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Safety: Forging a New Role – Santa Fe Opera’s COVID Compliance & Safety Manager Mike VanAartsen

Michael S. Eddy • June 2021Safety • May 25, 2021


This story can be read by clicking the image above, or reading below or in our June 2021 digitial edition

Santa Fe Opera plans to open its 2021 season on July 10, 2021. As a part of this reopening effort, the health and safety of its audience, staff, and artists are its highest priority. The company’s current reopening protocols are being developed in collaboration with public health officials, experts in epidemiology and sanitization, and its local hospital partner CHRISTUS St. Vincent. As a part of this safety focus, they have added a full-time COVID compliance & safety manager, Mike VanAartsen, to its staff.

Santa Fe Opera’s general director Robert K. Meya states, “The Santa Fe Opera needed someone who could reach across all departments in developing protocols for a safe reopening. Mike’s appointment as the COVID-compliance and Safety Manager is part of our evolving strategy for protecting the health of all who visit and work at the Santa Fe Opera. After everything we have lived through this past year, the arts, and in particular the experience of live music, will be more important than ever before. It is with this goal in mind that we are preparing for our 2021 Season.”

In early January, VanAartsen moved to Santa Fe from Connecticut where he recently completed coursework with Yale School of Drama’s technical design and production program with particular focus on life safety, public health, and crisis management. His thesis, entitled “Is There a Plan for That: Disaster and Crisis Response Planning for Theaters and Events” aligns well with Santa Fe Opera’s reopening work. VanAartsen has 19 years of experience in the performing arts industry and holds certifications in first aid, mental health first aid, crowd management, OSHA-30 and 10. He has completed additional training with the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), World Health Organization (WHO), the American Red Cross, and the Event Safety Alliance. VanAartsen is passionate about creating safe spaces for artists to do their best work. We recently spoke with him about his new role at the Santa Fe Opera and considerations other theater companies should take into account for their safe reopenings. 

Describe your role as COVID compliance & safety manager for the Santa Fe Opera.
I would say the goals are to collaborate, resource, support, and occasionally inspire. In practice, I helped to support and lead the development of the Santa Fe Opera COVID safe protocols book and manual. Flexibility in planning is a big part of that and we are making updates and changes as needed. Also providing training to all staff on best practices. Working one-on-one with different departments to develop those protocols. We want to make sure that we’re applying protocols that are effective to an individualized work experience down to the details of their traffic patterns or what their specific job is or specific fears that that individual may have around their day-to-day activities. My role is generally collaborating with department heads and ensuring that the protocols we have in place are working. But we’ve really taken an educational approach to resource people with the information that they need for protection. Also orchestrating and implementing our COVID-19 testing program. Serving as the primary liaison with the community health experts, our COVID-19 test providers, PPE vendors, etc. 

As you approach your re-opening, give us some considerations and adjustments that you’ve made, not just on the audience side, but really looking more backstage in production in those processes.
It is about flexibility; we continue to evaluate and plan through conversation and dialogue with each team. Talking through changes that need to be made. We’ve reduced our season from five shows to four, and we have clear guidance. The AGMA [American Guild of Musical Artists] playbook has been a great resource. With the most recent updates, it gives really clear detail to follow. For us it is about making reductions where we can, addressing staging where we need to, and having plans and contingency plans. So having an A, B, C, D, or E plan that would allow for us to change direction if there’s a change in direction of the pandemic. And that’s positively or negatively as far as case and vaccination numbers.

Give me one thing that people may tend to forget about, in terms of addressing safety for COVID.
I would say mental health resources. The pandemic had a devastating impact on this industry and what that means to an entity versus an individual can be drastically different. So, what is important for those continuing to work or returning to work, is finding resources and opportunities to support mental health in addition to physical wellbeing or COVID safety. But mental health is a huge aspect around dealing with COVID.

I know that Behind the Scenes has been doing a lot of work with mental health. Are there any other groups that you look to for mental health resources?
For us, we are looking through our EAP (Employee Assistance Program) services and working directly with health providers that we have, trying to build and expand that, to allow coverage for seasonal employees and their families in addition to our year-round staff.

