A PLAN TO SALVAGE LIVE ENTERTAINMENT THIS SUMMER
COVID-19 has put an end to large public gatherings. But by re-configuring public space, we can ensure that at least part of the show can go on.
By Tony Babinski, The Foxglove Concern And Michel Lauzon, LAAB
The cultural and performance arts industries have been among the hardest it by the Covid-19 pandemic and attendant international economic shut down. As citizens everywhere have been pressed into social isolation and quarantine, large public events across the board have been postponed and cancelled altogether. The international live entertainment business is currently in forced hibernation, as public gatherings have been forbidden for an indefinite time.
This extended shutdown has hit the live entertainment industry hard everywhere, and Montreal, where we live, is no exception. Ours is a city celebrated internationally for its Summer festivals. The Montreal International Jazz Festival, the Just for Laughs Festival, and the Osheaga music festival, among others, draw hundreds of thousands, and employ tens of thousands more. Until a safe way to congregate is found, these performing artists and technicians find themselves without gainful employment in their chosen fields. In addition, workers and entrepreneurs from associated activities such as the restaurants and retail businesses that benefit from the festival season are also affected. Last but not least, citizens who have suffered the various deprivations of quarantine and social isolation must make do without the joy and consolation of coming together and watching entertainers at their best.
We are well aware that, as of this writing, large public gatherings in Quebec have been forbidden until August 31. We have no intention of calling into question public policy or public health directives. Rather, we present the ideas contained here as part of an ongoing dialogue, aware as we are that policies evolve as we learn more about Covid 19 and measure the effects of de-confinement and ongoing mitigation efforts.
We firmly believe that at least some live entertainment can return in the coming weeks and months, if promoters, artists, and public health authorities can come together and look at outdoor space in a new way. We also believe that it is becoming urgent and necessary to act, and channel the will and need of people everywhere to congregate in a safe and controlled fashion. Gradual de-confinement and recent protests are beginning to re-habituate citizens to pre-COVID behavior. Our project is intended to sensitize and educate the population by demonstrating responsible behavior and cultivating new habits. We suggest that public authorities lead the way in this regard, in a constructive and positive manner.
INTRODUCING OPEN STAGE
Our Open Stage system has been developed to optimize the organization of outdoor space to allow for safe and controlled public gatherings of reduced size. Our key insight is simple: audiences of a size not permitted to gather indoors can safely gather outdoors. This solution is ideal for a city like Montreal, which boasts an ample supply of large outdoor spaces, which can be enjoyed in the city’s glorious Summer and Fall climates.
Incorporating crowd size analysis, crowd behavior analyses, crowd control strategies, signalization, and technology, Open Stage can be used to employ existing surface parking and/or urban plaza space at reduced capacity in the coming weeks and months. In addition, the Open Stage system can be applied to public and private spaces not yet considered for live or other entertainment, transforming them into venues that can be safely used during the coming warm months (from July through October in the Northeast, and beyond elsewhere.)
HOW OPEN STAGE WORKS
We accept that re-configuring indoor spaces during the current period of careful de-confinement presents many challenges to public health. However, the same is not true for outdoor spaces. Medical experts agree that the chances of person-to-person transmission of COVID-19 outdoors through touch or airborne particles are greatly reduced if individuals maintain recommended social distance. Indeed, government health authorities are already permitting certain outdoor athletic activities with minimum risk of contact for this reason. In jurisdictions everywhere, a return to some form of team sports and Summer camp activities is taking place for the same reason.
We therefore have theorized that both outdoor spaces traditionally used for large festivals and outdoor spaces that currently serve other functions can be re-configured to welcome crowds of a reduced size for live entertainment events. The spaces must be optimized to welcome separate groups of a public-health approved size safely distributed over a large enough area, with small groups of sizes allowable by public health officials safely and clearly distanced from other groups of the same or smaller size.
Proper strategies for group entrances and exits must be put into place to ensure safe and healthy flow of traffic and prevent potentially hazardous bottlenecks. Movement facilitators and social distancing animators would be integrated throughout the site. Throughout the process, members of the crowd must be outfitted with technology that warns them when they are at risk of leaving a safe buffer zone, so that they can self-correct their movements.
The Open Stage Promise and Components
The wearing of masks, which is becoming increasingly normal and accepted behavior both indoors and out, can be encouraged to minimize risk of transmission.
To demonstrate its potential efficacy, we have applied the Open Stage concept to two test situations.
