MOT installs deck over first-floor seats for social distancing

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

It's a dilemma confronted by theaters and concert halls alike -- when live, indoor performance finally returns, how do you create social distancing between audience members?

Seizing an unusual solution, Michigan Opera Theatre revolutionized its first-floor seating at the Detroit Opera House by installing a 5,300-square-foot deck on top of the rows of 1,200 seats.

Amusingly, the deck acts as a reversible floor. On one side it's carpeted, on the other it's black fiberglas.

From left, Assistant sound engineer Henry Ruiz, light board operator Matt Berg, assistant carpenter Bruce James and Douglas Cook place a deck piece at the Michigan Opera Theatre at the Detroit Opera House in Detroit on Aug, 18, 2020. Planning for a limited reopening of live performance at some point in the future, the Michigan Opera Theatre is installing a 5,300 square foot wooden deck over the first-floor audience seats, creating a large space for tables and chairs for patrons.

Dan Brinker, technical director for MOT and the Opera House, explains.

"When we want the sound dampened, we use the carpet side," he said. "When we set up a  band or bandstand, we use the fiberglas."

The deck, manufactured by the StageRight Corp. in Clare, will be familiar to anyone who's attended MOT's annual gala fundraiser, "Bravo! Bravo!", when they erect it to create a broad floor guests can stroll around on.

Formerly, the opera company just rented the deck, which is assembled very much like scaffolding, from Levitation Staging in Grand Rapids. But with the pandemic curtailing performances, the Levitation owners, Brinker says, decided to liquidate.

From left, Mike "Chuckles" Hill talks with technical director Dan Brinker at the Michigan Opera Theatre at the Detroit Opera House in Detroit on Aug, 18, 2020.

MOT acted fast and purchased 9,100-square-feet of deck for just under $200,000. "The question was presented to the board's finance committee," he said, "and one of our board members just came forward and offered to help us with the purchase."

What's up with the extra 4,000 square feet? The decking over the seats is 18 inches higher than the Opera House stage. The additional square footage, Brinker says, will allow the floor to be extended across the stage itself when necessary.

If you think this all sounds big, you're right. The whole system reportedly filled three semi trucks. When not in use at some point in the future, it will be stored in an off-site warehouse.

And just how does the deck, which took about a full day to install, suspend itself over the 1,200 orchestra seats?

From left, Light board operator Matt Berg and assistant sound engineer Henry Ruiz prepare to place from stagehands Eric Rhodes and Kyle Krystyan at the Michigan Opera Theatre at the Detroit Opera House in Detroit on Aug, 18, 2020.

"There’s a support structure underneath that utilizes a system of legs very similar to how we construct scaffolding," Brinker said. "You’ve got the ladder pieces and the cross pieces." Eight rows of decks, each eight feet across, then sit on top of that apparatus.

And it's strong. "We can pretty much occupy the deck to standard occupancy rates," he said.

Currently, indoor "events" are limited to 10 people But at some point, Brinker added, "those restrictions will loosen, perhaps first to 50 people, and then 250, and then up to half capacity," which would be 600 patrons.

The deck allows for maximum flexibility. Groups of seats can be well distanced from one another, or tables could be set up for small groups to congregate around.

So whenever live performance returns, the Opera House deck will be waiting to accommodate all comers.

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