COVID-19 has impacted every industry on the planet. But live music and theater, in particular, have taken a hit. As large concert venues shuttered and artists stayed home instead of touring, Pollstar projected that 2020 shutdowns cost the global concert business $40 billion in revenue.
But a new startup, founded by industry vets, hopes to save live performance even during pandemics. Called the Vertical Theater Group, the company’s mission is to launch touring performances, which travel town to town almost like a circus. Instead of bringing a tent, they bring a pop-up, prefabricated theater, which mandates social distance by design.
The building itself is designed by Stufish Entertainment Architects, which has crafted tour stages for everyone from Monty Python to Beyoncé. Its core premise is to turn nearly every seat into a private balcony, squeezing groups of 4 to 12 people into each pod, adding up to a max capacity of 2,400. The floor level could be seated with six feet of social distance, or packed tighter if and when a pandemic isn’t our chief concern. The structure is made to adapt to acceptable densities over time.
Meanwhile, fresh air constantly flows in through its open-walled design (the structure can be wrapped during winter, but it’s more of a three-seasons design at heart), and a simple roof protects from rain. None of these eliminate the risk of contracting COVID-19, of course.
What is this entire structure actually made from? There are two versions in the works, explains Ric Lipson, partner at Stufish Entertainment Architects, over email. The first version uses off-the-shelf scaffolding and trusses to construct the entire structure. That approach may be less odd than it sounds, as large building projects often rely upon secure, temporary scaffolding to both balance walls and allow workers to access high reaches of a project. And architects have experimented with scaffolding as a material for some time. The second version of the structure would be mass-produced through custom, steel fabrication. It would be more ideal for longer-lasting installations and could offer “a different quality of experience,” according to Lipson—however, going in that direction will require enough funding to make it possible. The company plans to produce both designs.
In either case, setting up the large structure would take time—roughly two weeks. And disassembling it would take a week after performances were done. That means a single structure couldn’t keep up with any artist’s national road tour. But it’s easy to imagine the venue, once built, housing several events in rapid succession, including concerts, plays, circuses, and sports such as boxing.
As of now, the Vertical Theater Group is raising money to realize the project and is in talks with investors and partners to launch. And while it seems hard to believe that these theaters could possibly be finished and touring before America vaccinates much of the population, the company does demonstrate how a lot of businesses are thinking today: We may soon have COVID-19 on the ropes, but that doesn’t mean its impact, on both our personal health and our psyches, will simply change overnight. We need to build more resilient companies that are ready to adapt.