MODE 1: EXISTING FESTIVAL SITE
The Place des Festivals at the Quartier Des Spectacles in Montreal can normally welcome more than 20,000 people to live shows and concerts during festivals and other events. Clearly, welcoming a crowd of this size would be impossible while social isolation measures are in place. However, the open, exterior spaces of the Quartier Des Spectacles could easily accommodate a rotating crowd of up to 1,000 people on an ongoing basis with minimal reconfiguration under Open Plan.
If a promoter and artists were willing to create a rotating series of events from as early as July into the warmer months of the Fall, the Quartier de Spectacles space could easily and safely accommodate such events. With touring across international borders difficult in the immediate future, local Quebec and Canadian musical, comedy and circus acts could certainly be prominently featured, providing welcome diversion for audiences, and becoming a desirable showcase for local talent.
The following plan demonstrates how the crowd can be safely distributed over the space.
Open Stage’s promise is to create a peaceful and festive respite away from the troubles of everyday life, and safe from the reality of the pandemic. A place where families and friends can be together, enjoy a show, and get away from it all for a couple of hours. To generate this feeling of well-being and serenity, the Open Stage concept includes seven main features:
- GREEN ENCLOSURE
To create a sense of enclosure and mystery, Open Stage sites will feature a large green hedge of mature trees in giant flowerpots, fantastically lit during the night-time. Although the Open Stage sites are situated on hard-surfaced urban plazas or parking lots, this will create a more peaceful atmosphere, conducive to a feeling of pastoral escape, as well as generate an easily controlled and manageable perimeter.
- MAGICAL PORTALS
The passages into the protected realm of Open Stage is demarcated by the ring-like Magical Portals through the green enclosure – these celebrate the threshold into our haven as citizens are transformed into spectators for the duration of the show. They also serve a more functional role as buffer zones and antechambers to the rainbow field (see below) and are in direct proximity with the services tents.
- RAINBOW FIELD
The Rainbow Field is the main destination for the spectators: an otherwise bland asphalt or pavement surface becomes an animated carpet thanks to a minimalistic graphic take on the “ÇA VA BIEN ALLER” slogan and graphic popular in Quebec. The rainbow field features colored pixels in a staggered pattern at scales either for pedestrians (2m x 3m) or for vehicles (6m x 7.5m). The pattern ensures social distancing norms but also evokes, with its bright-colored palette, the playful hopscotch games of youth. The staggered position of the pixels ensures maximal visibility to the stage from every vantage point. Artists will be invited to tag the ground plane in the pixels and add their own personal touch to the “urban quilt”, becoming an open-air temporary art exhibition.
- URBAN STAGE
The Open Stage concept includes a massive 40-meter wide stage, a giant 20-meter high screen and a dramatic red curtain; the reason for these giant-sized stage pieces is that since we feature live entertainment in a somewhat dispersed format – for social distancing reasons – the show and performers must be magnified to enhance their stage presence. The Urban Stage therefore instantly becomes a signature effect of the Open Stage concept. Every Open Stage will feature fully functional and easily accessible backstage space for storage, artists’ green lounge, and technical spaces.
Every Open Stage will feature large playful digital lettering to convey joy, hope and solidarity; this can be achieved with slogans, poetry, or lyrics. These giant letters evoke the vintage gritty urban landscapes but in a fun and playful manner.
Each Open Stage location will provide for essential sanitary services, ticketing, emergency care and space for a COVID-19 sensitization and prevention campaign. This will also be the HQ for security personnel as well as the animators and facilitators who will walk the site and ensure the social distancing measures.
- GASTRONOMIC PROMENADE
An essential component of every Open Stage site will be the opportunity for hard-hit local restaurants to showcase their wares with pop-up kiosks and food trucks. This will provide restaurateurs with precious visibility and new revenue streams during the lock-down, as well as add an appreciated amenity for spectators in a safe fashion respecting social distancing best practices.
The Open Stage project calls for a general re-purposing of the Quartier Spectacles site during the transition for the current COVID-19 moment to more normal times. We propose that De Maisonneuve Blvd. be closed to car traffic to become a pedestrian zone supplied by Food trucks, whose operators would be asked to serve consumers while respecting current social distancing protocols. This would provide a valuable showcase for Montreal’s restaurant scene, which, like the industry everywhere, has been decimated by the pandemic lock-down. The existing stalls aligning De Maisonneuve would make ideal dining pods that respect social distancing norms, with little adaptation. Sainte-Catherine street to the south would also be pedestrianized and serve as a buffer zone for crowd-flow management. An open plaza currently on the north-east corner of the could serve as a second stage welcoming crowds of up to 350. Since sound from one stage to another wouldn’t travel, shows can take place simultaneously, welcoming more artists and technicians.
Facilitators, hosts, intuitive way-finding and wearable technology distributed at the event would signal to both audience members and security when individuals or groups are not respecting social distance parameters.
