‘New protocols could be the start of a fairer and more robust industry’
The work of imagining what theatre and live performance will look like post-Covid has begun in earnest. I have seen a lot of pictures of empty auditoriums with socially distant audiences, but none of socially distant performers, and there has been a notable silence on how to preserve the safety of backstage workers.
With lots of shows now reporting they will not open until 2021, some might imagine there need not be an overhaul of health and safety legislations, but the reality is that many believe Covid-19 will be with us for a long time, and that finding protocols to make theatre operational without threatening the health of those who make it is both an immediate issue and an ongoing concern.
So, in the immediate aftermath what will those protocols look like? Here are some suggestions I have seen mooted and some extra ones I have thrown in for costume in particular.
Theatre will need robust schedules of deep-cleaning to protect against infection before work and then regular cleaning of equipment if it is shared, and in shared spaces, throughout the day.
Cohort working should be implemented: small teams that are kept separate to avoid cross-contamination, either by having shifts or concurrent workspaces with screens to keep people separate.
There should be multiple designated stations for sanitation as well as personal protection equipment, including face masks, which should be as common as hard hats.
Records should be kept to enable track and trace: mandatory sign-in and sign-out, as well as records of cleaning and who carried it out, and of shifts and cohorts.
Longer lead-in times could spell the end of the long-hours culture
There should be temperature checks with anyone showing a fever sent home. Following that, self-isolation or quarantine before unavoidable group working such as rehearsals.
For more remote working, design and production meetings should be done on teleconferencing links, with costume makers working remotely as far as possible and couriering costumes to the venue. Costume fittings could be conducted by video link or behind a see-through screen.
Other suggestions include airlocks for deliveries with costumes and props kept in a separate area prior to opening; double-casting so the show can continue if someone has to isolate, and double-crewing: two casts means two sets of dressers to minimise cross contamination.
In the short term we might see a simplification of design, working within the restrictions to ensure safe fittings, set builds and technical rehearsals (this may prove a bonanza time for light, audio visual and sound).
Very importantly, theatre will need easily available safe and anonymous reporting of any breaches of these protocols.
Most theatres take the lives and safety of their staff very seriously, not least because the Association of British Theatre Technicians has worked so hard to make safe standards of working inexorably linked to professional practice. So, theatre will be at the forefront of compliance with new regulations, just as we were when the construction, design and management regulations came out in 2015.
In taking on new regulations we might find double casting and crewing opens up possibilities of job sharing, part-time work and the space to train people. Longer lead-in times could spell the end of the long-hours culture. These new protocols could be the start of a fairer and more robust industry.
Where we will fall down is if we fail to account for people’s need to survive financially. If we do not provide decent sick pay to those self-isolating, people will come in if they are sick. If we do not double-crew as well as double-cast we expose dressers to twice the risk.
We should still pressure government for support. It is possible to get back to work soon and safely, but not cheaply and safely.
Theatre is in dire straits, and in urgent need of support. We all hope that help is on its way from the government. But whatever support it receives, when theatre re-emerges from this disastrous pandemic, it will look very different. Now is the time to think about what happens next. That is what The Stage has asked people working across our sector to do: to select an issue that can be improved upon when theatre returns. The above article is one of 24 pieces in our ‘Theatre 2021’ series. There are many more topics to cover, and many more ideas to share. This series of articles is the first step in saying that despite this terrible crisis, theatre in 2021 can re-emerge, and in many ways can be better than before.