People often talk about the emergence of a “new normal” with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Essentially, even though coronavirus safety measures are being relaxed in many places, things still look quite different, and will stay that way until the virus is eradicated.
Unfortunately, in this new normal, the return of theater may take longer than expected.
As many know, small businesses have been struggling amidst the pandemic, as their potential customers are reluctant to go out into public and risk exposure to infection. Small theaters have been hit even harder, with many going bankrupt as they are unable to make any profit whatsoever.
Some theaters have tried presenting shows digitally. Two plays gaining popularity, It Can’t Happen Here and What Do We Need to Talk About? both make use of Zoom video calls as a framing device for their stories and as a means of presenting their stories to digital audiences. While innovative, reviewers from Bloomberg and the New York Times agree that it just isn’t the same as the in-person theater experience.
Properly adhering to coronavirus safety protocols can prove difficult in a theater.
Aside from lack of ventilation and narrow hallways in older buildings, even keeping seats socially distant presents issues. Some seats will need to be kept empty to maintain distance between audience members — meaning that fewer tickets can be sold, further straining the income of theaters.
Even if theaters have enough space and ventilation to uphold regulations, many overlook another area of concern for the return of theater — the cast of the show itself. Auditions and rehearsals need to be safe for all involved before on-stage performances can even be considered.
Not only that, but acting as a whole isn’t conducive to many coronavirus safety measures. A huge part of any show is interaction between characters. When characters can’t get within a certain distance of one another, or when their reactions are obscured to the audience by their masks, the emotions of a show just can’t come through.
On top of it all, some shows simply cannot work with social distancing. Take, for instance, Sweeney Todd: If Sweeney can’t come within six feet of other actors, he can’t get in close enough to shave, or kill, any of his victims, making the story impossible to enact. Then there is The Addams Family musical, where the “ancestor” ensemble would either have to be significantly cut down or downright eliminated.
All in all, theater isn’t going to be able to immediately come back from COVID-19. It’s going to take time. It’s not only a matter of when audiences are ready to go out again, but until actors are ready and physically able to perform again.