NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).-
With most European countries lurching between lockdowns and reopenings over the last year, it has been a disruptive time for the continents many theater fans.
When theaters open up across Europe, likely in the coming months, they will do so in an increasingly digital world (theaters in a few countries, like Spain, are already open). Deutsches Theater in Berlin, La Scala in Milan and the Schauspielhaus Zurich, among others, have streamed performances during the pandemic, and fans have had access to virtual theater from all over the world.
Some venues have expanded their audiences far beyond whats possible in their physical spaces. Around 160,000 viewers watched a streamed performance of Carmen last year by the Berlin State Opera, whose auditorium seats 1,300.
The shift has raised questions about whether audiences will return to theaters in the same numbers as before, and whether a blend of online and in-person viewing will become the new norm. The answers could have broad repercussions for the European cultural landscape. As critic George Hunka once put it in The Guardian, theater, as an art form, is not as deeply embedded in the history of Americas modern culture as it is in Europes.
To find out how the pandemic might affect Europes theater scenes, both large and small, we spoke with theatergoers in seven countries. These are edited excerpts from those conversations.
Nadia Busato, 41, Brescia, Italy; novelist and consultant
Recently, there was a symbolic event where theaters were open and lights were on and you could walk to the foyer of the Teatro Sociale, and I cried. Some of the most important moments in my life are linked to shows Ive seen when I was pregnant, when I had my second child. I spent the first lockdown at my parents house with my kids, and every morning, the telephone would ring, it was news that someone we knew was dead. The important thing was to keep it all together.
The ministry asked all of the theaters in the public theater system to put their archives online, so once a week at least, after everyone had gone to bed, I would watch a performance I had never seen before. I love theater so much, but it was hard to watch and listen because it was not a quality experience. In Italy, we are not used to thinking about theater existing outside of the theater, in other media.
Ive subscribed to the National Theatres streaming platform, the Soho Theatre platform, so maybe in the future instead of Netflix I will watch international theater online, and I hope that Italian theater goes online with similar products.
My whole life when I wanted to see a show, I took a plane and went to the place and watched the show there, but now I can see them online.
Jessi Parrott, 29, London; performer and academic
For a powered-wheelchair user like me, access was complicated before the pandemic. For smaller theaters, you have to go through layers upon layers of website to find out the accessibility information, and then you have to phone and tell them the dimensions of your chair. The big West End theaters also often have this policy that theyre in an old building, so they cant do anything about it.
Now Ive been able to see shows virtually that I wouldnt have been able to engage with at all because my chair cant get into the venue, like Emilia by Morgan Lloyd Malcolm at the Vaudeville Theatre. It was a transformative production, but on a personal level, I find virtual experiences difficult to engage with.
Im worried that when social-distancing measures are incorporated at theaters, it will impact the availability of wheelchair spaces, because they wont want to further reduce capacity.
But Im cautiously optimistic that the pandemic will ultimately lead to positive change. I think there has been a realization through things like long COVID that people never know how the virus is going to affect you. I hope there is more compassion and support. The virtual stuff shouldnt be used as a proxy so that all of the disabled people can stay home and all the nondisabled people who dont need to think about their health can party and go to the theater.
Erlend Engan, 36, Hell, Norway; marketer
I live in Hell, which has a couple thousand inhabitants, and around here, there are about 10 revy (revue) groups. Each revy group usually does one performance a year, and a single performance will include 15 to 20 numbers of about four minutes each sketches, songs, monologues.
I was 15 years old when I went to revy for the first time. At 17 I joined Lankerevyen, an award-winning revy group, and went from seeing revy one or two times a year to seeing everything.
Revy is like a mirror for society. It involves sketches about whats happening in your community or country. For 30 or 40 years, no crisis has stopped people from doing shows. Its the best opportunity for people to meet their neighbors, and when you dont get that something is missing.
One group in Norway put together a stream and its not the same, but its better than nothing. If youre at home, its not that easy to cry, or clap your hands or talk about it with people afterward. But in the future, I think it will happen more. Instead of having to perform 10 nights in a row, they might perform it once and put it on a stream. But for me, it will be an addition to the things I am seeing, not a replacement.
Ronan Ynard, 29, Paris; theater marketer
In 2016, I launched a theater YouTube channel and started going to 150 or 200 performances or more a year basically every night. My social life is largely encounters I have before and after shows, but thats not the principal appeal for me. Theater is an education, a discovery of social issues. Its a rare space where youre listening to people speak for one or two hours, and youre forced to be silent. By the time you are able to talk about it, when youre leaving the show after the applause, time will have passed, and things ripen in you that otherwise wouldnt ripen.
