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Ghost Light: Live events in a post-COVID-19 world

For AV integrators and crews working in the rental and staging sector, the pandemic has ruptured and will likely define how live events are produced going forward

The ghost light is a single light set downstage center that remains on while a theater is dark and unoccupied. Of course, the light — often called an ‘Equity Light’ — has a practical purpose. The illumination is positioned to provide safe passage across the stage and prevent a crew member from taking a bone-breaking or litigious-inducing nosedive into the orchestra pit.

Theater folks recognize the light on a more intimate level, one that pays respect to those who have come before. The ghost light is steeped in the superstitions of live theater, providing a means for the players and stagehands who have walked the boards before us. These spirits of the past can have a stage available to them while the living are otherwise engaged.

Whether we work supporting concerts, theater, large-scale events, or the ballroom industrials, every stage is now inhabited this single point of illumination.

We are all ghosts now.

Live entertainment will come back, eventually, but the path there will be like none other we have experienced before.

The Carnage
Just think of what has happened: an industry employing 12 million people generating over a trillion dollars of revenue annually came to a sudden halt. The quiet did not come after a great cataclysmic roar of disaster, it simply stopped, practically overnight. The carnage is widespread — bookings are non-existent and, in some cases, these have gone into negative territory. The virus struck just as the concert season was revving up and industrials like the broadcast upfronts simply vanished — the lifeblood, make-it-or-break-it profits gone.

Well-established companies and eager ‘Mom and Pops’ are simply idle with no real idea of when things will return. Entire staff have been ‘furloughed’, shops put into moth balls with only critically essential systems running. Some turned off the lights months ago and may never be back to turn them on again.

Thousands and thousands of freelancers and contract workers, the fair majority of the events workforce, struggle still to get assistance from unemployment. Too many talented folks are, (or are wrestling over) leaving the industry for good. To those of us who have invested decades in the business, this loss of talent is gut wrenching.

Awaiting the Return
Many states have placed entertainment, which includes large business meetings, trade shows, etc., in the fourth and final phase of reopening. We were the first to go and will be the last to come back. In truth, without shows many cities cannot fully come back from the brink economically. Our industry is a lifeblood to entire sections of cities; it supports thousands of surrounding businesses. This downturn affects not just theaters and concert halls but the airlines, hotels, restaurants, and the folks who provide support services such as catering, housekeeping, transport, printers and designers.

While we ruminate amongst ourselves about a possible deus ex machina to resolve our woes, many feel that the event staging shows may not return with any import until January of 2021. Broadway has set a September 6 date but few, if any, theater folks believe that shows will be back before the new year. Tours, some of which are still in place at the last theater they performed in, may be better positioned to start up again as regions of the country open more.

Ghost Lights: Live events in a post-COVID-19 world
This downturn affects not just theaters and concert halls but the airlines, hotels, restaurants, and the folks who provide support services such as catering, housekeeping, transport, printers and designers.

Regional theaters are playing the waiting game. Not wanting to decide anything outright, most of these venues simply await the 6-8 week cancellation announcements from acts. The cancelled shows are marked as such on webpages and we all anxiously anticipate the next wave of no shows.

A lot will depend on whether people will be willing to come back to live events anytime soon. There has been a good deal of noise raised by a small number of folks demanding to have things back, but most polls show a larger reluctance. Will they come back? Numerous industry surveys show that large percentages are not willing to travel to trade shows, meetings or for vacation given the current concerns. These respondents don’t anticipate any travel until late December at best. Get on a plane and stay at a hotel for a companywide national conference? Many do not see a reason to do so and would take a demotion to avoid one.

Short of a vaccine and established procedures for dealing with the infection many would rather not, thank you very much.

When Will a Return Be Worth It?
There are some big questions as to if it can be worth it for shows, venues, ballrooms, to actually open. Without a way to prevent or cure the virus the CDC and WHO recommendations severely limit the number of people we can actually fit in a space. Major League baseball is grappling with this now: just how many people can they allow in and what do they charge to just break even? It’s an issue that has, in part, stalled talks to get the season going.

