Here’s how Toronto is getting ready for the return of live shows

Masks, social distancing, no-frills productions, timed entry and exits – it's all outlined in the new #Lights-On reopening guide


Samuel Engelking

It’s a dire time for live entertainment in Toronto. With a second lockdown looming, it might get worse before it gets better.

Theatre, dance and comedy productions are mostly relegated to YouTube and Zoom, while concerts are adapting to livestreams. Music venues – which were already in a precarious situation before the COVID-19 pandemic – are sitting dark and empty. Or at least those that haven’t pulled the plug already.

Rather than sit and wait, there are things that venues and artists can do to get ready.

Enter #Lights-On, a new guide to rebuilding the live event scene.

“The reality is, we’re less in control of our destiny than ever as an industry,” says Chris Gibbs, chair of Ryerson University’s Creative Industries program in the Faculty of Community & Design. “But that doesn’t mean there’s nothing we can do. If anyone has the structure and capacity to return safely, it’s us.”

Gibbs launched #Lights-On along with Ryerson FCAD professor Louis-Etienne Dubois and Shawn Newman from the Toronto Arts Council. It’s an industry-wide project, which also includes people from TO Live, SOCAN, the City of Toronto, Canadian Stage, Toronto Alliance for the Performing Arts, Harbourfront Centre, Terragon Theatre and more.

They developed the guide after speaking to 34 venue operators and music industry professionals about their unique struggles, reading other published guidebooks and prognostications, studying reopening frameworks and emergency orders at various levels of government and watching case studies from other countries.

The resulting #Lights-On guidebook is extremely comprehensive. It covers everything from venue communication to contact tracing, how to handle hair and makeup to updating buildings’ HVAC systems to best control airflow. One of the most important recommendations is for venues to appoint a dedicated full-time COVID-19 coordinator to oversee all the new safety procedures.

The guide is exhaustive but by no means final.

“When we started this project there were one or two guides to reopening,” says Gibbs. “Now there are 40 or 50. And that’s because everything keeps changing.”

#Lights-On will constantly adapt based on the latest science and legal allowances.

“There are a lot more careful considerations than just putting on a mask.”

What will concerts look like when they return?

Because the COVID situation keeps changing, Gibbs is wary of predicting when events will return to “normal.” But he does have thoughts on what concerts and other live events might look like in the social distancing age.

For starters, if you want to use theatre or music as an escape from the pandemic, he says, you’re likely going to have to put that aside. One of the first things to do will be to build trust that audiences will be safe.

“That means you can’t hide the cleaning staff anymore,” he says. “That will be one of the first things you see when you walk in the door. Someone will scan your tickets and then you’ll see someone cleaning.”

Masks, too, will need to be a major part of the show. They’ll be handed out at the door or available for sale at the merch table – even implemented into shows themselves. (Soon you’ll be collecting special artist masks like you do band t-shirts.)

You’ll likely have to go through some type of screening procedure, possibly using your mobile phone. Seats will be spaced out and you’ll be mandated to wear a mask.

Ticketmaster is reportedly developing a plan to check fans’ vaccination status once a vaccine is widely available, and that’s predictably already raised the ire of anti-vaxxers. Anti-maskers, too, might try to push back against mask mandates.

There are people who can’t wear masks or are excepted, but the #Lights-On guide specifies that “while it is not necessary for a person to present evidence that they are entitled to any of the exceptions, any patron or worker who refuses to wear a face mask when required should be asked to leave the venue.”

Seating will be socially distanced and there could be timed and staggered entrances and exits as well. You may have to wait your turn to leave after a show is over.

There will be fewer intermissions and breaks. “You don’t want more opportunities for people to get up and move around and come into contact with each other,” says Gibbs. For music, that could mean the end of multi-band bills.

Expect more stripped-down or no-frills productions, too, with less staging and production. Venues will have to operate at much lower capacity, which means costs will have to be lower. It’ll be costlier in the long run to skimp on safety to increase sales margins rather than to do things by the book.

Samuel Engelking

Four Seasons Centre went red on September 22 to spotlight event workers.

Uniquely qualified to turn the #Lights-On

When indoor theatre, comedy and music was briefly allowed to return under Stage 3 in the summer, indoor audiences were limited to 50 people. Toronto is about to enter a new lockdown, which will mean no concerts or stage shows at all.

Under the new colour-coded reopening framework, once we enter the orange “Restrict” phase, “organized public events” like concerts will be limited to 50 people indoors and 100 people outdoors. Religious services, weddings and funerals, however, will be allowed to operate up to 30 per cent capacity indoors.

Many venue operators, like Horseshoe Tavern owner Jeff Cohen, wonder why live events are treated differently from churches – some of which have been the causes of superspreader events across the continent. Gibbs does too. (One reason could be alcohol, but there’s not much mention of it in the #Lights-On guide.)

“The province has not treated the live entertainment community equally with other sectors,” he argues. “These places are actually uniquely qualified to run events safely. There’s already a controlled entrance and exit, there are already supervised attendants and ushers. They’ve been in the business of controlling crowds forever, they just need the opportunity to do it again.”

Let’s get digital

There’s another element to #Lights-On: education.

While venues have been closed and shows have been virtually impossible, artists have had to find new ways to survive in their fields. In music, artists have been relying more and more on live revenue while royalties have shrunk.

“It used to be you’d make money from ticket sales, and while you were touring you’d make money from selling t-shirts and records,” Gibbs says. “There used to be one or two different revenue streams and now there’s something like 17.”

Future of Live Entertainment, or FOL!E, is a new partnership between Ryerson’s FCAD and Cirque du Soleil to help artists and people in the live events business pivot in this strange new world without live shows. It includes five different tracks, including revenue streams, digital content creation, audience cultivation and socially distant performance arts.

There will soon be a program supported by SOCAN that will see 10 or 15 musical artists or bands matched with student interns for a “digital project.” That could be developing a website, increasing streams or clicks in music distribution services, setting up a TikTok account, starting a livestream series – just about anything. The goal is to “help artists become more digital.”

“Artists are artists and they need time to create,” says Gibbs. “They don’t need to be sitting there making Facebook statuses. And is Facebook even the right place for them to be focusing their attention? We want to help them figure that out.”

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