Theatres around the world are starting to plan how and when they may be able to reopen their doors. But with different levels of lockdown and financial support between countries, there is no single solution. Nick Awde explores the progress of venues and creatives in Italy, Germany and South Korea
Across the world, arts, sports and other live events were closed down at the same time due to the coronavirus, but reopening them is proving a complex, staggered process, determined by how the sector traditionally interacts with its audience.
Socially distanced seating and drive-in concerts make for good press, but this sort of reinvention is not the way most live performance can or will go, particularly theatre, which in most parts of the world simply doesn’t have the resources to become something that it is not.
South Korea had no lockdown, for example, but the government ordered temporary closures of public buildings including the major public theatres. While the country has been hailed for keeping major musicals running, it’s neither representative of the local industry nor a model that is easy to replicate for those who don’t have millions to keep their local venues open safely.
In fact, the data points to a significant decline in revenue, says Soohye Jang, an international performing arts producer based in Seoul. “According to statistics from the Korea Performing Arts Box Office Information System (KOPIS), the latest sales figures for the performing arts industry are 4.68 billion Korean won, which shows a steady decline each month – 38.6 billion in January, 20.9 billion in February and 9.1 billion in March.”
KOPIS data also shows that the number of concerts and shows staged in April fell to 2,151, with 2,325 in March and 5,087 in February.
“On April 19, the government announced a loosening of restrictions after having fewer than five new cases [of coronavirus] in a row,” says Jang. Theatres, including public theatres, reopened and ran with social distancing. On May 20, the Seoul Arts Center, a public theatre, announced that it would trial socially distanced seating, which filled 70% of seats.
Exact box office numbers cannot be calculated due to the lack of a common data system in the theatre market – producer Soohye Jang
“However, multiple producers I’ve spoken to have said that their seat occupancy statistics – mostly 50% capacity at the moment – do not mean much because many tickets are complimentary and the exact box office numbers cannot be calculated due to the lack of a common data system in the theatre market.”
Jang continues: “On May 29, venues were closed again until June 14 due to the increase in new cases. But the closure orders have been relatively short (two weeks) compared to other countries and this is why the theatres are always preparing to reopen at any time. Independent live events still run with a limited audience while also streaming online.”
The UK has reportedly asked for advice from South Korea on rethinking safety in the performing arts field, but there are no real guidelines from the Korean government on how to reopen facilities and most theatres are operating according to their own systems. There is a small movement from independent theatres and companies that is calling out the absence of safety guidelines. In response, the Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture released detailed guidelines as of June 4.
“Our government approach is openness and transparency,” says Jang, “and organisations are now choosing to open a wider conversation to hear what artists and industry professionals want. From participating in more interviews and research sessions lately, I feel the power structure is changing as well.
“The conversation now is about producing the same shows that were planned before the crisis, but thinking differently about how to present them. I guess this proves that art is the mirror to society. Korean society is sensitive to trends and changes and although it is a confusing time, I believe art professionals and artists are questioning the future more than before rather than waiting to go back to how it was.”
Another country getting coverage is Germany, which started testing the water with open-air cultural events from June 2. So far, theatres are unlikely to open until September 4, with many looking at a more realistic date in October.
In recent weeks, photographs have emerged of the Berliner Ensemble’s floor plan for radically distanced seating according to the government’s 1.5-metre rule, but this is a decision taken by one of many theatres in the country. It is also a move the venue can make with the confidence of being a major subsidised public theatre.
Every theatre across Germany is coming up with its own response in line with its audience and funding limits. The Schaubühne in Berlin, which has been successfully streaming top productions and related talks for free, now plans to reopen in October. The theatre will play it safe with a solo version of Peer Gynt by Lars Eidinger and a monologue by director Milo Rau.
Perhaps cinema in Germany reveals a comparison for theatre’s prospects and how audiences will come back. The government gave the green-light for screens to open in May, but it’s been a chaotic and uneven process, with cinemas remaining shuttered in many states, not helped by the fact the virus has hit each state with varying intensity.
If anything, this proves there is no magic model for other countries. In Germany the cinemas represent a global industry with huge clout at the legislators’ table, and their revenue depends on being open all hours. Theatre, on the other hand, represents a national sector that is protected by the state and, while in a hardly perfect situation, as an industry can afford to hold off until things are more stable.
After all, this is a country that responded at the start of the crisis by immediately unrolling a €50 billion package aimed at freelancers and small businesses including the arts and culture industries, as part of an overall €750 billion in aid. Social security support and housing are guaranteed, while the city and state governments have also made grants available to freelance workers and small businesses in the cultural sector.
Germany is now rolling out a new bailout package from July of €130 billion, which has €1 billion earmarked for the culture industry for this year and next. However, there is already concern that these funds are aimed at cultural entities and not individual practitioners.
Maximum number of three house staff: one to check temperature, one for box office, one as usher for seats and safety guidelines.
Encourage pre-sales. If tickets are sold on the night, minimise use of notes and coins with an electronic payment system.
Assign seat numbers so everyone knows exactly where to sit.
Finish warm-ups or rehearsals before the performance as early as possible to have time for disinfection and ventilation. After the performance, disinfect again before the closure of the space to save time for the next day.
Raise awareness of social distancing and hygiene measures for the audience and performers by posting signs everywhere.
Performers should be kept at least two metres’ distance from the audience when blocking the show and avoid strong acting towards the audience.
In contrast to both Germany and Korea, theatre in Italy is caught firmly between the hurdles of reopening and worrying about whether there will be anyone left to put anything on.
“The reopening rules were announced on June 1, and people have started to plan how, when and why,” says Gianpiero Alighiero Borgia, artistic director of Teatro dei Borgia in Barletta, who also works in Croatia and the UK. “Reopening will involve a huge amount of money to make it work and in terms of income, sellable seats will be massively reduced.
“Summer live events are a key part of the Italian calendar and a lot of people in the industry are betting that the coronavirus will disappear in the summer months like other coronaviruses have before. I don’t think that’s likely, and so at the moment the idea of reopening, even with official guidelines, is challenging.”
The ministry of culture, along with Italy’s regional and local governments, has allocated budgets to support the sector for at least 12 months. But the money has been slow to appear and just as unforthcoming are official guidelines for what comes next. As a result, national, regional and municipal institutions are not publishing funding calls, which are integral to making theatre in Italy.
“We are gaining some clarity,” says Borgia. “The reopening day is June 15 for indoor events, which will be accessible for no more than 200 people including cast and crew, and open-air events for no more than 1,000 people all included. Ushers have to wear personal protective equipment and check audience temperature. Seats have to be at least at one metre apart, the entrance and exit should not be the same, and so on.
“But the reality is that even our prime minister has called this a ‘calculated risk’, and it’s only the totally funded state institutions that are able to confirm that they’ll reopen. Those of us who live in the real world will need to create something completely new.”
Borgia continues: “ ‘How it was before’ is the big question at the moment and is the main reason why the funds to invest in the reopening have not been released. In the industry, there’s a fight between the privileged exploiters who enjoyed the ‘before’ and those who hope for a change in the system because of the crisis. Our politicians have not yet worked out who to bet on and they’re waiting to make their real decisions.
“I do not believe we can go back and I do not think the ‘before’ deserves to be restored. This is a time for change – it’s better to take the chance.”