Dr. Eric Bing, a global health expert, and Khris Beeson, an SMU graduate in dance, may make an unlikely duo. But together they are helping the Dallas Theater Center and the SMU Meadows School of the Arts create plans for safe production, rehearsals and performances in the face of COVID-19.
Though they have different areas of expertise, Bing and Beeson are not all that different. Their fields of science and art require innovative thinking and creativity, which are important now more than ever as people must navigate the world six feet apart from one another.
The shared energy of a live performance can’t be recreated at home. But the professor and the dancer hope their work will help preserve the emotional connection that can blossom between performers and the audience.
That way, artists can maintain a sense of purpose and identity during the pandemic. One challenge: Some ideas, though good for minimizing the virus spread, might inadvertently lead to injuries among the dancers.
Last spring, in her final semester at SMU, Beeson decided to take Bing’s “Creating Global and Public Health Impact” course on a friend’s advice. The course culminated in a business case competition: to brainstorm solutions for preventing the spread of COVID-19 at SMU and other colleges.
Bing is always excited when artists take his class. “I think that scientific research would be stronger if we attracted more artists,” he said. Dancers and other artists are valuable and effective team members whose creativity blooms when they get to solve problems as part of a group, he said.
As the pandemic escalated in North Texas, local cultural leaders were overwhelmed by the amount of COVID-19 information. Between the guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and different guidelines from both state and local governments, it can be hard to figure out what information to follow.
The staff at the Dallas Theater Center wanted feedback from medical professionals on their reopening plan for administrative and production staff. The center’s officials approached Bing, and he sent a call-out to his class, asking for help. Beeson jumped at the chance.
The Dallas Theater Center sent its guidelines to Bing and Beeson, and the team provided some suggested changes over Zoom. “The main thing that they [Bing and Beeson] stressed to us is to follow the science and not necessarily what the state and government is allowing,” said Andrea Somers, director of people operations at the Dallas Theater Center.
Bing and Beeson used CDC guidelines and local health data to inform their suggestions. And Beeson’s experience with backstage areas helped the duo provide clear recommendations for dressing room safety guidelines.
Artists tend to leave their belongings in the dressing rooms between performances. Beeson suggested artists take their belongings home to encourage social distancing before, during and after performances.
Bing and Beeson also suggested safety guidelines for the production shop floor, “essentially a construction site for building and painting sets,” said Somers. The pair examined a floor plan and brainstormed with the center’s staff on ways to reconfigure machinery in the space to keep workers spread out.
For SMU Meadows, Bing and Beeson brainstormed how to create safe options for live music, dance and theater performances by students. SMU plans to host in-person performances in the spring semester, said Samuel Holland, the Algur H. Meadows Dean at SMU Meadows.
Bing and Beeson considered significantly cutting the audience capacity at all live events at SMU and streaming performances for those who can’t attend in person. SMU Meadows already has the equipment to livestream its performances across multiple platforms like Facebook and YouTube. “We had been in the process of building the technological infrastructure to livestream with high definition audio and visuals… but the pandemic has accelerated that move,” said Holland.
The Dallas Theater Center also hopes to livestream some of its performances when actors return, if the budget allows, said Jeffrey Woodward, the center’s managing director. In late November, The Dallas Theater Center plans to put on its production of A Christmas Carol, said Woodward.
Both institutions recognize that virtual performances are vastly different from in-person experiences for audience members and performers. As a dancer, Beeson, who recently moved to New York, empathizes with performers struggling to make the transition online. “You connect with the audience differently live versus over Zoom,” she said. “When you are virtual, you do not get this energetic connection” between performers and audience members, she said.
Through videos and livestreams, people across the globe can watch performances from the safety of their homes. So not only are video performances a safer option, but livestreams could also broaden the audiences watching the performances.
Outdoor performances are another alternative to traditional stage performances that might mitigate the spread of COVID-19, said Beeson. Artists can stay further apart and air can circulate more freely outside.
But artists would have to deal with the Dallas weather — and especially hot summers — for their performances, she said. Even on a nice day, the sound might not travel the same as it does indoors. And according to experts, there can be a greater risk of injury when performing or rehearsing outdoors.
“If you do a lot of jumping [outdoors], you will get a lot of shin splints,” said Dr. Sherine Reno, a physical therapist at Performance Sports Medicine in Dallas.
Dancers, in particular, train on sprung floors that have foam underneath them to absorb shock upon landing. If they start dancing on hard or uneven surfaces without carefully preparing their bodies they will get injured, she said.
Movements will have to be modified for safety whether indoors or outdoors. Performers might be further apart and they might not be able to interact with their spaces or each other like they’re used to.
Bing believes that artists, like Beeson, can help scientists during the pandemic. “The arts can help us [scientists] be more creative, to figure out solutions that we hadn’t thought about,” he said. “Together we can do amazing things, but we need to talk to people who don’t think like we do.”
Gina reports on science for The Dallas Morning News as part of a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science.