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In more practical terms, how can a theater, event space or venue make any money when the rules of distancing and safe egress considerably cut available seats? Take for example a 2,700-seat venue. According to the safe distancing rules the total available seats would be reduced to 980. A loss of revenue for just over 1,700 seats is no small matter. The profit margins for houses are small enough to start, this is just not feasible. Broadway cannot make these changes work, the spaces are just too tight, the seats too close to accommodate social spacing.

It is possible that acts may lower their guarantee to accommodate the lower number of attendees and could possibly work more dates per venue of make up losses. Regardless, many could not afford the change and would have to work at an operating loss for a considerable time.

What does the Future Look Like?
Live events will come back, the question is when and in what form? Safety is key for not only the participants and patrons but also for the crews. Patrons will need to pass though temperature readings with entry dependent on a good reading. It is likely that masks will be required when seated, entry and exit will be tightly timed and regulated by seat location.

Patrons wishing to purchase drinks will have to do so with contactless payments, chip cards while wearing gloves and using straws to sip under their masks. Many industry folks interviewed could not even fathom how bathrooms would be managed. Cleaning services and labor to do so properly will be an added expense, most likely deferring facility upgrades or high tech engagements until the danger has passed.

Crews, of whom there will be fewer and only from a local pool, pose a whole set of concerns. Whether the show is a multi-day ballroom event or multi-week run crews work in close contact. From the shop to the techs on site a whole new set of protocols will need to be in place. Gear will need to be sanitized after testing and most likely packaged in a way that assures it cannot be exposed to the pathogen while in transport and installation. Will crew need to have their own com headsets or have disposable mic covers? Given the variety of com systems in use currently, just how do you assure each tech has a proper one?

Ghost Light: Live Events in post-COVID-19 world
Live events will come back, the question is when and in what form? Safety is key for not only the participants and patrons but also for the crews.

The staff will have to have their temperature taken several times during the load-in, show and load-out. What happens when several techs become, or are suspected of being, ill. Do companies need to keep a set of staff on retainer, ready to jump in as needed?  What the heck do we do with the lead production crew? The standard set of draped six-foot tables are just too tight for the rules and for comfort.

Finally, what do we do for the talent? Backstage is notoriously tiny, often with less than six feet in total to work in. Will each presenter need a new microphone and will each need to be disinfected in between? Will a person need to wipe down podiums between presenters? When we use lavaliers, should the talent put them on themselves The list of new procedures and the bureaucracy of who manages their enforcement are dizzying. The standard processes and ingrained ways will have a multitude of new layers and associated costs added.

Virtual is the New Normal
During the shelter in place and statewide ‘pauses’ a number of musical acts, comedians, and artists have turned to streaming. Some have presented free shows while others as part of their Patreon subscriber offerings. In truth, the audio and experiential feel are lacking but they have struck a chord for those deeply missing live performances.

Everyone is using Zoom now, from corporate check-ins to religious services, sales calls and personal occasions. Our societal reluctance to use these tools has been chipped away due to necessity. We are all part of  a virtual community now.

Event staging companies have long had at least a toe-dip into streaming services. Most owned a few encoders and computers to manage but depended on really good streaming backbone provider. The process itself is fairly straight-forward but it is dependent on the network reliability — something many shops have not fully engaged. Many of the industry folks who were willing to discuss details for this article made it clear that their next major pitches and equipment purchases will be centered on streaming.

Streaming also means a bit of change for the required knowledge of technical crew. A working understanding of streaming components and the technologies, especially Ethernet networking, will be critical. Clients often associate streaming with Facebook Live or via a YouTube channel or Zoom meetings. While these can work in a bare bones practical manner, we know that they are not experiential, often leaving attendees flat or completely missing the message. Our talent will need the graphics and virtual space management skills to make presentations with punch. It will mean a culling of the herd, leaving a select few to carry on. Companies who have invested previously in the technology, the talent and techniques will weather the storm, albeit doing more shows with less equipment and fewer staff.

 To Infinity and Beyond!
Live events bringing together a multitude of people may take a good full year to start coming back. When they do it is more than likely it will start with local shows. These will be  in places that folks can conveniently travel to and get home from after. The destination events, bringing folks from all across the country and world will have to wait some time before coming back.

The uptake is that folks (and crews) will have a deeper appreciation for the excitement and social bonding these events create. We will all be ghosts no more.

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