longer have performances as of the very next day. And so we shared that recording with all of our audiences and we actually had viewers from all around the country and around the world. So that was kind of exciting.

    And you know, we are creative individuals and so people are creating new work. So we've actually done some plays, some Zoom theater that has actually had ingenious staging. One of our employees, Peter Kuo, has staged a production called "In love and Warcraft" and it was so exciting to watch it. So the actors were filming from their homes and interacting and it just was brilliant. And it was very exciting also because all of the attendees on Zoom were using the chat function and interacting with each other so it had great energy and was a way to have a live performance virtually.

    Interesting. "Toni Stone," is that the play about the black Negro league woman baseball player?

    It is!

    Yeah it's an amazing story and it kind of got lost in the shuffle. I hope the recording is a good one, and you can imagine all the baseball starved fans dying for something like that. And I'm wondering about those kinds of crossovers that may make themselves apparent now.

    Yeah. And we were working on all of those partnerships, a great partnership with the Giants when we were in production and yeah the recording was enjoyed by many. We had dispensation from our unions to share it for just a couple of weeks. And so if we want to revive that it's just something that we would look to invest in, in the future. And then actually we were doing that production in partnership with Arena Stage in D.C. and they just announced their season today, and so our artistic director, Pam MacKinnon will be directing it in D.C. Sometime in 2021.

    Great. Well, excited to hear that it's got some life ahead of it. Well, let's get to questions then, sent in from our listeners this morning by email to The first question, and I know there are a lot of people who probably are coming from the same space: can you give us an idea how smaller performing arts organizations might survive? It seems like they are really short on resources and ways to cope with this.

    Yeah, this is really tough for all performing arts organizations, small, medium and large. As nonprofits, we typically don't have much of a financial cushion, if any, so most have had to shrink and lay off a significant number of employees. And as we all would know, and probably understand artists were almost immediately without work because of it. Some of the federal programs, the PPP loans have been lifesaving for organizations. There were some funds that were distributed through the National Endowment for the Arts that went primarily to small arts organizations. And then of course we depend upon the generosity of our local community and contributions from a variety of sources of donors.

    Next question says: I feel really sorry for actors and actresses, because I know they're not always in the most stable financial state. Can you tell us how they're doing, what sorts of support there is for them, et cetera?

    Yeah, this is really tough. This is a hard moment, I mean our sector is just decimated by this. So all of those individual actors and actresses and other theater workers, the increased unemployment benefits have been pivotal. And then there are some other funds. For example, Theater Bay Area has a performing arts workers relief fund where they've solicited secured resources to be able to distribute to performing arts workers. I'm part of Mayor Breed's economic recovery task force and we have a committee on arts, culture, hospitality and entertainment nd one of the things that we're exploring are, are there some government led job programs that can be put into place that will employ artists during this time until organizations are actually able to be up and running? We have these very talented individuals in our fields and how could they be redeployed?

    You mentioned the face shields and some of the accommodations, another question here says: can you ask your expert how theater might look different? I've read that TV productions and movie productions are trying to get going again with all sorts of restrictions and changes.

    Yeah. So we're working through that as a field. I'm really involved locally and nationally in these conversations and we work with a number of union partners on this as well. And so we're exploring, what are the protocols that we need to have in place to ensure it's safe for everyone? So, safe for the artists on the stage, people working behind the scenes, people working in front of house and our audiences, of course. And so things may look different in terms of staging, they would have some social distancing. It's not ideal in trying to create the art that we create and convey the emotion and the storytelling that we are doing. But I think it could look different with social distancing. I had mentioned the mask wearing that's happening now. A lot of the protocols that we're exploring will involve testing and contact tracing and isolation and ensuring that people remain healthy when they're performing and having to interact with each other. So I would say some of that is still in process for our industry. And we know we have a little bit of time because it's a ways off before we're able to get back up and perform on stage.

    So where the stage directions say "they embraced," might now say "meaningful glare from six feet apart" or something like that? (laughs) I mean, I'm just trying to think how you restage things in a way that remains true to the safety standards.

    Yeah. I mean, we may get to a place where we'll actually support that embrace because there are treatments and there are protocols in place to ensure people's health and safety. But we may also begin to look at a handshake or an embrace staged differently, and it may be done from a distance. And I think we'll have to kind of adjust our expectations. You know, like right now, sometimes if you see recordings where there are a lot of people in a space together you're like, "Oh, that shouldn't be happening right now that we have social distancing." So it's a little jarring. So I think we'll just be adjusting our expectations as we go forward.

    And it's fascinating because you mentioned your relationship with the Giants on the "Toni Stone" piece and, you know, to watch baseball games these last two nights and see the guys pantomime high fives, and no hugs, they're sitting apart. They're sitting in the stands, for crying out loud, not in the dugout. It's jarring.

    Next question here: we're a community theater family, both on stage and behind the scenes. We've already had two musicals postponed this year, looking into possibly doing the shows outdoors at an amphitheater. What are your thoughts? Heard theater and the arts will be the last to open back up, which is sad because for many people, theater or music is what helps them let go of any stress.

