Post-COVID Performing Arts: Like a Trip to the Car Wash

Restorationists expect a familiar process will always work: they’re about the car wash. Opportunists look to innovate: they're about getting the car clean.

You may think it's about the trappings. But isn't it about the art?

The last time I went to a car wash, my rear window wiper snapped off. The car wash paid for a new one.

The time before that, at a different car wash, my front license plate came out bent. I tried to bend it back, but it isn’t the same.

Given what’s going on in the world, these were big nothingburgers. Still, I spy a metaphor.

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Two recent news items, unrelated to each other, recently piqued my interest. One, “She Predicted the Coronavirus. What Does She Foresee Next?,” is Frank Bruni’s colorful portrait of Laurie Garrett, “a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who was prescient not only about the impact of H.I.V. but also about the emergence and global spread of more contagious pathogens.” She made her prediction in a 1994 best-seller, The Coming Plague, and Bruni, naturally, asked her about what happens when we get back to a post-COVID normal.

Did we go ‘back to normal’ after 9/11? No. We created a whole new normal. We securitized the United States. We turned into an antiterror state. And it affected everything. We couldn’t go into a building without showing ID and walking through a metal detector and couldn’t get on airplanes the same way ever again. That’s what’s going to happen with this.

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The other article was sent to me by CFR Executive Editor Leonard Jacobs: Doug McLennan’s brilliant take on the post-COVID-19 next-steps of the arts community, “Arts: Rebuild What? And Why?” This article breaks down the composition of the sector, particularly the nonprofit arts sector, into two distinct camps: “Restorationists” and “Opportunists”:

Restorationists are deeply invested in their business models and want to rebuild as quickly as possible. They have built, often painstakingly over generations, pipelines to talent and support and the means to reach audiences. They’re terrified that the infrastructure that supports them will collapse and they’re desperate to shore it up and get back to work.

Opportunists have long seen cracks in the cultural infrastructure and suddenly find themselves (along with the rest of us) in a place where all the usual rules and structures have been turned upside down. They see a world that could look considerably different AV (After Virus) and perhaps opportunities to rewrite better rules going forward.

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A few weeks ago, I created a LinkedIn post discussing seating charts as a symbol of the immediate future of post-COVID performing arts venues. But maybe it’s not just in the immediate future. After all, the performing arts in the US, at least, have always lagged the customer in distinct ways. There has been a fear-based tendency to do what has always worked for a particular cadre of people, even when that cadre is long gone.

For example, eating and drinking was only tolerated as acceptable in movie theaters and circuses (and not live, “legitimate” theater) until relatively recently. Seat choice has been based on status and subscriber mentality, a vestige of the 1960s Mad Men America. The non-interactive premise of the live, performing arts (you sit down and shut up, we declaim and perform) has been replaced by completely interactive substitutes among those under 40. And except for spectacle (e.g., The Lion King), authentic use of contemporary art (e.g., Hamilton), or tradition (which can also fall under “spectacle” — e.g., The Nutcracker), the audience itself represents the most effete, overprivileged niche in America.

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An aside: this evolution toward artistic elitism flies in the face of some of history’s most significant art. We’ve heard of hooks from the wings and rotten tomatoes thrown at actors on vaudeville stages. But even during Shakespeare’s own time, the fruit was flying:

Shakespeare’s actors had to compete against the noise of the crowd who shouted, hurled oranges and tried to join in with their performance on the stage.

People from all classes went to the theatre. The general public would pay a penny to stand close to the stage and interact with the actors. The gentry would pay to sit in the galleries, bringing cushions to make themselves more comfortable.

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So, what’s next? Opportunists are working on this because it’s the intelligent thing to do. Getting ahead of the audience isn’t the goal; rather, catching up to them is key. Meantime, Restorationists are fighting it, just as there are those who want to get their hair cut at the expense of certain increases in the length of time, and exposure to death, from COVID-19.

Restorationists go into the car wash expecting that the familiar process will always work: no bent license plates, no snapped wiper blades. They’re all about the car wash.

Opportunists, on the other hand, are looking to innovate the process to provide fewer opportunities for body mishaps. They’re all about the car getting clean.

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The issues here also go way beyond seating charts. Marketing Opportunists have been screaming for the reconstruction of the subscription model for decades now. Marketing Restorationists and other leaders have hushed these innovators for fear of reprisals from older (and more established and wealthy) board members. Yes, seat selection is currently the most compelling reason given by subscribers for subscribing.

But what if it weren’t a consideration at all? What if seat selection is what separates your current audience from your future audience? What if, rather than specific seat selection, you gave each subscriber a “priority ordering period” to choose their seats — either at the time of the order or even a separate one for each production, play or performance?

Seating charts for each production thus may be changed regularly, depending on the comfort of the audience. If each audience member needs to be seated six feet away from their neighbor, producers ought to be able to do that. If the time comes when couples or foursomes from the same household might be allowed to sit together, six feet away from the nearest couple or foursome, then producers ought to be able to do that, too.

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The post-COVID future will also require producers to separate performers. For symphonies and chamber orchestras, will we reduce the number of musicians and seat them six feet apart from each other (and the audience, for that matter)? Will actors no longer kiss on stage unless they’re actually in a same-home relationship with each other? What about the wings, which are usually packed with technicians and crew? Given sweat, spit and flying air droplets (how fast has a cold ever traveled through your company?), how can you increase ventilation and safety measures without harming performance?

The Post-COVID reopening of performing arts, with no changes, is a prescription for doom. What steps are you taking? Are you sharing them with your “competitors”? If we cannot collaborate to make performing arts a viable live option, we become as much to blame for its demise as the virus. Indeed, we would shoulder more blame, because we have a choice. While the virus is just doing what viruses do.