Out of Town Tryouts: What Theater Reopening Looks Like in Europe

How has theater reopening gone in Europe?

A month ago, I posed the question, “What will it take for Broadway to reopen?” We were nowhere near the mark for that then, and we’re still not. But, as I discussed last month, theater in Seoul was open—specifically, the city had reopened a production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s The Phantom of the Opera with the implementation of health and safety protocols, such as spraying the audience with disinfectant, installing thermal sensors, and texting audience members if a known case arose from the performance they attended. Now, theaters in various parts of Europe are starting to open up as well, using some similar and some different protocols. France and Germany are at the forefront, with London teetering behind, testing out plans as the West End assesses the risks of reopening in the UK. 

The West End may need to figure out their assessment more quickly, though, because while South Korea’s production of Phantom has been going in full-swing, it was announced on July 28 in an Evening Standard column that London’s West End production of Phantom will close—or rather, not reopen—due to coronavirus-induced losses after a 34-year run. Both producer Cameron Mackintosh, who put out the statement, and Andrew Lloyd Webber expressed their intention to bring back the production as soon as possible, but that for now, it was “permanently shut down.”

Theater reopening in London becomes more dire as "The Phantom of the Opera" closes in the West End.
Theater reopening in London becomes more dire as “The Phantom of the Opera” closes in the West End after 34 years.

The announcement comes just over three weeks after the British government pushed through a nearly 1.57 billion-pound bailout for cultural institutions, and less than two weeks after Prime Minister Boris Johnson declared that theaters in England could reopen with protective measures starting August 1. Coincidentally, too, just five days before the Phantom announcement, on July 23, Andrew Lloyd Webber was on a West End stage introducing actor-singer Beverley Knight for a concert at the London Palladium that was intended to be a test run to see if and how productions and concerts in big theaters could feasibly proceed in the country. 

The measures they tested at the Beverley Knight concert included significant social distancing and limiting of the audience size: The Palladium can seat 2,286 people, but that night the audience was capped at 640, which is only 28 percent capacity. All audience members were required to wear masks, and seats between audience groups were blocked off with X’s to mark where people were not allowed to sit. The first row was also entirely blocked off in order to create more distance between Knight on stage and the audience members nearest to the stage. 

The New York Times interviewed 11 audience members in attendance, and all of them said they felt safe at the performance. Prior to the performance, the theater had sent many emails and a YouTube clip outlining safety measures that were being taken, including the placement of thermal cameras at the entrance to the theater. Some of the attendees indicated they’d be willing to attend more performances with audiences going up to around 70 percent of capacity, but in order for that to happen, certain safety protocols, like the mandatory six-feet separation between audience groups, would have to be relaxed. 

Currently, however, many London theaters have reflected that it is not financially viable for them to reopen with the required social distancing, because the costs of operating without full houses would outweigh the revenues obtained. Broadway will find itself in a similar predicament if it is authorized to reopen before social distancing measures are no longer enforced.

In an effort to find a solution, The Society of London Theater has commissioned a group of scientists to determine alternative protocols that would make reopening more economically viable while still keeping audience members safe. However, without more government assistance and the guarantee of high audience counts, the likelihood that the West End could see 70-percent houses anytime soon is slim. 

As for other parts of Europe, Germany has more live theater happening than any other country. After reopening with largely devised pieces focused on pandemic-related themes, theaters in Stuttgart, Munich, and Leipzig have returned to their regular programming. They all do, nonetheless, mandate mask-wearing and include other heavy restrictions for audience members, such as the elimination of intermissions and refreshments—a seemingly small price to pay for a long-awaited evening at the theater.

France also has a significant amount of theater coming back to its stages. After transmission rates of Covid-19 had waned sufficiently, the French government determined that theaters could reopen on June 22. And, adhering to certain safety protocols, a few did reopen soon thereafter. At the end of June, Le Théâtre de la Ville in Paris produced a brief remount of its production of Ionesco Suite, a vignette-style show of absurdist scenes by French-Romanian playwright Eugène Ionesco, which was presented to spaced-out audience members with at least one empty seat between groups who were viewing the show together. Théatre de Belleville, also in Paris, opened its theatre to present one-person shows specifically. Initially, the government did not require that masks be worn by audiences, but that changed on August 1 when masks became mandatory in public indoor spaces throughout the country.   

Paris's theater reopening has seen mostly downsized productions with limited tech and small casts.
Paris’s theater reopening has seen mostly downsized productions with limited tech and small casts.

Government funding for the arts in France certainly helps offset the financial risks to theatres of having small audiences—and it would likewise alleviate the concerns of West End and Broadway houses, too. But even with the French government’s reassurance, as of mid-July, relatively few other venues in Paris have relaunched, in part due to lack of lead time for rehearsals and other preparations, and in part due to the continued uncertainty of the ever-changing nature of the pandemic. The productions that are running are mostly downsized, such as those with limited tech needs and small cast sizes—often one-person shows like those being performed at the Théatre de Belleville. One silver lining, at least, is that the situation has provided an opportunity for these smaller, often over-shadowed productions to have their time in the spotlight and gain the attention they deserve. 

Despite New York City’s relatively controlled transmission rates (at least at the moment), there are still five months until Broadway’s currently slated reopening, and a lot can happen in that time. If the transmission rates remain low in the city, though, perhaps we could take a page from France’s or Germany’s book and see small-cast, low-tech productions after the New Year.