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Is there a great big “vertical” tomorrow?

By making COVID-19 adaptations the new normal for attractions, we risk losing the benefits of shared experiences in the future

vertical theatre

By Eddie Sotto

I recently saw this innovative design for a new COVID-19 aware “vertical theatre”, incorporating social distancing and streaming. It is a good and well-intentioned solution, taking a multi-tiered page from Shakespeare’s Globe to achieve distancing. It’s “futureproof” claim, however, gave me pause.

As a society are we potentially normalizing the hospital-inspired COVID-19 social distancing that has robbed us of those precious shared experiences? Are we giving in too soon?

Instead of seeing our future as something to settle for, perhaps we’re not valuing shared experiences high enough in order to bring us back together? What do we give up by doing this? Vaccines help immensely but do not fully eliminate distancing and masks, so shouldn’t the goals of truly future-proofing be about bringing the audience back together?

In a post-COVID world, can a shared experience be inclusive even of those who, for one reason or another, arrive unvaccinated? Will variant strains just delay inclusion? Perhaps future proof means an instant screening process that protects the entire audience from both COVID-19 and its variants? People have been conditioned to be wary and venues will need to convince us of inclusive safety to draw us back.

Why restore shared experiences after COVID-19?

If society is anything like a relationship, does growing apart precede a breakup? After all, there is a reason solitary confinement is seen as a punishment. Just ask the Man with the Iron Mask.

Imagine this. You’re at a crowded event only to see an anxious family in search of several seats just before showtime. Instead of watching them vainly pace, we all slide over just a little, so they can join us as the curtain is going up. I’m sure we’ve all done that and felt reassured ourselves that, although they were total strangers, we made a difference.

Vertical theater shared experience COVID
© Vertical Theatre Group

Continuing to have shared experiences in the wake of COVID-19 is vital. By having these experiences, we practice “making room” for humanity and that reassures us. Sharing experiences can appeal to our better nature, and by so doing dignifies everyone.

The inverse is a future where there is no social experiment. One where we are sealed like cold cuts on a rack behind plastic dividers, no smile to break the ice.  I, for one, don’t want to settle for that and insist on raising the level of safety to earn a maskless future, versus being reckless.

A long time ago in a theme park far far away

As a former Disney Imagineer, I know how hard immersive worlds are to create. That suspension of disbelief can be so fragile. The scale, colours, shape, language, music and even the smile of a cast member are critical details. These all work together to convey a story or premise to an exponential result. They are all part of a unified sensory experience created and designed to bring people together to watch the fireworks, hug a character, or cheer on a hero.

Star Wars characters
© Disney

Experiences are painstakingly tuned to the point where the guest may not even be conscious of every detail. But they sense the seamless effect of reassurance. 

When too many of those details are undermined or out of sync, as they are in a COVID-19 retrofit, they distract from the escape of the shared experience. It would be like seeing Jedi Knights in a lightsaber battle, six feet apart and wearing white N95 masks in a Star Wars film. The logic of that world falls apart and we are reminded we are in the real world.

How we get there

The answer could be to screen only well guests into a bubble of safety. A place where they will not feel compelled to wear a mask or be distanced. Not out of defiance, but out of reassurance that they are in a safe space.

Imagine a near-instant screening checkpoint that knows if those around you (regardless of showing symptoms) are contagious with the virus and, even more importantly, can also sense a variant or mutation of the virus. That is futureproofing, no?

vertical theatre
© Vertical Theatre Group

Now you feel safe to be closer in line or to sit in a theatre. Safe to laugh and enjoy a shared experience as we used to, before COVID-19. Vaccines help narrow the odds, but now even those who did not take one can be there.

We are testing an all-digital, highly accurate entry process now to do just that. So, we are excited to bring that out soon. We are looking for operators to help us do time and motion studies to test the capacity and efficiency of this new breakthrough method that restores full capacity.

Whatever the future holds, we should not settle long term to accommodate hospital practices, but rather to dream bigger and push technology to help us ensure a new normal that appeals to our collective better nature. Sharing is socially healthier than isolating. 

Top image © Vertical Theatre Group

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Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto

Eddie Sotto, former SVP of Concept Design at Disney Imagineering now runs SottoStudios, a turn-key entertainment design and experiential R&D firm. He also recently formed the group to address the need for COVID-19 variant screening.

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