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CULTURAL COMEBACK

When audiences return to theaters, some changes will be apparent, others invisible

Katie Most, manager of the Calderwood Pavilion for the Huntington Theatre Company, said the theater has upgraded its air filtration system.
Katie Most, manager of the Calderwood Pavilion for the Huntington Theatre Company, said the theater has upgraded its air filtration system.Suzanne Kreiter/Globe Staff

Wine in cans. Drink orders from the garage. Bags checked by artificial intelligence. Add a river of hand sanitizer, and these are just a few of the changes in store for Boston audiences when they return to the city’s theaters and concert halls this fall.

After more than a year without indoor shows, the city’s performing arts groups are betting big on the upcoming season, with many companies racing to complete renovations in advance of the new normal.

“We are like a construction zone,” said Josiah A. Spaulding Jr., president and CEO of the Boch Center, which operates the Wang and Shubert theaters. “Air conditioning, and filters, and sinks, and toilets. We are in the process of all of the above.”

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Spaulding estimated his organization is on track to spend between $2.5 million and $3 million on upgrades to the Shubert and Wang, the latter reopening Aug. 6 with comedian Ali Wong.

“We feel very comfortable [reopening] is going to be a large success,” said Spaulding. “There’s a pent-up demand.”

There’s also a lot on the line.

The region’s arts and culture sector, which contributed an estimated $2 billion annually to the area economy pre-pandemic, has been hit harder than most. Theaters and concert halls were among the first operations to close and the last to reopen during the pandemic, devastating a sector that previously attracted an estimated 21 million attendees each year while generating some 30,000 jobs.

The arts in Greater Boston lost roughly $425 million in revenue over 12 months beginning in March 2020, affecting 13,000 jobs, according to the Mass Cultural Council.

Getting reopening right isn’t just critical for arts groups, said ArtsBoston executive director Catherine Peterson, it’s vital to the region’s recovery.

The arts are “a large part not only of why tourists come here, but, as importantly, why businesses locate here,” Peterson said. “People come and want to work in Greater Boston because of the incredible quality of life that comes with the arts and cultural scene.”

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There are plenty of bright spots. An ongoing ArtsBoston survey of roughly 2,500 regular attendees recently found that nearly 100 percent of respondents are vaccinated, and more than half say they will be ready to return to indoor venues late this month and next.

Still, steep challenges remain: More than 40 percent said they’d only attend indoor events with mask requirements, and nearly a third said they’d only go to venues that require proof of vaccination. Perhaps more concerning: The city’s hotel occupancy rate is expected to hover around 55 percent through the end of the year, according to the Pinnacle Advisory Group, a hospitality consulting firm.

To overcome these concerns, some organizations are planning to present intermission-less shows of 90 minutes or so at the start of their seasons. Some will continue to offer digital performances. All are trying to stay as flexible as possible, emphasizing that their current plans and policies are evolving and may change to reflect updated public health guidelines.

In the meantime, venue operators have taken a crash course in healthy buildings, germ transmission, and epidemiology. Many have relied on the expertise of 9 Foundations, the company founded by Dr. Joseph G. Allen of Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.

“We spent more time learning and diving into our HVAC system than I ever expected,” said Katie Most, Calderwood Pavilion manager for the Huntington Theatre Company. “That was one of the biggest improvements we had to make here.”

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Like other performing arts venues, the Calderwood has upgraded its air filtration systems. Similarly, it’s installing tap-and-pay credit card systems to reduce points of contact, and it has enhanced its mobile ticketing system. Most said the Calderwood, where the Huntington will present much of its coming season, is also rethinking concessions before the opening night of “Hurricane Diane” on Aug. 27.

“Where once we might have turned our noses up at a can of wine, people might be more interested in that today,” said Most, who added glasses would still be available. “It’s a bit more individualized and something that isn’t coming out of a bottle that people could sneeze into.”

