Berliner Ensemble unveils auditorium with most chairs ripped out, but some left in pairs, for a socially distanced audience who can visit the toilet during the play.
Going to the theatre after the coronavirus lockdown could be not just a novel but a more pleasant experience if the plans of Germany’s leading theatres are anything to go by. There will be generous legroom for spectators and a more casual attitude to toilet breaks.
As Germany continues to relax social distancing restrictions imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19, playhouses in most cities are still waiting for an official date when they can reopen their doors to the public. The Berlin senate announced on Friday that open-air cultural events will be allowed from 2 June, but theatres are likely to remain shut until September. Venues such as the German capital’s Berliner Ensemble, however, are already providing a glimpse of what drama could look like in a world of social distancing.
The theatre by the River Spree, founded in 1949 by Bertolt Brecht, has spent the last week uninstalling 500 of the 700 seats in its main auditorium, to allow for a viewing experience that adheres to government requirements of a 1.5m safety distance.
We simply could have blocked seats or taken out only entire rows, but that would have looked ghostly, said artistic director Oliver Reese.
Instead, the theatre went with an arrangement resembling a gap-toothed smile, with 70% of seats arranged in pairs. “We want to create an experience that is special, that will anchor itself in people’s emotional memory.”
When the first production opens, which is likely to be on 4 September, there will be no interval, to avoid a crush at the toilets where social distancing would be hard to guarantee. Instead, spectators are allowed to dash to the loo whenever they need.
It will be a new experience, with new rituals.
Ticket prices, Reese said, would stay the same since they are already subsidised by the state. “If we were to put up ticket prices, that would send a fatal signal to a society in which a lot of people are struggling for their livelihoods at the moment.”
Private Berlin playhouses such as the Grips youth theatre, which could only fill 70 out of 360 seats under new distancing rules, said they were hoping to make up their losses at the box offices with expanded subsidy schemes from the city’s education senate.
There is a striking contrast between subsidy levels for theatres in Germany and theatres in the UK, where it is more difficult to reduce capacity and still make enough income to cover running costs. According to the British producer Sonia Friedman, most theatres need to sell 60% of seats just to survive.
In Germany, theatres were among the first establishments forced to close their doors as the spread of the pandemic accelerated in mid-March, amid fears that crowds of people crammed together in a closed space made them the perfect environment for the virus to spread.
At the Berliner Ensemble, which has been shut since 13 March, there will be a 3m distance between the edge of the stage and the first row of spectators. Some doors to the auditorium will remain open to allow air to circulate.
At the Schaubühne theatre in Berlin’s west, artistic director Thomas Ostermeier said his team was still considering installing plexiglass separators to be able to fill the auditorium with 150 rather than just 50 spectators.
Enabling social distancing on and behind the stage was just as much as a challenge as in front of it, Ostermeier said. When the theatre on the Kurfürstendamm reopens in October, following a long-scheduled renovation, it will start with a monologue by Swiss director Milo Rau and a one-man show of Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, featuring Schaubühne regular Lars Eidinger.
At the Berliner Ensemble, a scheduled new play by Belgian director Luk Perceval has been postponed for over a year because it would have required too many actors on the stage at the same time. A production of Macbeth had to be culled from the repertoire because it involved actors kissing and licking each other.
The German tradition of having an ensemble of actors tied to a theatre had turned out to be an economic advantage during the pandemic, said Ostermeier. While theatres in the UK had to continue to pay performers contracted for shows that were cancelled, he was able to put his actors on the German government’s part-time furlough scheme.
Reading biographies of Shakespeare has made Ostermeier optimistic that audiences will return when theatres open their doors after the summer break, he said. “Between the years 1603 and 1610, the London Globe was repeatedly shut down for months because of the bubonic plague, and yet that period was one of the gilded ages of theatre.
I am hopeful theatres will survive this pandemic too. The desire to have a shared experience, to laugh together and to breathe together – that’s not something you can permanently switch off or replace with a live stream.
Original story reported by The Guardian.