I couldnt get into the theaters digital offerings. Its not theater, its evidence of theater. The mistake of streaming is to think that a show starts when the curtain rises and stops when the audience claps but theater is reserving the ticket, waiting in the lobby, its a whole social event. If its raining outside, a show isnt the same as when its sunny outside.
The Comédie Française had streams of archived shows every night, but I would never sit on the couch for 2.5 hours and watch all of Klaus Michael Grübers Bérénice. I get up after five minutes to go to the fridge or look at Twitter. We are so used to the cuts, the rhythm of cinema, that when something uses the language of cinema but is live, without cuts, on a screen, it just becomes long and annoying.
Bertalan Sugár, 42, Budapest, Hungary; yoga teacher
I go to the theater maybe four or five times a year. There are two or three actors like Adél Kováts where I see all of their bad shows, just because I know they will give a brilliant performance, and I see all the shows by Dollár Papa Gyermekei. When I had my 40th birthday, I wanted to hire them to come to my apartment because they have a program where you can do that, but Emoke Kiss-Végh, the lead actress, was pregnant. If you order a show to your own apartment, it gives your home a story youll never forget. Its like room theater, a Hungarian theater movement from the 60s and 70s.
At the beginning of shutdown, my partner and I streamed five or six plays. We have different taste in theater, but Im making his much better. I watched the National Theatre of London put up Gillian Anderson in A Streetcar Named Desire, and she was marvelous.
But I want to watch theater in a theater setting. When Im sitting in the audience in a theater I can look at whatever I want. If I dont want to look at the face of the person delivering the monologue, I can look at the face listening to it. Theater is a lens to reality and if its theater on TV, then its two lenses.
But I wont be going to the theater more often just because weve had a pandemic. If its New York and I cant fly there, then too bad. Ill watch clips on YouTube, but the whole show, I dont think so.
Aloys Buch, 69, Korschenbroich, Germany; theologian and philosopher
The town of Oberammergau started putting on the Passion Play in 1634, during the plague. The villagers made a promise that if the village was spared further victims, it would put on a Passion Play depicting the end of Jesus life every 10 years. Before 2020, its only been interrupted during the Second World War and in 1770, when the authorities banned it.
In 2000, we went to the Passion Play. It was more overwhelming than we expected. You feel in the strongest sense spoken to. You sit closely among about 4,000 audience members. Its not an advertisement for religion, but it exists in an overall atmosphere that presents religion as self-evident, which is strange in Germany, because here we generally separate that more.
We had reserved tickets for 2020. We were very disappointed when it was pushed back to 2022, but we were mostly worried for the people who were directly involved. The people in Oberammergau measure the passage of time by the Passion Play. We once met an older man who had acted in it seven times, and he was over 80, and when he told me he wouldnt experience the next Passion Play, tears started pouring down his cheeks.
Hopefully the long wait will lead to an interior explosion, and the frustration will be incorporated into the play, so it becomes a personal reward not only for the actors but also the audience members.
Pat Johnston, 68, Ballinasloe, Ireland; retired teacher
Theater is the only thing Id be willing to leave the house for now. My area is rural and is particularly underprovided for by the government in terms of support for industry and jobs, but its fighting back, in particular in the area of culture. Thats probably the one thing we have to offer. In every second village, there is a drama group. These wouldnt be top class performances: Youd have good characters, good actors, but the sets are very basic.
One thing Ive seen over the last 20 years is the level of improvement. Were really talking about plays from the Irish canon, and theres something about the sense that were doing our own stuff, that this is our own experience, our own story.
Of course, theres also the possibility that something might go wrong.
During lockdown, the Abbey Theater in Dublin immediately came up with something called Dear Ireland, inviting 50 writers to write about their experience and 50 actors to act it, and they put that out on Zoom. But to me it wasnt drama. The flatness of the screen, compared to the three-dimensional performance, I couldnt face it.
Id rather watch a television program than any of the streamed plays. It makes you realize what youre missing. I would be anxious to go in and sit next to someone and hope theyve been vaccinated, but I do look forward to it. I just hope that they dont dwell too much on the pandemic in new plays. I dont particularly go to the theater to be depressed. I can do that on my own.
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