Live performance is back, with new rituals joining the old ones
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Live performance is back, with new rituals joining the old ones
People wait outside The Lion King in Times Square in New York on, Oct. 9, 2021. Seeing theater these days can involve waiting in lines to show proof of vaccination and getting rapid coronavirus tests for young children. Many fans seem undeterred. John Taggart/The New York Times.

by Matt Stevens

NEW YORK, NY.- The long-awaited return of Broadway has brought back many familiar preshow rituals — and also spurred a few that are new. One takes place a few hours before curtain time in middle of Times Square, under a canopy with a sandwich board sign proclaiming: “Broadway Show Testing Site.”

It is there that some of the most dedicated theatergoers in the city — children under 12 who are ineligible for the vaccines theaters require — are taken by their parents to submit to nasal swabs so they can get the negative coronavirus test results they need to see shows.

Remy Keller, a 5-year-old from Chicago who needed a test so she could see “The Lion King,” was among a crowd there on a recent Saturday, bracing herself for the swab. There were a few tears.

“There’s a lot of things we all have to do to minimize the effects of the virus on vulnerable people; I’m not saying I’m not willing to jump through the hoops, but why are we putting the kids through all this?” her mother, Avery Keller, said, noting that her daughter has already had to be tested dozens of times for school. “I think we’ve got to really weigh the mental health impacts of this on our children.”

The return of live performance — on stages from Broadway to Carnegie Hall to Lincoln Center to the Brooklyn Academy of Music — after the long shutdown has been a cause for celebration for culture-starved theatergoers and music and dance lovers. But as with so many things in the age of the coronavirus, coming back has entailed a few adjustments: the ability to deftly juggle proofs of vaccination and photo IDs and tickets to get inside; preshow announcements that now urge people to keep their cellphones off and their masks on; and the absence of intermissions at some concerts and dance performances.

Najah Hetsberger, 21, who returned to Broadway on a recent weeknight to see a show for the first time since before the pandemic shutdown in March 2020, was delighted to find that her fellow theatergoers were actually doing what they had been told.

“I didn’t see anyone with their mask down, even below their nose,” she said after emerging from a performance of the play “Chicken & Biscuits.” “Everyone was following directions. I think people know, and want theater to come back and stay.”

Theaters have grown more adept at swiftly managing the lines of people waiting to get in. In most cases, people get their vaccine status checked first, then move more briskly through security and into the theater, where ushers scan their tickets. Still, it pays to get to the theater a little early these days: The checks do sometimes result in delays, and some music and dance companies have had to hold their curtains a few minutes to give the people waiting in line extra time to get inside.

Once inside a venue, other changes await. In the minutes leading up to performances of “American Utopia,” the David Byrne concert show, ushers stroll up and down the aisles of the St. James Theater with poster-size signs that urge: “Please Mask Up.” The usual preshow announcements admonishing people to turn off their cellphones now also have other business to attend to. “God told me to tell you to keep your mask on,” ran the radio-style announcement at a recent performance of “Chicken & Biscuits.” “He did, so don’t question it.”

And, at a recent performance of “The Lehman Trilogy,” the audience chuckled knowingly at a newly written line about the flu pandemic of 1918 and the ensuing “protests in San Francisco, against the wearing of masks.”

In interviews, theatergoers almost universally agreed that they were willing to tolerate longer, slower lines, wear masks for hours on end and take their children to get properly timed coronavirus tests if that was what it took to see live theater again.

“I feel comfortable and safe because I know everyone here had to show proof of vaccination or a negative test,” said Heather Teta, of New York, who came to “The Lion King” with her 9- and 6-year-old daughters. “They have negative tests and are all masked. We’ll do whatever we need to do to get back.”

Broadway and union officials say that the reopening has been free of the sort of dramatic dust-ups some flight attendants have experienced while trying to enforce masking rules on planes. “Thankfully, so far so good,” said Carol Bokun, the theatrical business representative with IATSE Local 306.

