Created by Dr James Wenley, published 1 August 2022. With thanks to Emma Maguire, Rachael Longshaw-Park, Rose Jang, Red Scare Theatre Company.
What is this?
This resource offers ideas and advice for a health-first approach for groups rehearsing and presenting live performance in Aotearoa New Zealand during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
We have a responsibility to the people we work with and to our audiences to continue to take Covid seriously, and put in place protocols to help reduce the risk of virus transmission.
We can also recognise hauora, health and wellbeing benefits of participating in and attending live performance.
A health-first approach helps us continue to put on live performance as safely as possible.
Who is this for?
This is for anyone involved in creating, rehearsing and presenting live performance looking for rigorous advice around protocols you can implement to help reduce the risk of Covid transmission. It has been written with a theatre lens, but recommendations can be applied to live performance in general.
This resource is especially focused towards students, new graduates and independent practitioners who may not be able to access resources and advice that established and better-funded organisations can. It has been created specifically for an Aotearoa New Zealand context. The advice is addressed towards the decision-makers and organisers (eg producers, directors, production and stage managers etc), but performers and crew can also use this to advocate for measures you would like to be implemented in projects you are working on.
Why has this been created?
As uncomfortable as it is to acknowledge, Covid-19 is not going away anytime soon. Nor are the dangers for our own personal health and our country’s health system at large. If we’re going to keep putting on shows and live events, we need to keep putting good safety protocols in place to look after each other. But while we are into the third year of the pandemic, there isn’t much in the way of resources or advice that practitioners can consult. We’ve all been figuring it out ‘on the job’ through trial and error.
This document formalises what I’ve learnt and implemented in producing Fringe theatre for Theatre of Love and in my theatre courses at Te Herenga Waka Victoria University of Wellington during the pandemic to date. I have been closely following industry developments and the impact of the pandemic on Aoteaora’s live performance ecology.
You are welcome to share and adapt this document! It is offered freely via Theatre Scenes in the spirit of knowledge-sharing. I’m keen to hear feedback and ideas, contact me email@example.com
What do we need to know about Covid?
So firstly, let’s review the current science and expert advice:
- Covid-19 is an airborne virus; transmission primarily occurs when a person inhales particles and droplets exhaled by someone who is infectious with Covid-19.
- Covid primarily spreads indoors: particles can travel throughout enclosed spaces and can linger in the air.
- Mask wearing significantly reduces the risk of transmission, and we are safest when everyone wears a mask.
- Good ventilation and airflow also reduces risk of transmission.
- Vaccination reduces severity of disease and the odds of transmission. However, Omicron and its subvariants have proven effective at evading immunity from vaccination or prior infection, resulting in high case numbers despite our highly vaccinated population.
- It is possible to be reinfected by Covid-19 multiple times, and it is possible to be reinfected shortly after you last contracted the virus.
- Some people may go on to develop long Covid. A recent study of the USA population found that 1 in 5 Americans who were infected with Covid-19 have long Covid (symptoms lasting three or more months after first contracting the virus, and that they didn’t have prior to their Covid-19 infection).
Current setting: Aotearoa New Zealand is in the Orange traffic light setting. For the live performance sector, this means that performances and events can proceed without gathering restrictions, and people are “encouraged to wear a face mask in public indoor settings wherever it is practical”.
At the time of writing, Aotearoa is experiencing a winter surge of Covid-19 as well as the flu, with hospitalisations on the rise, putting intense pressure on our health system.
Under the Government’s current “hands-off” approach, it is largely up to our own personal responsibility to manage the risk to our own and others’ health through the choices we make everyday. Arguably, if we care about reducing the risk of transmission and the burden on our health system, we should be going beyond the Government’s current public health advice.
There is also a really practical reason for live performance practitioners to care about Covid safety measures – you might not be able to ‘go on with the show’ if there are infections within your company (this isn’t the type of job where you can so easily work from home).
With all this in mind, what follows are ideas and advice to help give you the best chance of getting to the stage!
Planning your performance
When you’re in the planning stage, here are some things you could do:
- Develop a Covid safety plan that is relevant to your unique context – feel welcome to adapt the protocols shared in this document!
- A safety plan is all about risk management and minimisation – identify the risks that are specific to your production, and how you might minimise them.
- For example, singing is a higher risk factor for Covid spread. You might minimise this risk by only conducting singing rehearsals in well ventilated rooms.