At the Citizens Bank Opera House, where ”Hadestown” opens Nov. 2, executive director James Jensen said that in addition to upgrading its air filtration system, the theater is installing portable air cleaners with “medical grade filters” in the building’s smaller enclosed spaces, such as dressing rooms and bathrooms, which are also being outfitted with hands-free fixtures.

“If you are a traditional theater-goer who has not yet got accustomed to digital tickets, there’s something that you could practice,” said Jensen, who added he expects merchandise kiosks, usually managed by touring shows, to also use touchless payment systems.

But perhaps the most noticeable difference will be the theater’s new security screening entry system that replaces the wands and bag checks of old. The new touch-free system uses artificial intelligence to spot suspicious objects while ignoring everyday items as theatergoers walk in.

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“It’s a pretty big step up from the old walk-through magnetometers,” said Jensen.

He said the system should be faster and will reduce physical contact. “This is not going to be triggered by somebody’s set of keys, or the quarters in their pocket.”

The Boch Center is installing a similar system at the Wang and Shubert theaters. It is also refurbishing the elevators at the Wang to service all floors, the bathrooms will have hands-free fixtures, and the lower levels will boast a suite of new app-enabled bars to streamline drink orders.

“All of that is electronic,” said Spaulding. “You can order your drinks from your home. You can order it six months in advance, and when you go, you go to a particular bar, and your drink is waiting for you.”

In addition to updating the theaters’ ventilation systems, Spaulding said both Boch Center venues are installing an air purification system that’s said to remove nearly all viruses, including the coronavirus that causes COVID-19. “It takes out all of the bad stuff,” he said.

But for all the high-tech solutions that are being enlisted to control the virus, Boston’s performing arts venues and groups are trying to stay flexible when it comes to one of the most low-tech, but effective, tools to prevent disease transmission: the humble mask.

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Those contacted by the Globe said they were following Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidance, which currently advises that fully vaccinated people need not wear masks indoors. Of course, the spread of the Delta variant, which recently prompted officials in Provincetown to issue a new mask advisory, could change that.

“If we’ve learned anything in the last 15 months, it’s that we have to be flexible, and we have to be able to change our protocols and our approach if it’s warranted,” said Evelyn Barnes, chief financial officer for the Boston Symphony Orchestra, whose season opens Sept. 30. She added that while the symphony was not currently planning to require masks, “if there are more indications that we need to change, to have masks, we will make that change.”

At the Calderwood, which like other venues is planning for 100 percent capacity, Most said the theater would be in close contact with audience members about what to expect during their visit.

“We really do want to base our rules on the most common practices at the time,” she said, adding the theater plans to e-mail audience members updated guidelines before each performance and will offer more flexibility with ticket changes. “We don’t want to pretend like we know what the end of August is going to look like.”

Similarly, Spaulding said that although the Boch Center doesn’t have a mask policy and isn’t planning to require proof of vaccination, that could change.

“We’re going to follow what the state says, [but] if a show decides that’s the way they want to go, we’re going to have to do that,” said Spaulding.

Bucking this trend is ArtsEmerson, which plans to require masks for both guests and staff (but not performers on stage) across all its venues. Executive director David C. Howse said the organization, whose first indoor performance opens Nov. 12 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre, has updated its ventilation systems and is encouraging guests to use digital or mailed tickets. Theatergoers will not be asked for proof of vaccination.

“[W]e will continue to monitor the situation and adapt our protocols as needed,” Howse said in a statement.

Speaking more generally, a spokeswoman for the American Repertory Theater, whose first indoor show opens in September at the Loeb Drama Center, said the Cambridge theater is taking a wait-and-see approach.

“Specific policies and procedures based on disease dynamics . . . will be confirmed prior to the start of performances,” public relations director Rebecca Curtiss said in a statement.

ArtsBoston’s Peterson said the coming months may be a little rocky.

“It’s not going to be 100 percent perfect for everybody,” she said, “but it’s going to enable a lot of people to go back and enjoy the magic of live arts performance.”


Malcolm Gay can be reached at malcolm.gay@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter at @malcolmgay.