Opening the Curtain: Reimagining Performing Arts Centres After the Pandemic

The pandemic has impacted just about every part of the economy in Canada. The entertainment industry, including Performing Arts Centres is no exception. By all accounts, the industry has suffered severely, with some reports showing that 95 per cent of live events have been cancelled due to COVID-19 and 77 per cent of people who have been working in the entertainment industry have lost 100 per cent of their income.

Unfortunately, social distancing is the opposite of what we have come to expect from performing arts centres. Performance spaces are designed to operate at high occupancy and have people gather in close quarters to share an incredible experience and foster connection. The buildings were not designed to be able to operate under pandemic scenarios, and so most have been rendered useless. Most buildings have sat empty for months, wreaking havoc to arts organizations.

Designing Pandemic Ready Venues

Over the past few months, there has been much discussion around how performance venues can safely reopen by limiting attendance, instituting temperature checks, and other preventative measures which should support the existing buildings. For all new builds, we have seen an increase of proposal requests around designing “pandemic-ready” facilities from offices to learning institutions and performing arts centres are expected to have the same considerations. These types of venues are designed with lots of acoustical considerations so any design changes can have significant acoustical implications. There are lessons learned that can be used to inform the design of a new performance venue so that when the next pandemic occurs this space is well-equipped to operate safely without compromising acoustics:

1. Don’t Remove Seats in Performing Arts Centres

It may seem like the obvious option is to design a theatre with seats that can be removed so that people can be seated with more spacing if needed. Acoustically, however, the seats play a major role in the design of a space. Plush seating can absorb sound at similar levels to people sitting in hard seating. So, when dealing with plush seating, don’t remove the seats, just leave spaces between people to avoid affecting the acoustics. If the venue has hard seating, the acoustics will change dramatically based on the occupancy rate, and consequently, creative solutions may be required to bring back that acoustic absorption to the space.

2. HVAC Considerations

HVAC systems move the air in and out of the space to ensure a constant supply of comfortable air. With the need to create ‘pandemic ready’ buildings, HVAC systems would be required to allow for much higher ventilation rates, which could lead to noisier air flow. The options for a performing arts centre are to either supply air from the top and have it fall down to the people or to send air from the bottom with a displacement system and have the air rise up as it passes the occupants. Both can be made to work quietly from an acoustics perspective. However, if the air flows too fast it will make too much noise which isn’t good for a performance space. When you consider a pandemic, the preference would be to have the air come from the bottom. Should the virus be circulating, pushing air from the bottom would be superior as it would carry any airborne aerosols up with it away from other audience members rather than blows down and across the crowd. This, of course, would have to be analysed as part of the design at a level of detail not conducted before.

3. Be Careful Spacing out the Orchestra in Performing Arts Centres

In an orchestra, the musicians benefit from their proximity to each other. It helps them to play in unison as they can better hear each other. When they are spaced further apart, it may help with social distancing, but it makes it harder to perform. The time is takes for sound to travel back and forth may cause a delay in what they hear so if you do space out musicians, there is more pressure on the stage acoustics to be able to support the musicians on stage. Even so, there is a practical limit after which the musicians will have to rely more on the visual queue from the conductor than on their ears as they are used to. More creative solutions could include in-ear monitors as is common in amplified venues. However, with large orchestras this would come at a cost of increased complexity.

4. Make Broadcasts an Immersive Experience

When the pandemic hit, many performers opted to live stream performances, including orchestras. It’s a nice alternative but lacks that live performance feel. Many already speak of “ZOOM performance fatigue”. Watching live performances that are live streamed currently feel like watching a pre-recorded session of your favourite artist –an activity that lacks the presence and engagement of an attended performance. Find creative ways to live stream in an immersive way to better emulate the concert experience. For example, instead of sending mixed sound from an audio engineer, stream binaural sound which lets the listener experience a 3D stereo sensation. Imagine this: guests would purchase a seat for the show but would have the option of listening remotely. Pre-designed binaural microphones at the respective seat levels would stream to the patron’s headphones so they can feel what it would sound like to if they were sitting in those seats. If they closed their eyes, they would be transported to the venue. A microphone at the balcony level would provide a different sound than orchestra level but the option would be there to purchase a seat at either level. This 3D experience will better engage the listener. Given that the patron can be anywhere in the world, the revenue potential can increase dramatically because they are no longer limited to filling actual seats in the room. Adding the option for visual elements for those consumers who would like a virtual reality (VR) experience could take engagement even further.

5. Incorporate an Outdoor Space in the Design

Consider designing a performance arts centre that has an outdoor area or has the ability to open up to an outdoor area similar to the Tanglewood Music Center in Massachusetts which is shaped like a giant barn and the back opens to the outside. A few guests can be seated indoors with the performers and many others can listen from lawn chairs outside. If you can design it to shelter from outdoor urban noise or weather conditions, the facility can operate safely even during a pandemic with socially distanced guests listening under the open sky.

The Future of Performing Arts Centres

While designing pandemic-ready performance venues is already being requested in proposals, the demand will only increase and dominate the proposal process heading into 2021. As performing arts centres are typically designed to serve the community for the long term, whether it is in the coming months or years, it is critical that these venues be equipped to handle a future pandemic. Learning from this experience may help protect future losses for the entertainment industry and ultimately avoid the final curtain call for theatres.