It’s no secret that New York City real estate is expensive, and just as the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed many New Yorkers to leave behind their apartments, it has also given theatres the freedom to break out of their physical confines. “Because it's so costly to run and operate buildings in New York City, you know we're all very dedicated to using them,” explains BAM Artistic Director David Binder. “This moment where we cannot work in the traditional ways has provided a great, great opportunity.”
In fact, BAM has developed a wide-ranging slate of outdoor theatrical options for the coming season, including 1:1 Concerts, a Pop-Up Magazine event, and Movement Theatre Company's production of Aleshea Harris's play What to Send Up When It Goes Down, presented in partnership with Playwrights Horizons. Similarly, the Public Theater has announced that it will dive back into the realm of in-person theatre with a Shakespeare in the Park adaptation of The Merry Wives of Windsor at its outdoor Delacorte Theater in Central Park, with many more theatres across the country making similar moves.
But while moving productions outdoors might feel like the perfect warm-weather solution to meeting COVID-19 social distancing and ventilation recommendations (though New York Governor Cuomo has newly lifted capacity restrictions, social distancing measures remain in effect), the shift also creates a host of challenges that affect both the creative team and production staff. Theatres presenting a season with a number of outdoor offerings are met with invisible challenges like figuring out how to set up a box office and how to organize the (in name only) “front of house” staff—and they need to do so for each new production in each location.
And from the director’s perspective, all bets are off. “When you're directing, you want to control as much as you can, so that the action of the play…can be experienced in the most visceral and moving way possible,” says Whitney White who’s directing BAM and Playwrights Horizons's production of What to Send Up… in the Brooklyn Botanic Garden. Staging a show outdoors, she says, requires an entirely new mindset, “because how do you compete with nature, right? You can't compete with nature.” So in the place of competition, White explains that she’s learning to explore how the core principles of the play can be enhanced by the setting. “What does the golden hour do when the sun hits?” she asks. “What is that light cue that is going to make you fucking feel it?”
Of course, simply moving a production outdoors also comes nowhere near to eliminating the laundry list of challenges that producing a show during the COVID era creates. And those challenges begin as soon as the first actor steps foot in their rehearsal space.
In terms of creating a space in which the actors have everything they need, White says, “When you think about the logistical planning, it goes back to care, comfort, safety…what do they need? If they need to wash their hands again, then breaks might need to be longer. I just feel like the standard, ‘Oh, we're going to rehearse the data to show up, boom, there you go.’ I don't think it works right now…More than I ever have in my artistic life, I hear non-creatives, say, ‘What do the actors need?’”
Similar planning concerns extend to the comfort of the audience as well. White recalls visiting the MOMA in preparation for What to Send Up… and how the emotions stirred by that experience drove home for her what would be important for her show’s audience: “It’s interesting, those little nerves when you get close to someone, these new kind of fears of the other that we all have because we’ve lived over a year this way…So you know, temperature checks is a part of our new normal. Six feet apart is going to be a part of our new normal. And while it feels distancing at times, when I put myself in the place the audience, it makes me feel comforted.”
And even after moving outdoors, many COVID-related logistical challenges for production remain as well. Giving just one example of the questions facing producers, BAM Co-Interim President and Senior Producer Elizabeth Moreau shared the complications created by something as seemingly simple as selling tickets when it’s impossible to predict where people will want to sit. “Are people going to want to come in pairs? Do we build all singles that are six feet apart? Are people going to want to bring their kids?” Ali echoes her sentiments, “just the thought of being with a stranger in a space like masked or not masked that's going to take some getting used to.”
Add the fact that for months COVID guidelines have in constant flux, and theatermakers are met with a herculean task, just to get the first audience in the figurative door. Like several other venues, BAM has hired a medical consultant, but even with professional guidance, Moreau says, “We're planning with the best available information and the best available information is subject to change at any time.”
For Saheem Ali, who will be directing the Public’s Merry Wives this summer, it’s all about flexibility, but also reigning in the what-ifs. “We’re going to need a Plan B and a Plan C and a Plan D,” he laughs, “But part of the challenge is like, how far down the rabbit hole do I go imagining worst case scenarios?”
Despite its challenges, however, presenting experiencing theatre outside can be a particularly evocative and joyful experience. According to Ali, “We've all been so closed up in our spaces so just have something that’s not only communal, but outdoors in pleasant weather. It's just so much hope.”
Binder echoes those sentiments: “I think that outdoor work and site-specific work really enlivens and awakens our senses…When we go to a place that we have never been, or a place that we're in every day, but now perhaps really see it in a different way, our senses are awakened.”
And moving productions outside also provides exciting opportunities for rethinking standard operating procedure, pushing artists and theatre staff to innovate ways to not only create theatrical experiences but also to produce them. “This is a way to innovate the way we do the art,” says Moreau, “in addition to presenting innovative art.”
For Moreau, collaboration, on all levels, has been the silver lining of this moment, from institutions sharing resources (like BAM’s medical consultant, which they share with City Center and several other venues) to the walls that have had to be broken between each institution’s departments. “People are understanding each other's part in a different way,” she explains, “You're no longer limited by how many people can sit around the conference table…that's been really beneficial, I think…And I’m thinking about how we do keep that, that the table got a lot bigger on Zoom.”
White and Ali are also hoping to hold on to elements of what COVID has brought to the industry. The theatre communities the-show-must-go-on mentality isn’t always helpful, reflects Ali, “Right now, if anyone isn’t feeling well, they’re not coming rehearsal. And that's kind of how it should be. It doesn't have to kill you. It doesn’t have to be so mentally, physically and emotionally draining to do something that you love.”
“I hope to keep this forever moving forward,” says White, “It's rewarding because we're thinking about care, safety, and comfort—which we probably should have been thinking about more before, to tell you the truth.”