- This is a good practice in general, and you might think about health and safety risks beyond just the Covid context.
- The Covid safety plan should be regularly reviewed.
- Refer to your Covid safety plan in the agreements you make with your collaborators so everyone is clear about what they are signing up to – and what everyone’s responsibilities are.
- An example template of a ‘Covid Safety Agreement’ is included at the end of this document.
- Appoint a ‘Covid Safety Officer’.
- This person’s role is to ensure that the team is following the agreed Covid safety plan at all times.
- This person might be the first point of contact for team members who want to offer feedback on the Covid safety protocols, especially if they feel unsafe. There should also be another member of the team people can give feedback to (eg producer or director).
- The Officer can help hold the team accountable to the Covid safety plan, but will also need the team’s support to hold each other accountable.
- Consider whether you might be able to do your performance in an outside venue or other alternative.
- Performing outdoors is a significant way you can minimise risk, but won’t work for all performance contexts. Still, roll on summer!
- Alternatively, prioritise performing in a venue with good air quality (eg naturally or mechanically well ventilated).
- Or perhaps you might explore performing in a digital space – use creative thinking.
- Consider whether you will need a longer rehearsal period than usual.
- There is a chance that multiple personnel will be required to isolate for 7 days+ during your rehearsal period. Spacing out your rehearsal period can help give you flexibility to accommodate this.
- Consider how you will cover performance and crew roles if key personnel are required to isolate during your performance season.
- Tight financial conditions mean that the use of understudies in NZ performance is not widespread, but do consider if you have the resources to include understudies or swings.
- Will the director or other members of the team need to be prepared to cover roles?
- Think through in advance if you would be happy to have a performance role covered by someone with a script in hand (I saw a heroic performance where an actor covered a role with minimal preparation time and used a notebook with their lines written in it as a prop).
- Plan for a few different scenarios – and think about what the threshold would be for cancelling/postponing your season depending on who and how many people need to isolate.
- Be clear if you expect all team members to be vaccinated.
- Many professional companies only contract vaccinated performers and crew.
- Source a good stock of RATs (Rapid Antigen Tests).
- Professional companies undertake regular surveillance RATs (some 2-3x per week), however, this level will not be affordable for most groups.
- Stock for production week – at least 2 for each person if your budget can afford.
- Individuals can request RATs for free, but businesses still need to purchase their own stocks. See if you will need to budget to buy further tests to cover your company (or see if your venue can help you with supplies).
- Register with Manatū Taonga Ministry of Culture and Heritage’s Arts and Culture Event Support Scheme.
- This scheme covers non-recoverable financial losses if you are unable to go ahead with your event if there is a move into Red (with gathering restrictions)/local lockdown OR a lead performer has to go into self-isolation.
- You are eligible if your event has an attendee capacity between 100-5,000 people (this is based on the total capacity of your season, so if you are in a 50 seat venue playing for two nights this equals 100 capacity and you are eligible).
- An important feature of the scheme is it ensures artists and crew can get paid for an event as if it had gone ahead.
- You need to register at least two months before your event’s start date. The scheme currently runs until 31 January 2023. Do read the terms and conditions carefully.
- It can take a bit of time to get around the form and the budget template. I’ve found MCH staff have been helpful with answering questions, so reach out to them (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you get stuck.
- Have an open conversation about what would happen if you do need to postpone/cancel your season due to isolating team members or unacceptable community risk. Identify what the value of your process might be (rather than your product) – will people still get something out of the experience even if the show doesn’t get to a live audience?
Protocols for rehearsing
- I strongly recommend wearing masks for all rehearsals.
- While masks aren’t ideal for rehearsing, consistent mask wearing is one of the most important protocols you can implement to help minimise risk of infection between company members.
- You might have performers remove masks for the final tech or dress rehearsals (but crew would continue to wear at all times). Performers might continue to wear masks backstage (except when applying makeup etc).
- Masks are not made equal. Respirator masks (P2, KN95 etc) are considered the gold standard. If your budget stretches, you might invest in some good quality masks for the company to use.
- Some people may have a valid mask exemption, which makes it all the more important for others who can to wear their masks.
- Do implement regular breaks where people can go outside and take their masks off.
- An interesting ‘creative limitation’ when working in masks and reduced facial cues is that it gives you an opportunity to practise and observe how we communicate with other parts of our bodies.
