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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.).
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.
Other useful resources and information