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COVID-19 Performing arts working safely guidelines: What do I need to know? What do I need to think about?

As we wait with baited breath for the green light from the government to resume indoor performances, it seems hopeful that professional theatre will be gearing back up for the end of the year. With any luck, there will be some Christmas shows, and hopefully long-running shows that were put on pause will be able to resume soon.

Worries about the financial viability of socially-distanced performances aside, it makes sense to start familiarising ourselves with the government guidance and thinking about how this applies to theatre sound departments. What kind of changes will we need to make to our work practises to ensure we’re conforming to the guidance and keeping ourselves, our colleagues, and our audiences as safe as possible?

A starting point

Does your brain feel a little like it’s going to explode with information and rules yet? Yes, ours too. Wondering how on earth we can conform to the guidelines and run an effective sound department?

The key thing to keep in mind is that the spirit of the guidance is to keep everyone at least two metres apart at all times, and to take “robust mitigation” steps where this is not possible to keep the risk of transmission as low as possible.

To help visualise the key mitigations in the guidance, we have created a decision tree to provide a framework of thinking to help work out how the various activities of a theatre sound department might need to be modified, and what extra consumables might be needed, in order to conform to the government guidance. 

Things to consider 

Mix position
  • Theatre staff, such as the sound operator, whose primary role is located front of house are never to come into contact with any back of house areas or staff members. This is to prevent possible transmission between back of house and the audience. This will have staffing implications for the sound team as the sound no. 1 will not be in a position to assist, or provide guidance or supervision backstage.
  • Only one person (the sound operator) should have contact with and use the mix position, and the mix position should be cleaned before and after every use. Think about providing a single charger at the mix position for the sound no. 1’s radio and any other devices that would usually be communally charged backstage. This will also affect how mix-cover is managed as multiple people routinely having contact with the mix position will substantially increase transmission risk.
  • All parts of the mix position will need to be cleaned at rig check and at the beginning and end of every performance. This clean will be a different type of clean to the one routinely done as part of a typical maintenance schedule – it will be more about disinfecting all the surfaces touched: Sound desk, computer keyboards, mice, GO buttons, etc. The simplest way to do this kind of clean is to use a handful of antibacterial wipes, to be disposed of in a bin immediately after use. Think about covering the sound desk, computer keyboards, mice, and GO buttons any time the mix position is not actively being used.
  • Mix positions will need to be shielded from the audience. Government guidance suggests creating an aerosol impermeable screen that surrounds the operator and equipment. Clearly, one cannot mix a show from the inside of Perspex box, but thought should be given to how a back-and-sides booth, taller than the operator, can be built, and what kind of aerosol impermeable material will cause minimal acoustic disruption to both the sound operator and the audience. The row of seating immediately in front of the operating positions should be taken off sale so as to provide at least two-metre distancing between the operator and the audience.

Radio mics

  • Radio mic running inevitably requires even the one-metre-plus[-mitigation] distancing to be breached. The guidance requires that where maintaining even one metre is not possible, visors be used by the person fitting, checking and swapping the radio mics – but not the actor.
  • Skin-to-skin contact should be avoided wherever possible, but where it cannot be avoided, disposable gloves should be used. These should be put in a bin and hands should be washed (or sanitised where this is not possible) after every single wear. Hand cleaning and a new pair of disposable gloves should be put on before each actor’s mic fitting to avoid accidental transmission.
  • Wherever possible, mirrors should be utilised so that mics are fitted from behind so that even with the use of a visor, face-to-face positioning is avoided.
  • Provide a dedicated roll of mic tape per cast member, to be used by them alone.
  • Consider delivering, collecting, and storing radio mics in individually sealed containers (such as these Really Useful Boxes), rather than collective tubs. The radio mics, packs, aerials, fixatives (wig grips, elastics, ear hangers), and the individually sealed containers should be cleaned before rig check and before every performance. Mic belts should never be placed inside of this container and should be dealt with separately.
  • Think about creating a mic-to-dressing-room distribution system where mics are delivered to and collected from outside dressing room doors. This will minimise the time spent inside dressing rooms and avoid directly passing items between individuals.
  • Consider asking actors to wipe down their own microphones, packs, and sealed containers after every performance. Antibacterial wipes in individual sachets can be provided for this purpose and kept in the radio mic container boxes.
  • Microphones will need deep cleaning on a much more regular basis. The ASD have a page that lists links to manufacturers’ recommendations on how to deep clean mics.
  • Mic heads should never be swapped between performers. This will mean that ensemble members as well as understudies will need to have their own personal mic heads.
  • Avoid swapping radio packs between performers. Where this is unavoidable, the pack will need to be disinfected between performers.
  • Anyone running radio mics will, through the process of fitting, checking, fixing and swapping said radio mics, come into “close contact” with the other members of the performing company. For the specific guidance on these activities, you’ll need to refer to the government’s Keeping workers and clients safe during COVID-19 in close contact services.

