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"The world hasn’t seen anything like this for 100 years"

John Harrison is a theatre maker and leads Westmead Hospital's Clinical Emergency Response Team. He has advice for the arts community that needs to be taken seriously.

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Category: Conversation
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Playing safe: COVID-19 and the Arts

Date: 23 Mar 2020

You may know John Harrison as co-artistic director of KXT/bAKEHOUSE theatre company in Kings Cross.

Perhaps you have seen his recent productions, including Visiting Hours and Coram Boy.

What you might not know is that John is also a health professional, an anaesthetist currently heading Westmead Hospital’s Clinical Emergency Response Team.

Speaking from the frontline of the COVID-19 crisis, John has advice for the performing arts community.

Key Points

Maintain distance, 1.5m or more, in performance and rehearsal.

Don’t share microphones or props.

Limit the amount of time spent together in an enclosed space.

Rethink your big cast live stream performance. Solo shows are the way to go.

John, what would you like to tell the performing arts community?

The first thing is to acknowledge the recently imposed restrictions are absolutely devastating for the arts, and the next six months – possibly the next 12 to 18 months – are going to be really hard for our community. And that’s a really distressing thing. But at the same time, the measures that have been put in place are 100 per cent necessary.

But we don’t need to panic.

Most people who become infected will experience a mild illness, will recover and will be fine. But we have to take the disease super-seriously.

Occasionally you’ll hear someone say, ’Why are we making such a big deal of this? It’s just the flu.’

It’s not just the flu. A regular flu doesn’t send a first-world country’s health system into total meltdown, as it has in Italy. The world hasn’t seen anything like this for 100 years.

Everyone has to play their part in containing the spread of COVID-19. Because if we don’t, we’ll get a huge explosion in cases, and our hospital system will be totally overwhelmed. Then you’ll see a situation like we have in Italy, where they don’t have enough ventilators for people who need them. And they are making some pretty tough choices about who gets a ventilator and who doesn’t. So we have to reduce the spread and #flattenthecurve

Is it OK to get together and rehearse a show to live-stream?

This is a tough one. I know the theatre community wants to find a way to continue telling stories and providing connection and comfort for the wider community at this difficult time. And things are changing so rapidly that what is acceptable one day is off the table the next.

As of now, non-essential services are being shut down, and while there still seems to be a lack of clarity around what that actually entails, the spirit of it seems to be trying to find a way to ensure people are not gathering together in situations where they can’t practice rigorous social distancing.

The virus is spread through droplets from coughing or sneezing. Or enunciating! Those droplets can land on someone’s face or their clothes or on props or surfaces. If you touch those droplets and then touch your eyes, nose or mouth, the virus can enter your body.

If you’ve got eight people in a small room, sharing a microphone or props, shouting and singing in each other’s faces, getting intimate in the way that only live performance can do, then I think it’s very hard to maintain that distance.

You might think it’s ok to do a show with five or so friends but you could spread the disease to someone or you could catch it from someone. And you will probably be fine, but then someone’s mum or someone’s grandma or older brother or sister could get really sick.

I don’t want to be the fun police but honestly, I think people should really think about whether it’s the right thing to do. Is it possible for a group of actors to do this safely? I don’t know.

What’s the maximum number of people, the minimum room size, the maximum time spent rehearsing or performing? I don’t have the answers to any of these, but we could be days or weeks away from the government saying we all have to stay in our homes, so I’m very reluctant to endorse this at the moment.

We have to think differently. If you want to live stream, maybe live stream a solo performance. Keep on top of the news and the current health advice.

Many in the arts community are young, in their 20s and 30s. What do they need to think about?

Our theatre community at KXT are some of the most socially sensitive, generous, good-hearted, ethical people who just want to do something good for the wider community. And I’m sure most of the indie venues would say that that’s almost standard across the community.

So I think there’s a lot of passion and a lot of desire to be contributing in a positive way to the community we live in. I would think the vast majority are taking the disease pretty seriously but to anyone who isn’t, I would say, please do take it seriously. Take care of each other. Stay in touch.

Hopefully, we’ll get to the end of six months, and we’ll be able to say, ‘well, that was rough six months where we weren’t able to do the things we wanted to do. But none of these took off and we didn’t see too many infections. And it all seems, you know, to pass us by reasonably well.’

That would be a great thing to be able to say. But everyone has to do their bit on a massive scale, and we are all going to have to make tremendous sacrifices.

What about kissing and hugging?

Stop it. Just stop it. Don’t be kissing and hugging. Because there’s a brief period before people get symptoms that they are able to transmit the disease. It could be 24 or 28 hours before you start getting symptoms.

If you pass it to a friend of yours, who’s also young, they might only get a mild disease, but then it might be their mum or their dad who ends up on a ventilator in intensive care. Also, I have to say it, it’s not just the elderly who are getting sick – there a 20 and 30-year-olds on ventilators as well.

Can you speak to the notion of ‘the show must go on’? Every performer is willing to push on even if they’ve got a sore throat or a sniffle. Do we need to reverse that kind of thinking?

Absolutely. Most indie actors or most actors in any form of theatre are really pretty familiar with going ahead when they’re not feeling 100 per cent or when they’ve got a cold or even a mild flu, and that strength and discipline is probably part of their life as a whole.

But while this crisis is happening, soldiering on when you’re sick is probably not the best thing. And that’s tough for people doing casual work. So many of our actors and our designers do different kinds of casual work, where if you don’t turn up to work, you’re not getting paid. But you must stay home.

We’ve heard of people taking a range of herbal supplements or gargles to feel better, does any of that work?

There’s really no home remedy, unfortunately, that will we’ll fight this one off.

But certainly keeping healthy by having a good diet, exercising regularly and getting good sleep will help your health anyway.

If you want to eat garlic or gargle something or take turmeric capsules, that’s ok. But the main advice is: wash your hands frequently; don’t touch your face; drink a lot of water; practice physical distancing and self-isolate.

It might be quite stressful if you get a cold. You might start wondering if you’re going to get worse and worse and start getting a fever. What if I start finding it difficult to breathe? I think that just adds huge stress to everyone’s life.

So yes, by all means, do what you can to reduce your symptoms and to reduce stress.

I know you’re not a mental health expert, but is there anything you’d like to say to the community about how we can care for ourselves and each other while we’re self-isolating?

Human contact is so important. Many of our community thrive on that contact and sharing with each other and telling stories, joking around and all that stuff. We will have to share a coffee with a bunch of people over Zoom. Or start a WhatsApp group or FaceTime each other.

We need to hear each other’s voices and to hear each other laugh. It’s a great source of comfort. Human contact is the main thing and exercising, keeping healthy and feeling good and energised is really great as well. I think cooking delicious food and just eating comfort food will get us through the long winter.

So to finish up, your main points?

The main things I want to say to the theatre community are:

Don’t Panic. Most people will get it and we’ll be fine. It will feel like we’ve had the flu or a very bad cold. It may take weeks to recover.

Take this seriously. These strict measures have really put a bomb through a lot of people’s lives. But the alternative is much worse.

We have a great health system. The public health officials in the infectious diseases teams are working super hard to try and contain the spread of the disease, which is the most important thing. And those guys are doing an amazing job. I hope they are doing it well enough that we end up like Singapore or South Korea.

If not, our hospitals are already planning for how to cope if we get overloaded. There are some really bright people, amazing people right on the front line of this who are doing a terrific job and we’ve got a wonderful health system.

We’ve seen the best responses and results in other countries, and we’ve seen the worst, and we don’t yet know where Australia will end up. We may or may not be ready, but we’re working very hard to be ready and, and hopefully, we’ll get through this.

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