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New California guidelines clear the way for pop-up outdoor theater and music

The planned outdoor stage in the parking lot of the Fountain Theatre is shown in a rendering
An artist’s rendering of the outdoor stage to be erected in the parking lot of the Fountain Theatre in L.A.
(The Fountain Theatre)

California theater companies hoping to take a big step up out of a deep pandemic pit got some welcome news from the state Department of Public Health, which has issued a long-awaited list of guidelines clearing the way for live theater, music and other performances to resume this summer outdoors.

The new guidelines allow for pop-up outdoor stages — perhaps set up in a parking lot — as long as they have assigned seating with fixed or marked locations allowing for six feet of distance between audience members. Advance reservations are required, and entry and exit points must be monitored closely to prevent crowding.

The guidelines address outdoor venues that are “a permanent and fixed facility, focused around a stage round, field court, or other central area designed primarily for viewing entertainment or athletics by an audience OR a defined and demarcated outdoor area.” The venues must be open air, and barriers must provide at least 12 feet between audiences and the stage or performance area.

Before these guidelines were issued Friday evening, arts groups lacked guidance on outdoor pop-up performance spaces that did not have fixed seating. The existing rules applied only to established outdoor venues such as the Hollywood Bowl, leaving arts organizations wondering if and how they could stage shows in places like patios, parks and parking lots.

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That included the Fountain Theatre, which had announced that it had received permission from the city of L.A. to build a stage on its parking lot, and was angling to present the L.A. premiere of Brandon Jacobs-Jenkins’ “An Octoroon.”

Under the expanded guidelines, capacity remains the same: 20% capacity for counties in the state’s red tier of COVID-19 restrictions, 33% for counties in the orange tier, and 67% for yellow. In the red and orange tiers, only in-state spectators are allowed.

Los Angeles and Orange counties are expected to move from the red tier to orange on Wednesday.

As groups move forward with plans for socially distanced summer performances, small theaters with little funding still worry they will have trouble securing an outdoor space. And the return indoors — whenever that might happen — will likely start with significant capacity limits that make producing shows financially impossible for many organizations.

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