Read: A quite possibly wonderful summer
“What we’ve learned this past year is you just have to try things, which is quite counter to how the performing arts have really functioned in the past,” Leah Johnson, the head of communications at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, told me. In a normal year, Lincoln Center would be programming its 2022 schedule at this point. Instead, it’s announcing new concerts month by month, starting with a few small shows in April, all outdoors, on 10 stages built to allow for maximum flexibility in crowd sizes. As the restrictions on gatherings are lifted, the concerts will get bigger. “The notion is to expand and shrink accordingly,” Johnson said.
The wisdom of this approach became apparent shortly after we spoke, when Governor Andrew Cuomo abruptly changed New York’s rules to allow crowds of up to 20 percent of an outdoor venue’s normal capacity rather than a hard cap of 200. For a place such as Yankee Stadium, that meant more than 10,000 fans could now show up. Lincoln Center was prepared for the jump. “If the guidance began to change and open up a little bit, we wanted to be ready,” Johnson told me. “Whatever the number of people, we would be ready.”
Lincoln Center isn’t the only place emphasizing flexibility. Upstate, the Saratoga Performing Arts Center is planning for scenarios in which its amphitheater is 10 percent full (giving availability bias its due) all the way up to full capacity (“really rocking”). “We are ready to pull the trigger the moment the government gives us the green light,” Elizabeth Sobol, the organization’s president and CEO, told me. “If all of a sudden you no longer have to socially distance, great: We’ll sell a lot of tickets. So we’ve got to have that scenario ready.”
Sobol helped put together a coalition of New York arts organizations, including Lincoln Center, the Public Theater, and the Classical Theatre of Harlem, to petition the governor for as much warning as possible about any changes in restrictions. After all, the time required for casting, rehearsals, and advance ticket sales puts a limit on how nimble they can be. The coalition has been speaking every Friday since January to coordinate its efforts. One answer it was trying to get from the state was whether performers might be able to forgo social distancing even if audience members could not. Most ballets, for instance, would be impossible. “You can socially distance an orchestra,” Sobol said, “but how do you socially distance a pas de deux?”
The coalition’s weekly meetings provide a forum to address practical concerns about reopening, but they also allow members to reassure one another that they aren’t acting recklessly to even consider it. Availability bias is difficult to shake off, especially when the recent past is punctuated by strong feelings such as dread and grief. “The world in our heads is not a precise replica of reality,” the economist Daniel Kahneman wrote. Our expectations “are distorted by the prevalence and emotional intensity of the messages to which we are exposed.” A year of thinking about the pandemic can make thinking about anything else impossible.