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May 23, 2020, 9:47 p.m. EDT

What Actors—and Audiences—Can Expect When We Return to the Theater

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When it comes to social distancing, Broadway theaters have a serious problem. They’re architecturally glorious—also old, dusty, and cramped.

“I was already a germaphobe,” says veteran Broadway conductor Todd Ellison , chuckling. “With this coronavirus, we’re all going to be more aware now.”

Aware of every cough. Every sniffle. Every sneeze. If you thought the lady behind you rustling her candy wrapper was annoying, just wait till you return to the theater after Covid-19 lockdown restrictions are lifted.

That’s the subject being hotly debated in daily Zoom meetings among actors, directors, producers, and theater owners on Broadway, around London’s West End, and at regional theaters around the world. Penta reached out to a host of these practitioners, here and abroad, to get a sense of what they envision. 

They’re weighing all possible options, some already being test-driven in places such as South Korea (where theaters never closed) or Germany (where they’re reopening). Imagine lobbies with disinfectant showers, or drive-in theaters where audiences watch stage shows from the comfort of their car—anything to reassure theatergoers, thereby boosting attendance and helping recoup this year’s serious financial losses.

“We’re hoping we don’t have to wait for a vaccine to reopen,” says Charlotte St. Martin , president of the Broadway League, the national trade organization for Broadway theater owners and operators, which announced this week a star-studded Broadway celebration (stars to be named, but expect heavy hitters) live-streamed on TonyAwards.com and BroadwayOnDemand.com on June 7, in lieu of CBS’s canceled Tony Awards telecast.

Broadway could use a lift. The Great White Way shut down March 12, with 16 new shows on the cusp of opening. Theaters remain shuttered through Labor Day, but when they’ll actually reopen is anybody’s guess. Some shows closed for good. Others, like Plaza Suite (starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick ), which had expected to open last month, and the Michael Jackson songfest MJ The Musical , due this summer, have been pushed back to next spring.

I think it’s foolish to imagine people will be willing to gather with strangers in a dark room while they’re still worried about getting infected.

In London, where West End theaters are dark through at least June 28, Stephen Sondheim ’s Sunday in the Park with George , starring Jake Gyllenhaal and Tony winner Annaleigh Ashford , slated for mid-June, jumped to 2021.

By then—so the wishful thinking goes—we’ll have a vaccine, or reliable instant testing, or herd immunity, something to make consumers feel safe.

“It’s foolish to imagine people will be willing to gather with strangers in a dark room while they’re still worried about getting infected,” says Oskar Eustis , artistic director of New York’s Public Theater.

He should know. He was hospitalized with a grueling case of Covid-19 in March. It’s not just a flu, he warns. “I’ve had the flu. That was not like the flu.”

Moulin Rouge star Danny Burstein can identify. Soon after Broadway’s shutdown a fellow cast member was diagnosed with Covid-19, and Burstein found himself hospitalized, testing positive and fighting for his life about a week later. “You wish so hard it had never happened to you,” he says. “It’s a sad and lonely experience.”

Despite this, he’s eager to get back to work. But how? When? “Hopefully,” he says, “we’ll be guided by the science.”

Oodles of… Pool Noodles?

We’ll also be guided by what works in other countries.

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