    Wow. That's so beautiful. That speaks to my heart. Yeah, I mean theater, the arts are essential. They help us build empathy and learn about ourselves and each other and that builds stronger communities. And so I really appreciate what was just said. Yeah, performing outdoors will be one of the first options for arts to return. So I definitely think it's worth looking at. And we have some great outdoor venues in the Bay Area, so that's definitely an opportunity to explore.

    What does the future look like in the short term and long term for venues? Indoor spaces are problematic and close contact with others is not good.

    Yeah. So I think there's the exploration of repurposing some of the indoor venues for other ways that they can be useful to our community in the short term, but we will not be reopening venues until it's safe to bring people. So we'll be implementing some of those protocols that I was speaking of in terms of social distancing, staggered entrances, increased sanitization and such. Some of the museums are likely able to open sooner than the performing arts and they're looking at timed ticketing for their entrances. All of us are looking at ways to minimize points of physical contact. So touchless ticketing for theaters, we'll likely go to digital programs. And for the museums right now, I know they're looking at a limited capacity in terms of the percentage of people who would come in at any given time to their venues.

    You know, we've been talking a lot in recent weeks on this segment about indoor air quality and the reality that outdoors is a safer place. These are massive facilities in some cases, is there work being done or examined to rethink the way indoor air works in a theater?

    Yeah, absolutely. And you're right, they are massive investments. You know, we've been looking at it for our theaters, the Geary theater and the Strand and you know, they're investments that require hundreds of thousands of dollars to replace the equipment that we have. So it's definitely something I'm sure other organizations are looking at as well, because it will be essential.

    Next question, I help record our services every week from a room 50 feet away from the band and singers - I'm assuming this is a church environment. My concern is for the people on stage who are at least six feet apart, but none of them are wearing masks. I understand the singers (four or five of them) not wearing masks, but shouldn't the musicians (five or six of them) be wearing masks? The question goes on to ask if Contra Costa County considers this safe, but I guess a broader question about the way rules are enforced or at least who makes that decision.

    Well, I do think, what we know and what we're hearing daily is that wearing masks is one of the best ways that we can minimize the spread of this virus. So I think if there are ways where performers in their roles can wear masks - certainly a musician who plays an instrument that requires that they use their mouth to play can't wear a mask - but others who could, that is I think something that should definitely be looked at. As I mentioned for theater, we're working through what those protocols and expectations are in terms of safety. But you know, it's undefined yet at this moment.

    We've seen the revival of drive-in movies frequently as popups: great, especially for families since it's often kiddie fare. How complicated would it be to do something similar, but put live bands on a makeshift stage, let the audience drive in and hang out or in their cars and listen to music? Musicians are devastated with the loss of a crucial income stream with the closure of nightclubs and theaters, et cetera. Is there a special permit process that makes something like this complicated? I think we could probably expand that to say, could you do theater like that?

    Yeah, I think anything is possible. With the mayor's task force, we are, through that committee that I referenced art, culture, hospitality and entertainment, looking at how to repurpose outdoor spaces and also how to streamline some of the permitting processes that exist to make this easier for people to implement so that we can all be a little more nimble and quick as we shift how we are doing the work that we do. So the drive-in idea is great. I think I read about it in another city across the country that has been using their drive-in movie theater space for live theater.

    Can you speak to the financial impact on San Francisco, but also on the Bay Area in general, of the loss of live theater?

    Oh my gosh, it's huge. It's huge. So nationally I think it's about a $7 billion loss. So the performing arts nationally are about 4.5% of the GDP. And that's about $878 billion nationally. And then locally we're estimating that right now, the arts organizations are losing about $70-80 million in revenue and donations as of just recent months. And I think we're all wondering what that will look like going forward because until we can open, whether it's a museum or a performing arts organization, we don't really have ways to generate ticket revenue and we're unsure of what contributions will look like. So one of the best things that people can do is to please commit to your subscription to an arts organization, your membership, and please continue making your contributions even when we're not able to deliver the same volume of programming that we were delivering.

    And I have one more before we let you go, and that's sort of the uncertainty question, right? Here in radio, we show up and in five minutes we're on the air. In your business it takes a little while to mount a production. How is that working at a time when you don't know when you'll be able to open the doors again?

    That's what we're grappling with every single day, is that uncertainty question. And so we're making our best estimates as to when we think we can be together in person, because the economics really don't work for a lot of us with social distancing because of our very handmade art form. It's about people and even in the best of times, pre-COVID, only about half of our expenses are covered with ticket sales. So it requires subsidies. So if you reduce the capacity of your house that you can fill by 75% or 80%, the numbers don't work. So we're all trying to figure out what is that date that we can safely gather together again in large groups, and are trying to build flexibility into our plan so that we can continue to adjust dates as we go forward. But it's one of the biggest challenges that we're facing on a daily basis is how to make those predictions. 

    This interview has been edited for clarity.