Comms, Q-lights, paging systems, and workstations

  • Provide individual comms packs, headsets, and radios that are only ever used by the same person. Label them with the user’s name to avoid confusion and accidental transmission. These should be cleaned before and after use. Clearcomm have good advice on how to clean headsets. Consider whether to provide individual wireless comms and radio chargers for these devices in order to avoid cross contamination. Where this isn’t practical, ask users to remove their radio or wireless comms batteries themselves and clean them with an antibacterial wipe before putting them in a communal charger. These batteries should then be cleaned at rig check and again after each charge. Regardless of approach chosen, each person should take responsibility for the daily cleaning and charging of their own radio, wireless comms pack and headset.
  • Discourage the use of Q-lights which require multiple people to acknowledge their standby. Where this isn’t possible, Q-lights should be cleaned after each acknowledgement. A tub of antibacterial wipes next to the Q-light will make for a convenient solution.
  • The number of people using a single paging system should be as few as possible. The microphone and any control panel should be thoroughly cleaned daily, and disinfected after every use. Antibacterial wipes will make this job easier.
  • Workstations, such as the DSM show calling position and the radio mic monitoring rack, should only be used by one person so far as is possible. These workstations, including microphones, comms headsets, and headphones, should be cleaned daily before rig check, and again before and after each performance. If a circumstance arises where more than one person has to use these workstations, it should be for the shortest time possible, and should be cleaned properly between users.

The band

  • The government, pending further research into the matter, have designated singing and the playing of brass and wind instruments as particularly high risk performing arts activities. These activities require at least three-metre distancing between each singer and/or brass/wind player, and between them and other musicians, crew, the MD, and the audience. Where this is not possible, the guidance does allow for the use of aerosol impermeable barriers between singers and brass/wind players, and between these performers/musicians and everyone else. Again, these barriers will need to be taller than the player and the instrument in order for them to be effective. The use of baffles, of the sort that are routinely used to stop a live drum kit bleeding into the rest of the mics in the pit, seem like an item we are used to using that will adequately do the job.
  • Instruments, music stands, chairs and other “pit infrastructure” will need cleaning on a regular basis. It would be advisable to have a conversation with your production manager and MD at the earliest possible opportunity about how this should be done and whose responsibility it is to clean what.
  • When rig checking the band area, any chair sat on, and any microphone, music stand, instrument, computer, keyboard, button, monitor, headphones, cables or item touched will need disinfecting immediately after it has been rig checked. Keeping antibacterial wipes on your person or in the pit and disinfecting as you go will help keep this manageable.

Transmission points

The sections above are by no means an exhaustive list. It’s a good idea to think of all the possible transmission points and seek to reduce them as much as possible. Avoiding directly passing equipment between individuals is important as it requires breaching two-metre distancing, so consider creating drop-off and pick-up points at which one person can deliver an item and step back so that another person can pick the same item whilst remaining two-metres apart.

Staffing implications

Where two-metre distancing cannot be maintained and other mitigations are required to lower transmission risk, the government guidance strongly advises grouping the show staff and performing company into fixed teams so that this closer contact is always and only between the same small group of individuals. This keeps the possible range of transmission of COVID-19 as small as possible.

For the sound department, this presents a sticky problem: the radio mic runner(s) come(s) into unavoidable close contact with most, if not all, of the cast. This equally applies to wardrobe, and hair and makeup departments, not to mention the cast performing with each other. Before long, this starts looking like a logistical enigma, trying to work out the smallest number of people who have to come closer than two metres to each other. 

There are two main options here, as we see it: 1) Dive into the mind-bending headache, talking to the heads of other departments and production management to agree how small fixed teams can work across the production, and how many extra people this will mean each department needs, and attempt to solve the enigma; 2) Decide, with the agreement of the entire production management, that the whole of the backstage staff and the cast (and potentially the musicians too) are one fixed team.

Whichever option is taken, it is worth noting that if one person develops suspected COVID-19 symptoms, the entire fixed team they are within will need to self-isolate until the person with symptoms has been tested and has received a negative result. If the person with symptoms tests positive, the entire fixed team they are a member of will need to self-isolate for fourteen days. So, either way, it is worth trying to figure out some redundancy in terms of staffing, and distribution of tasks and cues, to limit the impact that a suspected COVID-19 case could have on the sound department and the production.

