The future of theater – by a Broadway insider
BY ADAM REI SIEGEL
The magic of the theater will always be a shared human experience, but right now it’s difficult to envision a future where we can all huddle together again as the curtains open.
As an industry which supports more than 96,000 jobs and adds $14.7 billion to the New York economy, Broadway is understandably eager to return to its glory and, in the meantime, can benefit by looking outward at other examples of theater remaining resilient during these turbulent times – from only performing one-person shows, to removing rows of seating and moving the box office outside.
First, let’s review the facts.
2019 was a stellar year for the Great White Way. It grossed $1.8 billion last season and attracted a record 15 million people. But on March 12, The Broadway League officially announced that “all Broadway shows in New York City will suspend all performances immediately in support of the health and well-being of the theatregoing public.”
It added that performances were due to commence the week of April 13, 2020. However, this was recently amended, with an announcement this week that refunds were now being offered for shows until September 6, 2020.
However, many insiders believe it will be much longer before our theaters reopen – producer Cameron Mackintosh believes it may not even happen before 2021.
Meanwhile, there are some fascinating examples of domestic and international performing arts communities responding to changing health standards and government policies.
In Pittsfield, MA, the Barrington Stage Company has adapted their season to focus on one-person shows and performances that can easily accommodate social distancing such as Arthur Miller’s The Price. BSC will also implement various changes to the way the theaters are run: no intermissions (with an intent to reduce the need for bathroom lines), no matinees (to ensure enough time for disinfecting), and the box office will be moved outside.
The theater itself will undergo a change, as 70% of the seats will be removed, including every other row, and more entrances will be created to minimize contact between patrons and ushers.
As of May 18, Austria will become one of the first European countries where theater troupes are permitted to return to rehearsal, as long as performers stay at least three feet apart unless masks or face coverings are worn.
It’s worth noting that these government-mandated restrictions also apply to workplaces like offices and stores, which must comply with an additional rule dictating that a room can only hold one person per 215 square feet of space. Martin Kusej, artistic director of the prestigious Burgtheater playhouse in Vienna, called this “completely cuckoo” and other public outcries led to this requirement being cut in half.
Strangely, these rehearsals are allowed to begin without any official announcement of when theaters can hold performances and under what conditions.
In South Korea, a model has been set for how preventative measures could be used for venues with large gatherings, including protective gear for staff, easily accessible hand sanitizer stations for free, and small thermal cameras to monitor body temperature. Disinfectant is also being sprayed in key areas at least twice a day as well as weekly on Mondays when the theaters are dark.
Korean venues are clearly communicating their contingency plans to ticket-buyers as well, requiring that all attendees must wear masks the whole time. A production of The Phantom of the Opera even mandates a questionnaire upon entrance with basic questions about the audience member’s body temperature, potential symptoms, and recent travel.
However, the efficacy of these regional and international practices and policies have not been tested. Both Germany and South Korea, countries originally praised for their containment efforts, are now seeing new cases appear even after easing social restrictions.
The Great White Way may even take a page from immersive theater shows, which are not bound by standard Broadway practices and have been able to tailor audience experiences to their specific needs. For example, Punchdrunk’s hit show Sleep No More staggers its entrance times in 15-minute increments to offer curated experiences for their guests. While it may be difficult to scale this to a large Broadway house, it’s possible these practices could be adapted for public safety.
Feasibly, theater owners are assessing which options are adaptable to Broadway. The League disclosed that 15 task forces, ranging from marketing to government relations, are working to figure out how Broadway will return, pulling from other countries’ safety measures.
While complete overhauls of theater structures and venue redesigns are unlikely due to cost limitations, many of the health-monitoring initiatives and communication policies could be implemented at the benefit of the audience, performers, and venue employees.
Of course, any theater’s return is dependent on the ticket-buyers. A recent survey showed that, while 41% of NYC theatergoers are “very likely to return when theaters reopen,” about 64% of those surveyed said they were concerned there may be a second wave of the virus. If a vaccine did exist to combat this second wave, 73% said they would be more interested in returning.
While hard to envision, one thing is certain: Broadway will return – but we may share an entirely new experience when the curtain rises once again.
Adam Rei Siegel is a theatrical producer who has created immersive experiences at House of Yes, Club Cumming, Public Hotel, Norwood Club, Spring Studios, and more. He is a co-producer on the seasonal séance show The Other Side, and an associate producer on the NYT critic's pick off-Broadway show Beyond Babel. He also works as an outreach specialist at Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and produces the Fire Island Dance Festival. @AdamReiSiegel
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