As theatres around the world plan their reopenings, eyes are on New York, whose theatrical institutions span Broadway, Off-Broadway, and a diverse array of theatres in all five boroughs. As Broadway shows gear up for a not-quite-yet-confirmed fall reopening, some of the Broadway houses will open their doors a bit earlier as part of the NY PopsUp program, offering pop-up style performances through Labor Day. Many indoor performances spaces around New York City and State that qualify as "Flex Venues" will also welcome audiences utilizing socially distanced seating configurations.
The first to do so is NYC's The Shed, with the Park Avenue Armory, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Harlem Stage, The Apollo, La MaMa, and National Black Theatre among the other Flex Venues.
The Shed, located in Hudson Yards, presents An Audience with…, a five-night indoor performance series April 2–22 in its 18,000-square-foot McCourt space with a MERV ventilation system, 115-foot-high ceilings, and distanced seating for 150 people.
The series opens with singer and cellist Kelsey Lu April 2 and continues with musicians from the New York Philharmonic April 14–15, Tony nominee and Grammy-winning opera star Renée Fleming (Carousel, The Light in the Piazza) April 21, and comic Michelle Wolf April 22. All performances are at 8 PM ET.
The music and comedy series kicks off the West Side venue's spring-summer programming, which also includes the second edition of Open Call, a commissioning program for NYC-based early-career artists across performance, visual arts, and popular culture, opening in June. The Shed is also partnering with Frieze New York, which will bring an art fair with over 60 galleries to The Shed in May, and will collaborate with the Tribeca Film Festival on programs at The Shed in June.
Playbill recently spoke with The Shed Artistic Director and CEO Alex Poots to discuss the many precautions that have been taken to help ensure the safety of staff, performers, and audiences alike.
How did the Shed become involved with the state’s Flex Venue program?
Alex Poots: My understanding is that The Shed was chosen for the flexibility of our mission, organization, and spaces. The Shed is a producing house so, together with our flexible seating and ventilation systems, we could adapt to COVID-19 restrictions easily. I was lucky enough to be brought on quite early to be a member of New York State’s Task Force for Flexible Spaces, while it was being set up back in June. The six of us who represent different nonprofits in the city—Harlem Stage, BRIC, St. Ann’s Warehouse, Park Avenue Armory, and the National Black Theatre—met every week or two through the end of last year to develop a set of bespoke guidelines and protocols to safely restart our industry.
How will The McCourt be reconfigured for An Audience with… ? How many people does it usually seat? How many will it seat for this series?
The McCourt is an 18,000-square-foot space with 115-foot-high ceilings that can seat up to 1,250 people, but will only be seating 150 socially distanced audience members in accordance with the guidelines put forth by the state.
How is air circulation controlled? Were there any long-term infrastructure changes made to the building in the past year?
The Shed has a state-of-the-art MERV ventilation system. It’s a brand-new building. We just opened in April 2019, so we already had the most up-to-date system and infrastructure.
What precautions will be taken for the crew and artists?
We’ve implemented robust and thorough protocols for the safety of all staff, artists, and audience members. It’s of utmost importance to me and my colleagues that every precaution is taken as we look to restart. Some of what’s being implemented is contact tracing for every person that visits The Shed. We had the opportunity to have an indoor audience un-tested at 100 person capacity, but to provide the safest experience possible, we decided to require everyone to have either a negative COVID test within 72 hours of the performance or to be able to show full vaccination of two weeks or more. These regulations were established by the New York State Department of Health. Additionally, the artists will perform a single set less than 90 minutes. With the exception of performers who must sing or speak at a 12-foot distance, all performers will be masked and distanced by six feet on stage.
What additional safety measures are being employed, and how are they being relayed to patrons?
We’ve outlined an extensive line of communications for our audiences and implemented contact tracing. We’re looking forward to welcoming them back but also want to ensure that they, our staff, and artists are all as safe as possible. So, we are informing all audience-goers of these requirements at the point-of-purchase and then sending several friendly reminders as we get closer to the performance date. They’ll be sent a three-question health screener 48 hours prior to the performance about any possible COVID interactions. Along with their digital ticket, each patron will be required to bring an ID that matches the name on their vaccination card or a negative COVID test to be presented at the door, and they’ll then go through a temperature check. All are required to remain masked and seated for the duration of the performance, and there’s no re-entry. We’re also loading in the audience by zones to alleviate the usual pre-show crowd at the door.
What is the feeling of the Shed staff as the venue prepares to reopen?
Although we are still living in unprecedented times, we are looking forward to welcoming back audiences to experience live performance. We’re excited to get back to safely doing what we recently built The Shed to do, and feel grateful for the flexibility of our organization and physical space that allows us to be one of the first.
What would you say to audience members tentative about returning to live theatre?
It’s important you take the time you need to come back to experiencing live performance. It’s such a precious and personal thing and everyone is different. Because we reopened our exhibition space last October, we’ve had some experience already and understand that each audience member has their own personal situation and views, which we respect.
How do you envision programming at the Shed for the summer? For the fall?
This June through August, we’re looking forward to Open Call, our large-scale commissioning program for early-career artists that returns this year with new works by 27 NYC-based visual and performing artists. This program rings true to The Shed’s mission to support artists of all disciplines. I am grateful that we are able to provide these artists with a platform to showcase their work in these unprecedented times and very much welcome audiences to witness their works free of charge throughout the summer. We’re also delighted to be working in partnership with Tribeca Film Festival on some of their summer events.