Arts Beat: SLO Arts adapt to reopening – say they should have same guidelines as movie theaters

Mar 15, 2021

On March 5, the State of California announced outdoor concerts and events can resume with modifications and safety precautions.

The performing arts community in San Luis Obispo has been eager to start performing again. Still, many are frustrated that the state will allow indoor movie theaters to open but will restrict live performances to outdoor venues.

“The movie theaters were the one thing where there was really this kind of direct parallel, and the idea that those two industries are so far apart on the tier system is ludacrous to us,” said Kevin Harris, SLO Repertory Theater’s managing artistic director.

Harris said people miss having the shared experience live theater offers.

“There’s something that’s so powerful about being in one room with fellow community members with fellow citizens and really experiencing what life is all about with them,” Harris said.

Executive Director of the San Luis Obispo Symphony, Anna James Miller, said live performances could follow safety guidelines the same way cinemas do.

“I definitely feel like our performance venues in the community are very used to following the same if not more stringent guidelines than the movies,” Miller said. “So it doesn’t make sense to me that there's that separation to me between the guidelines between movie theaters and theater theaters.”

The California Department of Public Health said the difference comes down to airborne droplets that could contain the coronavirus  – it's easier to limit them in a movie theater where people are sitting quietly and wearing a mask. But for musicians and performers to do their work, they need to blow - or emote - to make noise. And that could be more dangerous. Harris said there are still ways to do it safely.

“I don’t think that there’s anything magical about being outside that makes it all that much more safe than being inside when you’re talking about a giant theater with continuous HVAC air circulation,” Harris said. “That’s essentially the same as being outside, in terms of the science of it.”

Both Miller and Harris are involved in the Central Coast Coalition of Arts Leaders.

This group formed early on in the pandemic to foster collaboration and increase communication between San Luis Obispo County arts organizations and venues.

Other notable members of this group include the Fremont Theatre and the Performing Arts Center.

Miller said most of the group was thrilled to learn about the revival of outdoor performances, but some members still wished for indoor venues to be permitted again.

“A lot of the members had really positive feedback, some of the venues like the Performing Arts Center and ones like that, that are indoor venues, they expressed that they wished indoor theaters would be able to open,” Miller said. “Just really hopeful that soon we’ll be able to get those indoor guidelines.”

Arts organizations are adapting to new performance spaces.

As for the SLO Symphony, Miller said there are new, creative ways to shift away from its traditional venues.

“Well, we’re looking at doing a kind of limited performance at a winery. Under the restaurant guideline, we can have music at the wineries,” Miller said. “And then we just started reaching out to different sports fields at Cal Poly and Cuesta and maybe at the high school to see if we might be able to perform there.”

The symphony at a stadium was a shock at first. Miller is making the best of the current guidelines.

“Our audience so badly wants to hear us perform and our musicians want to be together in the same general space and play together and this is a way we can do it, and so it feels to me like what's the point of advocating if we’re not going to try and utilize what we were given,” Miller said.

One of the issues in terms of safety is that musicians and theater performers use their voices and breath a lot. And that’s not safe in COVID times. Downtown Business Association C-E-O, Bettina Swigger, said there are still ways to keep audience members safe.

“There’s technology that’s coming around where you can put a mask around the bell of, say an oboe or a trumpet to catch the air that’s coming out that doesn’t disrupt the sound,” Swigger said.

Swigger said despite outdoor venues not providing the same theater experience, she is still willing to attend.

“I think that there are ways to enhance the experience of attending an outdoor event,” Swigger said. "I would be willing to pay to go to see an outdoor performance even if the sound quality isn’t what I’d expect from a concert hall because I’m so desperately craving it.”

SLO symphony is currently offering a Drive-in series for audiences to enjoy performances on the big screen at Madonna Meadows.

Their next performance is scheduled for May 1, which is their last performance of the season.

For tickets, you can visit, slosymphony.org.

The KCBX Arts Beat is made possible by a grant from the Community Foundation of San Luis Obispo County.