21 September 2020 / News
Stage Management – The New Theatrical Normal
image: a covid-safe mark-up in a rehearsal room.
Di Fraser, stage manager and our Hon. Sec, writes of the new protocols enabling rehearsal spaces to be used again. This comes from a forum discussion on Zoom led by the Stage Management Association, examining the path towards restoring live performances.
Many have been the discussions on the subject of a return to live performance after the pandemic. How can it be made safe? How can it be made profitable? How many jobs can be saved? It has been clear that no one in a position of public responsibility has any practical knowledge of the intricacies of theatre making, and it has therefore fallen to theatre and events professionals to devise methods by which those of us desperate to return to the work we love can do so in a safe environment for us and our audiences which is not reliant on the future arrival of a vaccine.
The Stage Management Association has drawn together a number of professional stage managers, production managers, directors and designers of varying degrees of experience and conducted a series of forums held over Zoom to start devising a set of criteria that will allow theatres and live venues to re-open.
It has been astonishing to see how many twists and turns this journey has taken; every time one problem is brought up, more come to light. We have had to cover all the fields involved in mounting a production, whether it be stage, film, live events or television, moving from rehearsals, sound and lighting, through the use and handling of props, costumes, technical and dress rehearsals. Imagine: how do you monitor entry and exit to rehearsal rooms, how do you mark out the floor to allow for social distancing in the action of a play and keep the acting within these parameters? How do you you ensure that time-tables are strictly adhered to rather than be as flexible as a director might wish? Costume fittings must take place as planned, the use and positioning of radio mics has to be thought through in a new way allowing for the personal contact this normally requires, costume changes cannot be undertaken with dresser and actor in close contact; what do you do if one member of the cast or team tests positive? How do you ensure the safe use and distribution of hand washing and toilet facilities both backstage and Front of House?
Everything has to be seen from the perspective of minimising the risk of infection for both those backstage and in the audience.
It has been obvious that first and foremost there has to be series of pre-production meetings involving every department, which should also include the director, producer, Front of House management and representatives of all the technical and design departments. There is also no doubt that a “covid monitor” will be required who should be present at the time and through the entire process, attached to the staff of each show and not a part of any other team as this would take that team member away from their other time-consuming duties. This person would have some authority but be an adviser, there to remind people of the rules rather than police the space and activities. An “intimacy” director would also become more than ever necessary on many shows.
We came up with a set of points based on information derived from people currently in rehearsals in the UK and other countries:
- detailed planning in advance with a set of instructions provided to every member of the team.
- a specific person as above, designated to be “covid monitor” and involved from the pre-planning stage. This person should have some knowledge of the production process and essentially be there to remind people about masks, washing hands, maintain their distance, cleaning props and so forth.
- social distancing to be achieved by special marking out of the rehearsal room floor and possibly of the stage itself. Currently many companies are using taped out squares.
- one company in the UK is ensuring that ALL doors backstage remain open so that no one touches door knobs.
- masks to be used as appropriate.
- costume fitting to be planned with extra time allowed, one actor at a time in the dressing area, one costume person in attendance but not touching the actor more than necessary. Times to be strictly adhered to. It is likely that the “pinning up” and modifying of the costume on the actor’s body will have to be discontinued.
- rapid result covid testing if the management can afford it. It is available but it’s expensive.
- a version of the new regulations and precautions to be made available to every member of the production and for notice boards.
- most companies are now beginning rehearsals with a full cast/staff meeting to explain what is to happen and how this will ensure their safety.
It will all involve a huge shift in the culture of rehearsals and the production process, especially because we are as a profession very “touchy-feely” with lots of physical contact. The Stage Management Association and its partners are very concerned to provide this sort of information to the government bodies responsible for allowing theatres to re-open and whose advice so far seems to come out of thin air, with few if any specialists involved. This can result in really strange rules such as “actors must arrive in rehearsals with their lines already learnt”. This is now an actual LEGAL requirement, I’m sure swiftly to be ignored in any semi-normal rehearsal room!!
It was noted by those engaged on a professional job that so far teams and casts have proven to be extremely pro-active and understanding of all this and prepared to take responsibility for ensuring the embedding of these new habits so that they become the new “theatrical normal”
This is an ongoing discussion; there is a long way to go but we will get there.
It is certainly going to be safer to attend a show than it is right now to fly off in a metal tube on holiday!