In order to prevent bottlenecks at the beginning of the event, we would encourage that arrivals be staggered over a certain period. At the same time, buffer zones for processing arrivals would be created at various points on the festival site. In these buffer zones, proper social distancing of the kind already established outside stores could easily be respected. Testing and public awareness campaigns could also be provided in these zones. The same principle would be applied at exit – various audience members would be distributed “exit codes” and asked to vacate the premises in a staggered fashion, in small, coordinated cohorts, again to reduce cluttering and crowding.
Note that throughout the area, large movement areas resembling the “hygienic corridors” already established throughout the city of Montreal for pedestrians would be used for entrances, exists, and trips to restrooms and food trucks.
To augment the artistic and festive flavor Montreal is known for, we have explored collaborating with MU, and mural-painting collective. Artists from the group would be hired to create visually memorable signalization system throughout the site as well as functional, intuitive, and fun markings on the ground for the layout of people in the crowd along social distancing best practices.
If so desired, various acts could be scheduled throughout the day to ensure a steady flow of audience members, ensuring constant activity while reducing numbers and controlling circulation in a hygienically secure fashion. At night, the space can welcome immersive and interactive projection and light shows.
While over-all numbers could not equal those of a regular Summer at the Quartier des Spectacles, this strategy does allow this previous local asset to welcome citizens and sustain cultural life. Needless to say, it would also help guarantee at least some employment in an industry that might otherwise experience very little to none.
MODE 1: RE-PURPOSED PRIVATE/PUBLIC SITE
Astute readers will already be aware of plans in various jurisdictions around the world to revive traditional Drive-ins as spaces for public entertainment (and, of course, movie screenings.) The move is timely during the COVID-19 crisis because gathering a number of people in their cars ensures a high measure of hygiene and social distancing while providing opportunities for congregation.
With Open Stage, this strategy can be taken one step further.
At the current time, shopping malls everywhere have been hard-hit by COVID-19 and the associated economic shutdown. Mall owners are actively seeking new ways to make their properties salient to the surrounding communities, and to generate precious foot traffic to struggling retailers.
The Open Stage system allows mall owners to create Pop Up Drive-in Stages in large, unused parking lot areas. These stages and screens can be become venues for live performers across Quebec and Canada. Audiences would park in designated areas to enjoy the show, with audio provided by FM broadcast, and video redistributed as necessary via the large, pop-up screen.
For the purposes of our test, we have selected a large shopping mall in Laval, a Montreal suburb. At the current time, the mall features a vast, mostly unused outdoor parking area.
As the following illustration shows, employing Open Space principles we have easily transformed the space into a drive-in venue for live entertainment.
As at the urban plaza site, strategies would be employed to control crowd movement and prevent clustering. Cars for singles, couples and families would be spaced inside 6 m. wide X 7.5 m. deep parking areas to ensure social distancing. Safety corridors would be designed and employed so that audience members could circulate to toilets or food trucks while respecting social distancing measures. Again, signalization and fun ground markings would be provided by the artists from MU.
A CITY-WIDE INITIATIVE
Since Open Stage is applicable in two modes, the system could be used to create social-distance respecting live entertainment venues across the city, both at urban plazas in the center city, and in large, mall-adjacent parking lots in the suburbs. The same principles can be applied in cities everywhere.
AN OPPORTUNITY FOR THE TELEVISION AND STREAMING INDUSTRIES
Naturally, the live events held in Open Stage zones would not have to be for live audiences alone. Broadcasters and streamers eager for content at a time when production of new shows is difficult could easily piggyback onto these new live events. Shows that take place in these venues could easily be captured for broadcast and live distribution, drawing audiences far beyond the assembled live venue-goers. Yet again, this would provide employment opportunities for otherwise hard-hit industry professionals, as well as revenue streams otherwise interrupted during the shut-down.
VISIBILITY FOR MARKETERS
Marketers and brands depend on the visibility provided by festivals and live entertainment. With events cancelled this Summer and Fall, they are seeking new ways to connect with consumers. The Open Stage plan allows promoters, governments, and artists to keep the live entertainment industry alive and to create a critical mass that can sustain and stimulate the economy during the delicate period of re-opening and ongoing mitigation.
AN OPPORTUNITY TO LEAD
For Montreal, an international festival leader, this initiative provides an opportunity to be innovate and to lead. The crisis presents an opportunity for the Montreal cultural and entertainment scene to once again demonstrate its creativity and leadership on the world stage, and serve as a role model for other jurisdictions. This would strengthen Montreal’s DNA and its positioning as a leader destination for culture.