- Ensure your rehearsal spaces are well ventilated.
- Open windows and doors to ensure good air flow (and encourage people to bring warm clothes if there is a trade off in heat!).
- Sharing of kai can be important for cast bonding – try to do this outside whenever possible, or distanced in a room with good ventilation.
- Some productions might consider working in bubbles (groups where only specific team members interact), although this may only be practical in a few situations.
- Introduce the clear expectation and agreement that no member of the company should come to rehearsal if they are feeling unwell.
- You might then need to think about provisions for allowing performers to rehearse remotely via Zoom or another platform.
- Maintain good hygiene practices, and have hand sanitiser available.
- Make sure you check in regularly with how safe and comfortable people are feeling around Covid and work practices. Not everybody’s comfort level is the same – and this can change day to day. This relates to having good practices of consent in your rehearsal room for everything that you do.
- Archive throughout your rehearsal process – take photos, make rehearsal recordings at important points. Film your full runs and dress rehearsals if you can. This will ensure you have some kind of record should your show not be able to make it to the stage.
Dealing with isolating team members
During the rehearsal period there is a possibility that company members may become a household contact or will test positive for Covid and will need to go into self-isolation.
In New Zealand the current self-isolation period is 7 days (Day 0 is the day your symptoms started or the day you tested positive, whichever comes first).
Under the Government rules, you can exit self-isolation after 7 days if you are no longer symptomatic.
For the safety of your company, you should consider whether you need to go beyond the Government’s rules. There is a possibility that people with Covid can still be infectious after 7 days (10-25% of confirmed cases are still infectious on Day 8). Some experts advocate only exiting self-isolation once you receive a negative RAT test. Therefore, in your Covid safety plan you might ask people not to return to the rehearsal/performance until they’ve completed 7 days AND returned a negative RAT test.
Everybody’s Covid experience is different. Some people may be well enough and motivated to continue rehearsing remotely during self-isolation. It should however be clear there is no expectation for people with Covid infections to do this.
Some people can take substantially longer to recover from Covid than 7 days. Be mindful of people’s capacity, and the need for people to get plenty of rest to help guard against developing long Covid. We need to throw out the ‘Show Must Go On’ mentality and put people’s recovery first. Ease people back into rehearsals.
PS: People with symptoms or who are household contacts can order their own free RAT tests.
Messages for your audience
Prepare clear communications for your audience about Covid safety and what they can expect at your performance. The importance of mask wearing at the performance is critical – with your performers unmasked, it is especially important for audience members to wear masks to reduce the risk of infection both to your company and other audience members.
Informed consent for your audience is vital – for example if your show includes audience participation on stage, this should be made clear.
Working with your venue
Performance venues will have a range of approaches for minimising risk (some more rigorous than others!). Get clear about what protocols your venue has in place.
Some areas to check in with your venue:
- What Covid-19 safety messages do they have on their website? What information will your audience be provided through the ticketing agent?
- What notices/staff reminders will your audiences see and receive when they arrive at the venue?
- Does your venue include a preshow announcement reminding audience members to wear masks during the performance? (This can be a vital nudge to audience members to get their masks out of their pockets). If not, could you record and include your own one? (You might even think of this as world-building, eg doing the announcement from the perspective of a character in the show.)
- What is the air quality like in your performance space? Is there natural or mechanical ventilation (eg HEPA filters)? Does your venue do any CO2 monitoring?
- What is the capacity of the space? How squished in will your audience be? Do you need to consider reducing capacity so your audience will feel more comfortable?
- Does your venue/ticketing agent offer refunds to your audience if they need to isolate?
- What is the contract policy if you need to postpone/cancel your season due to company members being required to isolate? Be clear about the process and lines of communication.
During the performance season
Consider doing your company-wide surveillance RAT tests on the day of your opening performance to help give confidence you are good to go.
Continue to maintain good protocols throughout the season. Limit time mixing with the audience in the foyer after the show, and maintain mask wearing.
When do you cancel the performance?
Covid safety protocols will minimise risk to give you the best possible chance of making it to the stage, but it won’t completely remove the risk of infection. Nor is it possible to control the risk of a company member contracting Covid outside of the rehearsal/show context.
If a company member tests positive during your rehearsal process while you are still using masks and ensuring good ventilation, then the risk that others in your company may have been infected by this case is reduced. You can do a round of RATs, and if all come back negative and people are not symptomatic, then you can feel more confident about proceeding (even if you need to cover the isolating person if their isolation overlaps with your performance season).
