Interview with Oleg Nazarov, Head of Technology, Chamber Opera Stage of Bolshoi Theatre

This is quite a complex interview. Collecting info on the theater staff community about their work during the pandemic, I talked with Oleg Nazarov, Head of Technology of the Chamber Opera Stage of Bolshoi Theatre, and technical director and administrator of the biggest Russian-speaking theater technical staff social networks community. What is going on today in Moscow theaters? Who works normally, which services have been switched to remote working?

Oleg Nazarov: All theaters in Moscow followed the orders that banned public events since March 23. However, some theaters followed various operational decisions for their employees.
First of all, the restrictions did not apply to the duty services responsible for building maintenance: engineering, fire and security services, the services providing cleaning and sanitization. Their work has not been changed, and for the deep cleaning services it even became more denser.
The second group of employees includes theater managers, repertoire staff departments, personnel departments employees, planning and financial services controlling payroll and ticket returns, legal departments monitoring contractors work. In some theaters the work of these services was performed in other ways but most of them switched to remote working.
The problem with the biggest group, consisting of the technical services specialists, actors and musicians, as well as the staff working with the audience, has also been resolved differently in various theaters: most of them adjusted the vacation periods of employees imposing planned and paid holidays. However, some theaters in the regions gave notice of termination of fixed-term contracts with more than 40% of staff and a massive “voluntary-compulsory” taking of unpaid vacation by employees .

We can already note quite important structural changes in the theater business caused by the pandemic:

– due to the lack of profit from ticket sales financing of theaters was decreased, which led to a reduction of new performances being produced, the freezing or cancelling of the theater reconstruction and re-equipment, reduction in staff payrolls and even dismissing of employees.

– sharp decline in specialists’ work costs due to the labor market situation; large cuts among the specialists of technical support in the event industry, film production and show business.

It also affected a large number of creative workers: directors, artists, designers, causing many of them to get involved in commercial projects with non-state financing.

– the uncertainty of when restrictions can be removed (which depends not on government decisions but on an unpredictable health situation) obliges theater managers to prepare for negative options of market development and even the most optimistic plans do not include a return to pre-lockdown levels of attendance and profit earlier than the end of next season (2021-2022).

– the complicated situation in the theaters as product markets, the dire consequences for the theater suppliers’ market: decorations and stage props workshops, and costumiers.

Mostly these are small commercial companies without financial reserves, so they have to leave the market due to lack of orders.

Thus, we lose the harmonious teams, production capacities and well-established production chains, and all this, of course, will have a big boomerang effect on theater production in the future.

At the moment, when the period of self-isolation is over and most previously planned reconstruction and re-equipment of theaters have been frozen in the face of sharp reduction in funding (the «Vakhtangov Theater» where very large-scale reconstruction works are ahead of schedule and the «Theater on Bronnaya» are welcome exceptions), the executives of each theater are facing the question of what work to fulfill in the preparatory period before opening the theater for the audience, and what to do with the troupe. Did you have to conduct any additional training for employees to switch them to remote working?

Oleg Nazarov: The origin of the state theater workflow often requires the physical presence of employees and continual signing of papers, so a lot has been done to create a remote workflow system that of course was an additional burden and required staff training. At the same time, due to lack of funding many advanced training programs for the stage technical personnel were curtailed.
We also see an explosive increase in the number of online broadcasts, conferences, workshops and even performances released online, that has already required and still require urgent training and equipping of the technical services responsible for them. Has it been possible to continue the equipment maintenance schedule during the pandemic? If so, who directs these activities?

Oleg Nazarov: Most theaters plan maintenance works in advance, every year in the same period of the “low season”.
In a situation of self-isolation these works required adjustment, due to reduction in funding and more complicated organization of interaction between theater staff and contractors. But in general most theaters carry out the necessary work on time. What exactly is being routinely checked, who maintains the equipment? Do service centers work?

Oleg Nazarov: Traditionally the checkup and maintenance works are being done on stage mechanisms, lighting, sound and video equipment for theatrical services. The most part of the contractors pool serving the equipment of each theater has not changed, and this market segment is going through the crisis quite successfully. In some cases these companies even have an increase of their work volume. That applies not only to domestic manufacturers but also the service centers of the worldwide brands representatives. After a slight hitch in the components supply in early April the situation returned to normal and now there is full access to the service. How is sanitization carried out in theaters today? What should we expect next season due to the lockdown?

Oleg Nazarov: Just the other day a detailed order was received for theatrical and concert, and circuses organizations in Moscow on the measures that must be followed during the work and the rehearsals before the audience is allowed access.

These measures imply a significant increase in the load of the cleaning services and require a review of most of the theater’s established production processes:

– compliance with a social distance of 1.5 meters, including the organization of workplaces, dressing room spaces, entrance areas and eating places. An exception is direct working interaction or participation in a rehearsal.

– compliance with the rules of wearing masks and gloves at work (except for actors and musicians taking part in rehearsals), cleaning hands with an antiseptic solution in make-up and dressing rooms after each contact, and every 2 hours for the rest of the theater staff. Organization of places for hands cleaning in each department and creation of a 5-day supply of protective equipment. Compliance with requirements for the disposal of these items.

– sanitizing of all contact surfaces (door handles, handrails, etc.) every hour, cleaning of the stage area, contact surfaces on the stage (microphones, props, costumes) after each rehearsal, utility rooms every three hours. Disinfection and cleaning of the ventilation system at least once a month and using the bactericidal lamps in each room.

– if possible, switching the employees to remote working, especially people aged over 65, mandatory body temperature check at the entrance of the theater and every three hours during the working day, planning the work schedules to avoid crowdings at the entrance, planning rehearsals and workshops to avoid the intersection of different teams.

