Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Nicolette Jones used to go to the theater with her daughter about 50 times a year.
Now shes not going at all. Theater is my relaxation, my escape, said Jones, 61. The thought of sitting next to somebody who is unmasked for two hours, laughing and whatever, that is going to remove all that, she added.
Theaters here have now been allowed to open without restrictions for three months, and while many audience members have been delighted to return to live performances, inconsistent rules are troubling some fans.
Unlike on Broadway, theatergoers in England are not required to wear masks in their seats or be fully vaccinated. Instead, its up to each venue to decide what they require. Most West End venues are asking for proof of vaccination or a negative test result at the door, but some smaller venues dont. Spectators are also encouraged to wear masks, but many choose not to, even as the number of virus cases in Britain steadily grows.
How are theater fans feeling about this new normal? Has the pandemic changed what theyre seeing and how theyre seeing it?
We spoke to seven other theater enthusiasts to find out. These are edited extracts from those conversations.
Robbie Curran, 29, actor and writer
Ive mainly been going to fringe theater. The best moment so far was probably in The NW Trilogy at The Kiln, these three plays about immigrants in northwest London.
At the end, the whole cast came together with banners and marched. And it had such a high energy and pulse, I turned to my partner, and she went, Wow, weve missed this! Its those moments of real connection and catharsis that we were lacking in lockdown.
At the small venues, no ones asked to check vaccine status or any of that. Theyre probably just trying to get their audiences back, so going on trust that everyone is doing their best.
With masks, its different every night. Sometimes one person is wearing a mask, sometimes half the audience is; sometimes no masks, sometimes all masks.
Fazilet Hadi, 64, works for a disability organization
I hate to admit this some of my friends would be horrified but I havent been wearing a mask. I dont know why. I suppose because Im blind, I cant see whos wearing them and whos not, so in my little world no one is! No ones said anything to me.
Im not fussed about COVID, really. Weve all got different levels of risk.
Ive been to Twelfth Night at The Globe, with audio description, and that felt so good. There wasnt an interval, and I did think, Oh, my goodness, two hours, 40 minutes without a break! But it flew by.
Ive got three more plays booked. What COVIDs done to me is just clarify what I love doing, accentuating the pleasure. That might wear off but hasnt yet.
Nikki Reilly, 46, maths and computing teacher, and Izzy Reilly, 15, student
Nikki: Going to the theaters always been expensive, but we found this app where you can buy rush tickets on the day, and because many people arent ready to go back yet, and there isnt the influx of tourists you normally get in London. We saw Heathers one day, and we saw Come From Away in the stalls for just 25 pounds ($34). Normally itd be 150 pounds!
Izzy: It feels like Ive got so much more agency to see things I want to. I can go, Can we see this? and normally we can.
Nikki: Weve been to the West End six times. As soon as it gets busy again, well probably go back to local theaters. Izzys at school, and Im a teacher, so maybe were more used to being around big groups of people. We havent been concerned about COVID. And everyones been wearing masks. What bothers me more has been traveling to the theaters people not wearing masks on the train, the tube, particularly if theyre ill and coughing. That does concern me.
Jane Duffus, 43, author
Pre-COVID, I used to go to the theater all the time. But tomorrow is my first trip. Im going to see Wuthering Heights at the Bristol Old Vic, and I specifically booked it as its socially distanced. Were lucky where I live, a few theaters are still doing distanced performances.
I just havent been ready until now. I went to an event in August, and it really freaked me out: about 400 people, no distancing, and I was one of only about six people wearing a mask. A few days later, a friend texted me to say they had COVID. I didnt feel remotely relaxed. Every time I heard a cough
It was a lot.
I picked Wuthering Heights, as I love Wise Children, the company doing it. If youre going to put yourself through anxiety, it should be something you know youll enjoy.
Bryony Rose, 20, Theater YouTuber
I used to see some shows again and again: Six and & Juliet. But when theater wasnt there, it sparked a passion for shows I hadnt seen, so Ive tried to really branch out. Its still mainly musicals, but I love them.
Frozen was absolutely incredible, especially seeing the younger generation in the audience and their eyes lighting up, like mine did at that age. At the end of Let It Go, I almost cried. The diversity in the ensemble was really inspiring too.
In lockdown, when I couldnt express my passion for theater, it was really difficult. I hadnt realized how much I relied on that to express who I was.
When theaters reopened, I got so many comments from people on my channel saying, I want to go to a show, but Im worried its not safe. So I started using my blogs to show there were things in place to keep people safe and how people can do things themselves like a test at home. Now Im getting all these comments saying, Because of you, I feel safe enough to go.
Stephanie Kempson, 34, director
Im a theater director, so I need to see work, but Ive been getting nervous as people stopped wearing masks this autumn.
Ive been trying to pull favors so I can get into rehearsals to see things, and Im trying to watch livestreams, but often only one performance in a run is being livestreamed now.
So socially distanced performances are the way to go for me. I have ME/CFS, so Im aware of what long COVID could be like.
People are so excited to be back, and I can forgive them for that, but it does seem theres a lack of awareness and common-mindedness.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times