Can live music and theatre return with social distancing?

Michael Dervan: Reducing numbers at concerts will be very tough on box offices

When it comes to the short- and medium-term future for arts and cultural life in Ireland, it’s a numbers game. And it’s not really going to be about the absolute size of the public gatherings that are allowed, whether that’s 50 or 500 or 5,000. It’s worth bearing in mind that even in Sweden with its non-lockdown, herd immunity-oriented approach to the Covid-19 pandemic, gatherings above 50 people are still forbidden.

The things that are going to define the boundaries of what’s both permissible and possible is social distancing, the strictness of the rules about self-isolation and the effectiveness of tracing apps in helping health authorities keep community transmission under control.

Take the effect of social distancing. At the moment in Ireland there’s a 2-metre distance to be maintained. The risks of exposure are greater indoors than out and they increase with the length of time spent exposed. So concert halls, theatres and cinemas are obvious potential weak links. Restaurants and pubs are already finding it difficult to grapple with the implications. For cultural venues the challenge will be at least as great.

The National Concert Hall’s main balcony currently has a seating capacity of 327. Assuming that gaps of two seats in both directions would meet Ireland’s current 2-metre social distancing requirement, that capacity would reduce by over 87 per cent to 40. A single seat gap would result in a 77 per cent drop to 76.

The area occupied by each seat is not square. The leg-room takes up more space than the elbow room. Think of aeroplane cabins, where the average seat width is now 43cm and the pitch or width is 79cm. The NCH does not pack people in as tightly as that. But a seat width of around 60cm would seem more likely to require a gap of three seats rather than two. That would take capacity down by 91 per cent to just 30.

Scale those figures up and a 1,000-seat space would accommodate either 90, 122 or 232 people, though obviously, in real life, different physical layouts will produce different numbers. In terms of box office receipts, every night would become one of the worst nights of the year.

The World Health Organisation recommends a 1-metre gap, which might be achieved through a two-seat gap in each row, with every other row left empty. In the NCH main balcony this would accommodate 51 people, or just under 16 per cent of capacity. That seems to be to be about as good as you could expect.

Opera, galleries and theatre

The effect of ongoing social distancing would hardly be quite as drastic for galleries and museums. They could presumably work much as shops and supermarkets are at the moment, with strict queuing to control the numbers of visitors allowed to circulate at any one time. The duration of each visit would then become an important constraining factor.

Social distancing, of course, is not the only challenge. It’s a cliche to say that Covid-19 will be with us for some time. It could effectively be with us forever. So current health policies about self-isolation for infected people and those who have been in contact with infected people are unlikely to change any time soon.

The ramifications for arts performances are far-reaching. Take the RTÉ National Symphony Orchestra, for example. Rehearsals bring players into close contact over a number of days. If just a single member of the orchestra or its support team were to become infected, that could effectively put the orchestra itself out of action.

Everyone would be forced into self-isolation. And rightly so. Some of the earliest deaths from Covid-19 were traced to choral rehearsals and performances. A German study recently found that clarinettists, oboists and bassoonists can set air in motion over 1 metre away. Flautists’ reach is even greater.

The NSO’s schedule normally runs to one or two concerts a week. Rehearsals for a Friday concert are normally spread over three days. So the disruption of 14 days of isolation would be short rather than long-term. Activity could resume once people came out of isolation.

In the world of opera and theatre the situation is radically different. Rehearsals and preparation there are spread over weeks and months. If just one company member became infected in the rehearsal period of, say, Wexford Festival Opera, the 14 days lost would scupper the whole enterprise, just as it would for a production by any other opera company.

No Irish opera company is well-enough endowed to build all of its sets in-house. So if someone became infected in an outside business creating sets, then the only option might be a musically ready performance on a bare stage.

In short, when theatres and concert halls are actually allowed to open – the currently scheduled date is August 10th – it’s going to be anything but straightforward for normal service to be resumed.

So, is it possible to conceive of any concerts at all taking place under social distancing rules in the National Concert Hall? Well, actually, yes. Community spirit could see solo or small events being given in a spirit of keeping live music alive. They wouldn’t be economically viable. But it’s not hard to imagine the better off among our performers engaging in charitable or fund-raising events to alleviate some of the hardship that’s only going to get worse the longer the pandemic crisis remains with us.

Streaming could make the performances available to all. And a hardy few could once more venture out to experience music-making in the flesh.