We are really trying to build on that and then knowing and providing links and resources if someone’s having a crisis in any way. The suicide and substance abuse hotlines, knowing the resources so no matter what the circumstances, it is about having some resource to direct them to, or support them with.

What are some considerations and challenges that you would suggest other companies consider as they look to re-open their theaters?
I think the lead on that would still be not to forget the mental health aspect. But overall, I would suggest looking for the resources and collaborations available locally and regionally. I know for us creating a collective voice in the industry is really important for change. We’re a member of the New Mexico State Performing Arts Coalition. This is a collective arts and performing arts organization throughout New Mexico that’s just been a really incredible resource. The Performing Arts Readiness project has some trainings around disaster and emergency preparedness. The Event Safety Alliance has some good resources for people if they’re just starting to make plans. A few more specific suggestions would be evaluating and updating ventilation, putting universal practices in place, resourcing your team, educating your team around the resources and essential behaviors. Then it is about finding different ways to communicate the importance of the measures you have in place, communicating what your practices are to the staff, your team, and the community. And it’s looking at following the guidance of CDC, the state guidance, and erring on the side of safety. That is what I would recommend.

Tell me how your Yale technical design and production program training informs your new role?
The first thing that comes to mind is that I had some incredible mentors in safety there. Anna Glover, who’s their current safety director, and then Bill Reynolds, who recently retired from that role. Bill also recently published a book on theater safety. [See page 32 for information on Reynold’s book, Safety and Health for the Stage]. Also, making connections with some of the guest speakers at Yale. I was also able to take independent studies with Yale’s Office of Emergency Management and I did coursework with the Yale School of Public Health. The practices that I came into that program with— of collaboration and recognizing the role of equity, diversity, and inclusion in safety, are better informed having gone through that program.

You mentioned the Event Safety Alliance. What are some other organizations that help inform you and your work?
The CDC and the World Health Organization, their resources are updated daily. The local and regional department of health, the governor’s office here has been a great resource. They put out COVID-safe practices specifically to address certain situations. Specifically, for my position here, those have a played a key role. Then some of the other training through Art Equity, their safety, equity, inclusion, and activism work has been really informative and supportive in the ways that I’ve been able to operate here. Nicole Brewer’s Conscientious Theatre Training is another great resource. I mentioned Performing Arts Readiness project earlier, which is really circling around disaster and emergency preparedness training and resources, does have some good resources. And then, as an individual coming up in the industry, USITT and KCACTF both made a huge impact on my career with the skillsets and resources they both offer.

One of the things that the Events Safety Alliance did for me this year, and USITT and KCACTF have done in the past, are offer resources to make connections with others in the field, share resources and learning opportunities. By building those kinds of community relationships, you learn about different coursework and certifications, as well as additional trainings that you can take regarding any specific interest.

Talk more about the inclusion and equity considerations of safety.
Someone’s lived experience informs their feeling and their experience around safety. Different messaging can happen within different communities and trying to respect that and understand that there are barriers that need to be overcome. I have to recognize that in my position, I’m a cis white male presenting individual and what that can mean. Acknowledging that within the communities, as I’m having these conversations and leading trainings. So really trying to just acknowledge and make space for the language, the information, and the space for anti-racism within safety and what that means for people’s comfort.

What drew you to theater safety?
One of the big draws is it supports every aspect of the theater. So having a kind of broad spectrum of interest in all the various sides. Whether artistic or technical, even the facilities side, safety is a part of every one of those conversations. It’s a way to apply a broad skillset and a broad background into one kind of position and it’s ever changing.

Yes, that’s the beauty of theater—no two days are ever alike. And we have now learned the same is true for public health.
Yes, very much so! No day is the same, and I enjoy that. 

Any other thoughts that you’d like to mention as our industry comes back to work?
The key is flexibility. Flexibility in planning; being open and honest and collaborative with each other. We want people to get back to work and people want to be back working, so how do we support that safely and with the lowest risk? I would say it is important for everybody to have open and honest dialogue. That’s the space where change can be made, by speaking up. A lot of times, we won’t know that there’s a concern unless it’s mentioned. So, if there are concerns for that individual’s safety or the safety of others, bring notice to it when you can. Safety is an active and collaborative act.

Further information from the Santa Fe Opera on Health and Safety: www.santafeopera.org/health-and-safety/  

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