Disney Theatrical Productions shared survey data collected from people who attended “The Lion King” that appeared to suggest that the testing requirements for children had not been a major deterrent. The self-reported data showed that 29% of parties attending the show so far this fall had included children, an increase from 21% in late 2019, before the pandemic shutdown.

When it comes to snacks and drinks, theaters are taking various approaches. Several Broadway theaters now offer concessions — including “featured cocktails” that can run to $22 a pop — and allow people to lower their masks briefly while eating or drinking. Other venues have yet to reopen their food and beverage service, reluctant to encourage any masklessness at all. The Metropolitan Opera has closed most of its concession areas, but its bar in the airiest section of the Grand Tier is now open, along with its restaurant. To encourage mask-wearing, a security guard politely asks people not to take their food or drink outside the designated areas.

And intermissions are growing rarer. The New York Philharmonic, Carnegie Hall and New York City Ballet have all experimented with slightly shorter programs with no intermissions, in part to minimize the amount of time patrons are thrust together in crowds. The faster evenings, which get out earlier, are proving popular with some music lovers, even if the long intermissionless stretches test the bladders of others.

The vaccine mandates for live performances are not that different from the ones required to dine indoors in New York City, which may have made the adjustment smoother. There has been some opposition, though: A group of small off-Broadway theaters and comedy clubs in Manhattan have formally objected to the mandates in court. They recently sued Mayor Bill de Blasio over the city’s vaccine mandate, claiming it had been enforced unequally.

And there are still some situations that can be difficult to navigate. To get into a theater, adults must show that they have been fully vaccinated. But the entry rules are slightly different for children under 12. Since vaccines have not yet been authorized for children that age, they are required to present either a negative PCR test taken within 72 hours of the performance to get into a Broadway show, or a negative rapid test taken within six hours of curtain time. (The Met Opera and Carnegie Hall are not yet allowing unvaccinated children in at all; New York City Ballet has said it will allow children under 12 to attend its 47-show run of “George Balanchine’s The Nutcracker” with a negative PCR test.)

The new theater rules posed a difficulty for Gary Spino, 59, who was planning to see “Stomp” the other day with his son, Nicholas. But Nicholas had turned 12 just days earlier, so he had been unable to get his second dose of the vaccine. The show’s rules, though, said that as a 12 year old, Nicholas needed to be fully vaccinated.

“We don’t know if they’re going to let us in because he only has one shot,” said Spino, who acknowledged that the situation was causing considerable stress. “Honestly we were thinking about pretending that he’s still just 11.”

They made it in: Reached after the performance, Spino said checkers had let Nicholas attend “Stomp” with proof of a negative rapid test he had taken earlier in the day.

At some shows, adults who have been unable to show proof that they have been fully vaccinated, and children who lack the proper test results, have been politely pulled off the lines to get in. If they cannot satisfy the requirements, they are offered a refund or a chance to exchange their tickets for a later performance.

Several Broadway officials said they could not or would not provide specific data on exactly how many people are prevented from entering shows each evening, or how many returns or exchanges they have processed this fall. But they insisted such cases were isolated and limited in number.

“It’s a very small handful across all our theaters,” said Todd Rappaport, a spokesman for the Shubert Organization, which owns and operates a number of Broadway theaters.

Many theatergoers are happy to be back. Amy Ferreira, 46, of Millbury, Massachusetts, said she had to pay roughly $167 for a PCR coronavirus test for her 10-year-old daughter, Eva, before coming to New York, but that it was worth it to see “Hamilton.” It was Eva’s birthday, and her family had gotten tickets months ago. Together, they had watched the Disney+ version many times, and Eva was singing the chorus to “My Shot.”

They had decided they could not throw away theirs.

“She goes to school and wears a mask,” Ferreira said of her daughter. “So she’s out and about. This was as safe as it can possibly get at this point. We can’t live in a bubble.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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