Most of the world’s theatres have shut their doors for the foreseeable future, but in South Korea the government has been praised for its fast reaction to dealing with the outbreak of coronavirus, which has allowed theatres to stay open.
While all wait to see if the country will be hit by a second wave, at the time of writing, 242 deaths due to the virus are confirmed with lockdown restrictions widely revised or withdrawn.
South Korea, which has a burgeoning theatre economy with a size and scale to rival the West End, has become the big player in Asia. Its producers are also making significant investments in many Broadway and West End productions.
Its theatres were given the choice, rather than demanded, to close. A 15-day quarantine restriction has been applied to any theatre that remained open if a member of the audience or company develops Covid-19 symptoms, with a system in place to quickly contact and test all attendees and staff.
While many of its theatres still chose to briefly close their doors and postpone productions at the outbreak of the virus, two hit musicals continued to play on: the Korean versions of Rebecca and Dracula. For both, the attendance rate has been over 90% capacity.
The international touring production of The Phantom of the Opera also joined them, although this production was forced into a period of quarantine from March 31 when two company members tested positive.
In South Korea the government has been praised for its fast reaction to the outbreak
The Canadian and American cast members became unwell after returning from trips home where they may have caught the virus. The entire 126-member cast and company were then all immediately tested, and, impressively, so were the 8,578 audience members who had attended the production between March 15 and 31.
To date, everyone has tested negative. After 15 days in quarantine, the company was then retested and confirmation given that on April 23 performances could resume.
These measures are undoubtedly reassuring for cast members and theatregoers. But it is still not entirely clear why, based on the extensive reporting about the seriousness of Covid-19, audience members would choose to put themselves at risk.
The answer may rest in Rebecca and Dracula’s star power - each is headlined by a massive K-Pop star - and the hype surrounding a major event such as the international production of The Phantom of the Opera playing in the country. In 1,255 and 1,241 seat theatres, even during South Korea’s virus peak in February, these shows played at over 95% capacity.
Already a beloved musical in South Korea, The Phantom of the Opera arrived in Seoul in March and will play there until June before touring the country.
Australian soprano Claire Lyons, who plays Christine Daae, thanked audiences over social media on behalf of the company, writing: “We are now in one of the most stable and safe places thanks to the Korean government and the cooperation of the Korean people. We feel confident that life will continue to go back to normal over here in the coming weeks (it already seems to be!). Thank you in advance to our audience members who continue to support us and for being so diligent in wearing masks and washing hands at the theatre.”
Why have Korean audiences defied the virus, going out in high numbers to see these productions? Certainly, a significant part of this may be the government’s visible and swift response to the situation.
These three shows demonstrate that if people want to see something, they will go despite the associated risks – so long as they feel safe. That should afford producers and theatre owners elsewhere some hope.
The audience attitudes shown here are eloquently reflected by the remark made by leading British producer David Pugh: “When this is over, all we have to do is to take the elephant down the high street and they’ll come flocking back.” Pugh said this as he announced plans for an autumn UK tour of Private Lives starring Nigel Havers, one of the UK’s most consistently bankable touring headliners.
Back in London, Whoopi Goldberg had been scheduled to star in the London revival of Sister Act this summer. Last week, that production postponed performances until 2021, but whenever it does open, Goldberg’s name is sure to attract audiences who want to see her live on stage.
Maybe more than ever, star power will become the driving factor in audience members’ decisions to risk any pre-vaccine return to the West End or Broadway – if venues’ doors do reopen before then.
That is good news for those banking on Hugh Jackman’s forthcoming Broadway return in The Music Man. However, it is not a solution for many productions that do not have the same ability or resource to attract canopy names.
Across the board, theatre’s comeback will require careful balance and address, or we risk merely a short-term fix to a longer-term problem.
Nonetheless, as other theatres globally stay closed, South Korea’s example of reactive response offers lessons to be learned. These are especially important in how it has managed to keep its entertainment industry moving forward, and together with audiences who remain confident about getting out to support live theatre.