Again, these measures are mandatory requirements to organize the work and rehearsals before the audience is admitted. They can be supplemented if the situation worsens, but even in this period a huge number of questions arise:

– How can we the work of musicians in an orchestra pit in a performance that is already set? What about the actors backstage? After all, we often have situations when, for example, a choir of several dozen people often have a quick costume change backstage…

– How to organize the rehearsal processes with several casts and one production group (when it’s not possible to conduct completely isolated rehearsals)?

– How will the audience be seated? Now we hear a lot about the experience of the “chequerwise order” in Europe, but we still have the entrances to the hall, cafe, restrooms, wardrobes (after all, winter is coming…).

We are sure that time will give answers to these questions, but at the moment we are only at the beginning … Webinars, courses, online schools: what and how can we learn now?

Oleg Nazarov: As already mentioned, one of the positive results of this worldwide pandemic had been the explosive growth of online contents including educational content. And the main thing is that now we have time to learn. Lots of schools were launched all over the world last month – even the brief overview of them would take the whole article.

However, I’ll talk about Russian projects which are worth paying attention to (they would be extremely useful for the theater technical staff):

– First of all, there’s “Theater PTU 8.0 Online”, a large-scale project of the biggest theater union, STD of the Russian Federation and the “Theater Center on Strastnoy”.

The project itself has a quite rich history starting in 2016. Its main point is to increase the professional level of theater technicians and technical directors.

Due to the extensive regional base of the Theater Union of the Russian Federation, the project immediately expand expanded to the federal level and each year 2 training sessions are held. Their participants pass a rigorous selection and come to Moscow from all over the country.

The training program is extremely tight. In two weeks the specialists gain knowledge in many professional disciplines, meet the representatives of leading global companies and world-class specialists, visit theaters and theater workshops in Moscow and build a professional communication network. But despite all of this the project has one “drawback”: low capacity caused by the complexity of the material.

30 people per year take part in the project. They are selected from 600-700 applications (the competition level of leading Moscow universities).

And then, when the next summer session was almost ready and the lucky ones were selected, the end of March came. We were close to cancelling this much-anticipated project but those days the fundamental turn was made: we decided to make the project open and free for everyone, without cutting the program.

At the moment (the project started on June 1 and will last until June 15) more than 25.000 people have watched the lectures on YouTube. And, since all of the live broadcasts are still available, it seems that this project will pave the way for similar initiatives in the future.

In addition, the lectures draw great attention to the tasks that lockdown conditions impose on technicians, and representatives of leading manufacturers speak about their innovations – this makes the project a kind of annual online review of the newest theater technologies and techniques.

Also, I’d like to note that in parallel with such a large-scale project the Theatre Union of the Russian Federation issues a huge number of online lessons on its channel, both on technical issues (for example, master classes for props) and on theatrical and pedagogical disciplines. Moreover, there are online conferences discussing hot topics.

– Many old online training centers provide the courses that may be useful for theater specialists experiencing increased demand during the pandemic. They expanded the range of programs and even lowered prices. I am talking about 3D design and visualization, the software development for light, video and sound controlling. All that can be learned without leaving home. I’m sure that those who subscribe to the training centers newsletters will receive a lot of offers.

– Talking of educational only projects, I would like to draw attention to a new and strong trend, organized literally “in the field”: professional conferences and increased interest in online networking.

One of the successful examples is creation of the professional community of stage managers on Facebook, which (literally in a week!) launched Zoom meetings with famous and honored directors to discuss standards and trends of professional development.

And don’t you forget about self-organization: meet with colleagues, identify the problems of your profession, look for solutions together.

– And, of course, one cannot fail to note the huge number of excellent online broadcasts and the performances of the largest world theaters, which, in addition to aesthetic pleasure, are also excellent material for studying technology, dramaturgy, visual effects and presentation of material for theater specialists in the regions.

Let’s ask ourselves honestly: when did we ever have the time and opportunity to watch the performances of the Metropolitan Opera every week? Has remote service organization ever been experienced before the pandemic?

Oleg Nazarov: Remote working opens great opportunities to reorganize activities, and good knowledge of this instrument leads to cost savings, increased productivity and adopting the best of international practices. Despite all these obvious advantages, remote work methods were rarely used in Russian theater production, and only in special technical issues.
It was practiced in creating video content or a sound recording for the performance with a remote artist.  But only the capital’s theaters could boast such solutions like doing most of the lighting design for the performance using visualization and going to the stage 90%. I hope that those methods that are now being adopted will remain in theaters’ arsenals in the future. Is there any information on theaters opening? What should be done to have them working as they did before? (or in some new way)

Oleg Nazarov: We all understand that the information about theater opening is primarily related to the public health situation that no one can predict. But in such complex structure as modern theater you can’t do without preliminary planning, so the dates that now can be heard at meetings converge around mid-September. But, again, this is very unreliable information which completely depends on the statistics of the disease.

The list of measures that can be taken also primarily depends on the instructions given by the authorities, but even today the strategic issues that the leaders of theaters can face are already clear and require solutions:

– How to optimize the production processes of the theater in conditions of reduced funding in compliance with mandatory requirements caused by a pandemic?

– How to optimize the staff schedule of technical services considering changes in the labour market?

– How to use the opened opportunities of online communication with the audience to carry out both creative and business tasks of the theater?

– and the most important question: how to achieve an influx of audience in conditions of low solvency of the audience and tough competition?

It seems that despite the complexity of the situation both in creative and technical terms now there are many opportunities. The increased demand for online interaction means new requests from the audience, and dialogue in this language will require development of new directorial techniques, new technologies and finally will lead to the emergence of new professions, as it always has throughout the whole history of the theater.

Dmitry Yasnikov
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