There are fewer things more comfortable than certainty. It’s been in short supply the past fourteen months, and in the vaccination era of the battle with COVID there is still little clarity. Rules and guidelines are constantly changing.
This creates a dilemma for organizations that cannot change or shift policies on a dime. A perfect example is the Saratoga Performing Arts Center. They instituted attendance limits, mask policies and social distancing rules when tickets were put on sale a coupe of months ago. As things change, there are areas that cannot be changed. It has caused disappointment for some people.
Putting together a season at SPAC is incredibly complicated. During a typical summer, several organizations – the New York City Ballet, the Philadelphia Orchestra, Opera Saratoga, and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center - perform at SPAC. Too, the goliath music presenter Live Nation brings in numerous pop touring shows. Each of these organizations have special and unique areas of concern for performers, and they have unions working for them to ensure safe working conditions.
Just as the unions protect their workers, the advocate for the audience is the Governor’s Office. It is the state of New York, using guidelines set by the federal Center for Disease Control, who makes policy that dictates crowd size and procedures for safety.
In a recent telephone interview, Elizabeth Sobol, President and CEO of SPAC, said she’s been enthusiastically supportive of the government’s work on behalf of its citizens. Praising the people she works with in the governor’s office she described them as good listeners in terms of SPAC needs. Indeed, she goes as far as to say that their hard work and cooperation has made her proud to be a New Yorker.”
However, the best policies are not always one size fits all. It’s common, she says, that a general policy causes confusion and even resentment with ticket buyers. As an example, she points to capacity requirements for a venue. She says if the governor’s office says it is OK to perform to 50% capacity, the ticket purchaser logically assumes that means SPAC can sell 2,600 of the 5,200 amphitheater seats. Except the policy also stated that the seating had to be designed so that there was a 6-foot distance between people. When SPAC announced they were only selling 1,200 seats people got angry.
Sobol says that last year, SPAC dedicated itself to being open in 2021 and spent months exploring every possibility on how that would work. They even brought in an architectural design expert to see how to maximize safe seating. The best configuration they could come up with, keeping the 6-ft. distance rule, was 1,200 seats. As for the lawn, it was determined that circles should be created that would provide safe but restricted blanket areas.
Making the audience safe is only part of the equation. Sobol refers to the issue of public perception. Before a season of live performances was announced, she realized no one would buy tickets unless they felt safe. To find out what that meant, SPAC researched their audience base. What came back loud and clear, she says, was that her audience would only feel safe in an environment in which everyone was masked and socially distanced.
Before tickets went on sale, seats were removed so patrons could move to and about their assigned areas safely. An entrance policy was established that demanded proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test 72-hours before a performance. Face masks have to be worn at all times while on the grounds.
As the guidelines offered by CDC are relaxing, it creates other dilemmas. The seating plans are fixed, and SPAC’s public policy has been formulated. In the case of seating, it is almost impossible to change. As for social distancing and mask requirements, at issue is how and should you change? SPAC points out that many people already bought tickets because of the stated safety guidelines of masking and social distancing. Not every vaccinated person is willing to be in a populated venue with unmasked people.
Sobol says the challenge is to be flexible without risking the safety of her audience, nor to betray the trust of those who purchased tickets early - based on promises made.
There are many prestigious outdoor performing arts centers throughout the country who opted not to present this year. Because of SPAC’s due diligence there will be programming in 2021. It is Sobol’s belief that once the audience enters the grounds, the sense of safety they feel will override the annoyances of limited tickets and masking practices.
“Not only are we presenting this year,” she says. “But the programming is offering unique benefits. Audiences will have wonderful experiences that they might never have had in normal times. Above all, they will all take place in a safe environment.”
For the SPAC schedule of events and policies go to spac.org
Bob Goepfert is theater reviewer for the Troy Record.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.