If a performer tests positive for Covid AFTER you’ve removed masks, then there is a higher chance that other performers may also have been infected by this case and are incubating the virus.
Broadway shows famously keep going despite close contact with positive cases (just ask Hugh Jackman, who has tested positive for Covid TWICE during his Broadway run of The Music Man), cycling through their understudies and swings until Covid infection reaches a critical mass. But those are on a different scale to shows in NZ with different commercial pressures.
Our Ministry of Health advises that early in the infection “it may take some days before a rapid antigen test (RAT) can detect the virus, even if a person has symptoms and can infect others”. With this knowledge that a positive result may take a few days to show up on a RAT test, a cautious health-first approach would be to cancel the remaining performances. This takes into account the interests of protecting your audience (especially in smaller venues) and other company members.
This can be a difficult and heart-wrenching call to make. It can be eased if you have registered with MCH and you’ve had to cancel because a lead performer is isolating.
There may also be a scenario where you consider postponing or cancelling your season if case numbers and hospitalisations are particularly high in your region, or if a dangerous new variant has arrived in the country. Government settings might allow you to continue in this scenario, but you should also evaluate if this would be the responsible thing to do. You would need to think about who your core audience is, their risk factor, and the pros and cons of continuing (eg, will your target audience be willing to attend?).
Other aspects to consider:
- In the event that you have to cancel your season, are there any ‘ghost dates’ that you might be able to pencil in with your venue (or another venue) that you could move your season to later on?
- This is more applicable to ‘venues for hire’ than venues that programme work and have a full calendar, but it’s worth having the conversation or being clear what the prospects would be for rescheduling.
- Some potential audience members may not feel comfortable attending a performance venue yet, and that is okay. It is also probable that some prospective audience members will need to isolate during your season and won’t be able to come.
- The ideal would be for people who can’t be there in person to have a way of accessing the performance online.
- A high quality livestream or ‘pay to access’ digital recording can be difficult to produce on a low budget, but you could consider what might be achievable and what you want to prioritise, eg sharing a DIY recording of the show. Some venues might have capacity to assist you.
- No worries if you are the creator of the show, but for licensed work, you would also need to ensure you were complying with your licence agreement – most live performance agreements do not cover live streams or recordings.
How long are we going to have to keep working like this?
The virus has continued to mutate, and who knows what may be around the corner. But until we get a new generation of vaccines and treatments that drastically reduces the mortality rate and risk of long Covid, it is responsible to continue to take a health-first approach to live performance production.
Covid Safety Agreement Template
Add or delete statements as relevant to your context and resources:
- To wear a high-quality mask during all rehearsals up to [dress rehearsal] / OR I have a valid mask exemption.
- To undertake a surveillance RAT test (supplied by the organiser) during the production week.
- I will monitor for any symptoms of illness and stay away from rehearsal if I am unwell.
- That in the event that I test positive for Covid during the rehearsal period, I will only return after I have completed my 7-day isolation AND tested negative with a RAT test.
As the [producer, organiser] I agree:
- To take reasonable steps to ensure a safe working environment, as outlined in the Covid safety plan.
- To recognise that recovery following a Covid infection or other illness may take longer than 7 days, and to respect your capacity if you become ill during the project.
- That in the event that you are required to isolate over the performance season, you will still be paid as if you had been able to participate.
Unite Against Covid-19 for up-to-date Government regulations and guidance.
Entertainment Technology New Zealand maintains a list of Covid-19 resources and information, including Government policies, funding and mental wellbeing support.
MusicHelps Wellbeing service offers a 24/7 online and phone support line (0508MUSICHELPS) for music people and people who work in the arts: Composer, songwriter or performer, manager or crew, production or backroom person, corporate or retail worker, actor, comedian, dancer or someone who works front or back of house in the arts: our Wellbeing Service is available to you.
Health and Safety extends beyond Covid-19 – ETNZ’s ‘A Guide for safe working practices in the New Zealand Theatre & Entertainment Industry’ is the definitive resource for working in theatre.
Theatre Scenes: Going to the theatre should be a low-risk activity. We need to make our live performance venues as Covid-safe as possible – complementary article by James Wenley on Covid safety in theatre with a focus on venues.
You do not have to make end stage theatre right now – Emma Maguire on producing theatre during the pandemic.