For these reasons of how to manage transmission risk when coming within two-metres of other staff when performing certain activities, it is worth thinking carefully about the use of deps. By their nature, deps work across a range of shows, so in order to manage the risk that this brings to all the productions they work across, ideally deps should only be used for any role that allows them to maintain at least two-metre distancing at all times. Where this is not possible, the government guidance advises that they only come into contact with a known and limited number of people so that in the event of a COVID-19 case, the track and trace system can be used to limit any further transmission. It may be that you decide that within your department (or indeed production management may decide on behalf of the entire production) that the use of deps represents an unmanageable risk and you may have to structure your department to operate without deps.

Personal hygiene

On top of all these measures, each person will have their own responsibility to ensure they personally are taking all sensible measures to reduce transmission. The government guidance states that good hand and respiratory hygiene are a given expectation on top of the specific guidance given in the new COVID-19 guidelines.

But what does good hand and respiratory hygiene mean? Well, it’s nothing more complicated than the measures the government have been asking us to take as individuals since the start of the pandemic: Good hand hygiene is washing your hands when you get to work, before and after eating, before and after using the bathroom, before and after touching any commonly touched surface, before and after close contact with another person, and before leaving work – and using hand sanitiser when good old soap n’ water isn’t an option. Good respiratory hygiene is wearing a face covering while using public transport or in any public enclosed space (such as a shop or café, except when sat down to eat or drink), wearing a face covering when any situation means two-metre distancing is not possible, avoiding touching one’s face, and sneezing and coughing into a tissue and immediately disposing of said tissue into a bin and then washing one’s hands. Hopefully by this point in the pandemic, this is obvious advice.

It is also worth taking the time to understand what constitutes an adequate face covering, how to wash one’s hands properly, and how to safely and properly use both face coverings and disposable gloves – and to note that the use of either gloves or face coverings does not remove the need for rigorous and regular hand washing or two-metre distancing wherever possible.

Any mitigation can be rendered useless if not used or applied properly. You’ll find specific advice on all these under Other useful information and resources at the bottom of this article.

From the horse’s mouth

There will undoubtably be a lot of conjecture and discussion over the coming weeks about how the government’s guidelines for performing arts should be applied. TSS strongly urge everyone to go straight to the source and read the guidance as issued by the government. Yes, the documents are long, but as these guidelines are now part of all performing arts workplace health and safety considerations, you’ll want to make sure you understand the actual guidance opposed to one person’s or organisation’s interpretation (including ours!).

ABTT have also made some information available that seeks to apply this guidance to the theatre environment, and the ASD are currently working on sound-specific advice that will allow sound departments to take an industry-standardised approach.

Regardless of how your sound department applies this information to your working practises, it will be a good idea to document the measures you take to meet this guidance, in addition to the health and safety risk assessments prepared by your production manager.

It is also worth pointing out that COVID-19 safety measures should be implemented in a way that does not compromise existing health and safety measures (such as noise exposure, working at heights, etc.).

Final notes

On first reading, it is easy to look at the guidance our industry has been given and feel as though none of our jobs are vaguely possible under such measures. However, these are the only parameters under which we are currently allowed to work, so we must embrace the challenge and do our best to find a way to work within the guidelines.

These guidelines absolutely have implications for staffing, budgets, and the fundamental ways in which we are used to working. Rig checks and other pre-show preparations are going to take longer, we are going to be less able to work over the top of other departments, and the way we plan our backstage movements during a performance will have to be carefully thought through. There will undoubtably be an increase in the number of hours we are called for on a show, and a huge increase in the amount of time and attention spent on maintenance and cleaning.

However, we are an industrious, creative, problem-solving bunch of people. Delivering theatre in spite of the odds being stacked against us (whether that be lack of available time, resources, space, kit, budget, etc.) is not new to most of us. We have all worked on theatre where the ambitions of the piece were bigger than the venue or the money available. We have all worked on productions where we were on the other side of the country from our hire company or sound supplier, had a critical piece of kit go down at rig check, have had to scramble to build a working sound system from the scraps – and still got the curtain up on time.

A global pandemic is still upon us and this means that the conditions for theatre are less than ideal, so it’s on all of us to figure out how theatre can survive these testing times with the parameters we are currently allowed to operate within. There is no other option. But, here at TSS, we have faith in the ability of all of us, ourselves and our colleagues across the industry, to rise to this challenge as well as we’ve all risen to all those challenges that have come before.

The show must go on.

Sound department COVID-19 suggested shopping list 

 Other useful resources and information

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