Blumenthal President Tom Gabbard Joins COVID-19 Theatre Think Tank: National Consortium Pairs Theater Professionals with Frontline Health Experts

July 13, 2020 / Blog
By Liz Rothaus Bertrand

Blumenthal Performing Arts President and CEO Tom Gabbard was recently invited to join the COVID-19 Theatre Think Tank (CTT), a national consortium of theater professionals working with public health experts, to study and compile the latest research on the novel coronavirus as it relates to the unique challenges of live theatrical productions.


The group, which began convening virtual meetings in April, was launched by Matt Ross, a New York-based producer and publicist. It includes about 40 representatives from a variety of organizations spanning Off-Broadway and Broadway to small regional theaters and large performing arts centers. It is intentionally cross disciplinary as well, with stage managers, non-profit leaders, technicians, directors, designers, and other industry professionals coming together.


“I can’t say enough good about [Matt’s] initiative to form this,” says Gabbard, who met Ross years ago while producing the New York run and national tour of TRACES. (Ross served as the production’s Press Agent.) Without a government entity focused specifically on theater and COVID-19 nor a resource library of best practices available, Gabbard says this is a welcome step toward taking charge of the industry’s destiny through proactive information sharing.


The group is working closely with faculty from the City University of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy. “We want to create guidance that is not prescriptive but is widely available for the field and engage doctors and scientists on the nuances of theater and help inform the entire field what those interpretations are,” says Ross.


CTT has developed a website——which will be continuously updated to provide easy access to the most up-to-date research as it relates to the theater industry. “There is a strong feeling of we’re in this together and we need to work together to solve this,” says Ross.


That dynamic is also evident in the way the group functions. There are no hierarchies in CTT’s organization. “I’ve never been in a group quite like this,” says Gabbard, noting that everything is group-driven, with all members contributing and learning together, rather than committee chairs using a top-down approach.


This is intentional, according to Ross. The group is made up of “people who spend their lives in the theater—know it in their bones” and they also bring a diversity of experiences with them, which can be useful in problem solving. But he believes consolidation of power has no place as they seek information, share and interrogate ideas. “We’re all rookies when it comes to the science front,” says Ross.



CTT is independent and not intended as a decision-making group, though many of the members may have that role in other organizations or trade associations. “This is not about looking [out] for anyone in particular, this is about looking out for everyone,” says Ross. “It allows us to operate free from an agenda except how can we mitigate risk to the greatest degree.”


Most of the group's focus will be investigating issues that affect theaters of all sizes, though the application of principles will be at very different scales. For example, what should be the protocols backstage? What kind of testing is available that would enable actors to go on stage and interact without masks and be safe? What happens with air and droplets in orchestra pits and in dressing rooms? What are the traffic flow patterns backstage and in the front of house?


Ross says the hope is that individual theaters will eventually be able to adapt and perform their own time and motion studies to determine which areas need additional sanitation measures or may be prone to bottlenecks as customers wait to have their tickets scanned or check their coats.


Many of the topics being discussed are complex. Consider HVAC systems: for decades, Gabbard says the emphasis has been on energy saving practices—like turning off systems when people leave the building—but data is showing that some of this will have to change since fresh air and continuous circulation of air are really important factors in mitigating risk. “Those are measures that will require more energy and there’s a tension there that has to be looked at,” he says. “For these long-term things, that has to be given a lot of thought because we don’t want to give up on energy conservation either.”


“One of the real challenges for all of this—and part of what we’ve learned from our experts—is rigorous scientific study takes time,” says Ross.


In addition to working with graduate school faculty at CUNY, the group is consulting with other experts who can inform the theater industry’s path forward, including researchers at MIT, Dr. Robby Sikka, vice president of Basketball Performance and Technology for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who is heading an NBA Coronavirus Study, and Andy Slavitt—a former healthcare head under the Obama administration, who hosts the weekly podcast, “In the Bubble,” dedicated to exploring the current pandemic with leading scientists, politicians and cultural icons.


Ross says his ultimate goal is to make theater and attending events no riskier than going to the supermarket.


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