‘What Can We Expect?’ Panelists Describe Post-COVID Learning Curve – And Shared Industry Camaraderie That Will Overcome It

– Great Expectations
Dr. K. Elizabeth Hawk, Ralph Marchetta, Roger Sandau, Steve Lawler, Laurie Jacobie, Steve Drymalski and Shelly Cohen (from left) discuss post-COVID touring during the ‘Day Of Show: What Can We Expect?’ panel.

COVID-19 will shape the way live events are conducted for years to come – and “Day of Show: What Can We Expect?,” a morning panel at Production Live!, reviewed how some of those changes will translate to the daily mechanics of performances and tour production.

Moderated by Dr. K. Elizabeth Hawk, a nuclear medicine physician and president of Ampersand Intelligence, a consulting firm focused on helping to create safe gathering spaces, the panel assembled several leaders from the production sector for an insightful discussion about the creativity and camaraderie that live industry professionals have deployed to restart the business in a safe, sustainable way.

“One of my favorite things that’s come out of this pandemic is groups of people that normally didn’t talk to each other or normally didn’t collaborate, whether it’s the medical community, the scientific community, or the music, sports, entertainment community, are now talking together and sharing ideas and working together,” Hawk said. “The synergy that comes out of that is really tremendous.”

Indeed, despite their varied backgrounds, the six assembled panelists found common ground as they reviewed the new processes they’ve embraced in recent months.

When Hawk asked Laurie Jacoby, BSE Global executive vice president and chief entertainment officer, early in the conversation about the biggest pandemic-related procedural change, Jacoby was blunt: “All of it.”

“It’s also evolving,” said Jacoby, who oversees all non-sports programming at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y. “We’ve all had to become experts on things we never even talked about before: the sanitization, the air quality, all the ventilation systems. All these things that had to now be elevated to a whole ‘nother level.”

Like Jacoby, Phoenix Suns Arena senior vice president and general manager Ralph Marchetta’s initial return procedures were dictated by the NBA, which applied extensive protocols to all the venues it operates in.

“We have been undergoing what I call the slowest soft opening ever,” said Marchetta, describing the fan capacities that have grown from nothing at the start of the NBA season in December to full or near-full capacity today. “We were really almost inundated with guidance and memos from the league. That has really dictated how we reopened, how we handle things when it comes to testing. … The NBA was really driving how we responded to that.”

In some ways, Marchetta explained, COVID’s impact on the events industry will be similar to 9/11’s, precipitating the business to adopt new procedures that soon become commonplace, particularly heightened sanitization. Meanwhile, the proliferation of cashless concessions has been accelerated by the pandemic, and has been embraced by fans.

Of course, there are still plenty of questions about some of these new technologies, and not all of them will stick.

“We’re building the airplane as we’re flying it and we have to sort of navigate this together,” said Hawk, who consulted on safety measures for Production Live! and helped implement a testing and vaccination verification procedure with Capture.

The primary sticking point for many of the panelists was in relation to performers and their crews, who will navigate different state, local and facility protocols every day once back out on the road.

“You can make a tour consistent, you can say everyone has to be wearing masks, you have to be vaccinated, but in some states you can’t require the stagehands to be wearing masks backstage,”  said Shelly Cohen, company manager at family programming production company VStar Entertainment Group. “If you’re doing a change of costumes and the performers don’t want to work with a specific stagehand because they’re not wearing a mask, how do you deal with that and what additional costs are involved with ensuring that your touring personnel feel safe but you also have a relationship with your venues, you have a relationship with your promoters.”

For their part, executives like Jacoby are attempting to streamline the process for visitors to their venues.

We’re going to take the lead from whoever is coming through our building,” Jacoby said. “The artist, for me, their day of show, it’s their big day. I want them to feel like whatever they need to make them feel safe, we’re going to try our best to do.”

“And, as an artist, we don’t want to come in heavy-handed,” responded Steve Drymalski, production manager for Neil Young and Pearl Jam.

Still, many artists are wary of this new normal.

“From our aspect, as a tour, when you’re putting 12 people on a tour bus times four or five buses, we’re all good with it, because we all know each other and what we’re doing, we’re maintaining our protocols,” said Steve Drymalski, production manager for Neil Young and Pearl Jam. “But every time we’re in a city, we’re exposing ourselves to somebody else or an unknown entity. So I think it’s important that we start matching the protocols.”

Another panelist, Live Nation director of production Steve Lawler, will likely have a hand in that. When an audience member asked whether Live Nation, the country’s largest promoter, will implement a nationwide backstage protocol, Lawler was unequivocal: “Yes.” His team is currently on the thirteenth version of the procedures, he added.

Panelists agreed that, going forward, the best solution may be to treat COVID protocols like other production elements, including standard language in riders that then becomes commonplace.

“We have clients all over the spectrum,” said Roger Sandau, managing principal at Epic Insurance Brokers and Consultants. “We have artist clients that are not concerned and other artist clients that are very concerned. … Communication is the most important thing. If an artist has specific requirements, having them set forth in the rider and having those discussed early on to see whether they’re feasible to accomplish. What we’re seeing is a lot more advance planning.”

“You just look at it more as another requirement for the show or another need,” Drymalski said. “You put it in the rider or the venue has their policies and we move forward, as if it were a rigging spec or a box office spec. We look at it in that way, rather than creating a larger umbrella over everything else.”

The backdrop for these myriad changes is a steep learning curve.

“We have to remember that we’re coming back after 15 months and people who had doing something every single day for 10, 15, 20 years have not been doing it now,” Drymalski said. “We want to create the best performance that we can, the best production that we can for the artists. Our bar hasn’t changed there. But I can tell you from my experience there is definitely going to be a warming up period and we have to understood that whether it’s your crew or the lighting guys, the sound guys, the backline guys, or whether it’s the local hands, they haven’t worked for a long time and it’s going to take them a while to get back up.”

Thankfully, as Hawk articulated, an overwhelming sense of community and shared interest permeated the live industry during the coronavirus shutdown.

“Being a tour manager, a production manager, you have a responsibility to not only take care of the show and ensure everything on that side of it is being done, but you also have a responsibility to take care of your team and ensure that they feel safe and comfortable,” Cohen said.

It’s all part of what Hawk described as “the ongoing evolution of what we’re doing for the shared culture of wellness.”