When we think about all the things we’ve lost in the last four months – the things that make living in New York so magical – the experience of a live performance is perhaps one of the most meaningful and sorely missed.

The debate over the what the future of theater looks like will continue for months to come, but it’s a pretty good bet that it might be something like this.

“Essentially, we will hold a live event series featuring Broadway Artists performing solo in a highly controlled space,” says Jeff Whiting, who has adapted his Times Square rehearsal space into a socially distanced theater. “The audience is in socially distant seating, with Plexiglas between each person, so you can come with your friends and feel as if you are together but in separate space to enjoy the show.

“It’s designed to allow us to enjoy the only live entertainment in NYC in a safe environment.”

“The show is also highly controlled,” he says. “Only a solo performer will perform and will be no closer than 20 feet from the closest audience member. The band is contained behind plexiglass as well.

“It’s designed to allow us to enjoy the only live entertainment in NYC in a safe environment.”

When Broadway went dark on March 12, Open Jar Studios lost all its business overnight. Jeff rapidly pivoted to employ the industry’s out-of-work stitchers to make vitally needed PPE, including hospital gowns. “We completed our order for New York City,” he says. “We did over 50,000 gowns for them, then all the real factories who normally do this kind of work caught up, our numbers in New York went down, so the need went away.”

But the rent still needs to be paid. So, as he took some time to focus on his core business – rehearsals – and how to make them healthy once theaters are back in business, he started asking the question: How can we be in the room safely together?

“We brainstormed this idea. We know the regulations – we have to be at 50% occupancy – but because we have these giant rooms, I thought we could create a space where we could all be safely in the same room, and yet experience live entertainment.

“So we’ve built these dividers and set up the tables to essentially create a socially distant concert venue. We can have about 75 guests watching the performance, and everybody’s essentially seated in their own little cubicle.”

The queue outside will be socially distanced, and guests will have their temperature taken as they arrive. “We’ll verify that they haven’t had symptoms, or they haven’t been exposed to anybody with symptoms for two weeks and that they haven’t traveled to any of the locations that are flooding right now. And masks stay on the entire time.

“Even as you exit, somebody will escort you to the elevator so that there’s no rush on the way out.”

The lineup hasn’t been made public yet, but he promises some “pretty major Broadway stars” in a nine-week series of concerts that will start mid-August, or as soon as indoor events are given the green light. Refreshments will be provided by what he describes as an airline-style beverage cart, through a partnership with the Pocket Bar, in Hell’s Kitchen. “It’ll be very simple. You could get a two-pack of champagne or a little box of popcorn. There will be no contact happening.”

Crucially, he’ll also be providing employment to the city’s unemployed artists. “All of us are craving live entertainment, and all of these artists are around and available,” he says. “So I thought, ‘Let’s connect those dots together and make this happen.’”

“My motto these days is just adapt and survive.”

He’s also revisiting the PPE project, and has designed a special face mask to be worn by singers. “The masks I’ve been wearing are so close to your mouth, and when you breathe in, you breathe in fabric,” he says. “And so I worked with Robin McGee, who’s a wonderful Broadway costume designer who was my head of production on the gowns. I said, ‘I have this idea. Can you help me figure out how to make it happen?’

“So she came up with a couple of prototypes and we chose one and went with it. It has structure in it that keeps the mask about two to three inches away from your mouth, allowing you to open your mouth completely. It keeps its form and it’s breathable. We put them on the market just over a week ago and they’ve been a huge hit. So we’re making them as fast as we possibly can.

“My motto these days is just adapt and survive,” he laughs.


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