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Theater Returns

Theater Returns

Jordan Wright
May 2022
Special to The Zebra

Dim the house lights. Cue the orchestra. Places, people. Break a leg! Would these words ever again be uttered in theaters gone dark for over two years? Well, yes!

“The experience of being back at the Kennedy Center with in-person audiences this fall was nothing short of thrilling. Seeing the excitement in the halls, hearing the chatter of patrons, listening to artists warming up behind the scenes—I was crying before I even sat down in my seat. The innovation that artists and administrators showed throughout the pandemic creating virtual and distanced experiences has been fabulous, and I am genuinely excited to follow the future of performing arts in the digital space; however, at the same time, the return to in-person performances proved that there is nothing like that collective feeling where hundreds of people around you all have a tingle up their spine at the same time that says, “we are witnessing something incredible.”  –  – Brendan Padgett, Director of Public Relations, The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

At long last we have come full circle – back to joining friends and family and the joys of experiencing live theater. The anticipation has been nail-biting. Throughout the long dark period we teared up imagining huge, empty performance venues like Kennedy Center with its hundreds of seats, restaurants and grand halls completely devoid of life. Smaller theaters suffered mightily too ending their long-planned seasons with an unceremonious thud. Yet slowly, with heightened safety protocols in place, theaters have been returning to pre-pandemic strength and we theater mavens are madly rejoicing. So, too are the thousands of performers and crew members around the world who are emerging from their Covid cocoons to a joyful return to the stage.

Photo/Matthew Murphy

There’s no denying that the shared experience of enjoying a live performance surrounded by like-minded people engenders an incomparable energy. You could say the same for sports events and concerts. It’s electrifying. Gets the juices flowing. Look! Everyone is enjoying this as much as I am. To the point, I’ve never seen more standing ovations for the talents of musicians and actors. In a way, the hiatus has allowed directors more time to tweak and fine tune their production and longer rehearsal time has afforded singers and actors the ability to develop their roles. Productions in general are more polished than ever.

This eagerly anticipated return of theater is the existential medicine we have all craved. Though some theaters have seen their audiences grow through the magic of streaming, many had to shutter, cancel seasons planned years in advance, and what’s worse, lay off everyone from the front of the house to the back of the house. The struggle has been real.

So how did they manage it? London’s West End theaters started the ball rolling with strict guidelines for theatergoers. Days later Broadway followed their lead and shortly thereafter Washington-based theaters took up the challenge. It all happened within a matter of weeks. Pivoting was the name of the game and new protocols gave rise to a safe theater experience.

File Photo

In the beginning, as theaters struggled to figure out how to mount a production while keeping audiences safe, I saw creative solutions of how to space people six feet apart. At Alexandria’s The Little Theatre I sat beside colorful, cardboard heads of cats and people ensuring nearby seats would not be occupied. Checking vaccination cards at the door and insisting on masking once inside the theater became standard operating procedure for every theater. Announcements were made before the start of the performance telling patrons to keep their masks on at all times and ushers strolled the aisles with signs gently reminding masks be worn over the nose as well. Some theaters eliminated intermission to keep people seated to lessen the risk of mingling in close quarters in their lobby. Revenue from refreshment stands dried up. Yet some theaters sent patrons home with homemade cookies or boxed desserts. Others provided paper masks and hand-sanitizing stations were everywhere. Audiences felt more at ease. It seemed everyone was willing to comply and the experience of being together for the shared experience of enjoying a performance was not diminished by the new normal.

Since then, 6-feet apart spacing is not generally employed, but most other protocols are still in place. What will change and what will remain of these safety protocols is yet to be seen, but from a recent poll by Theatre Washington, 80% of audiences want to keep them in place.

My takeaway – I haven’t heard coughing, sneezing, nose-blowing, etc. since these rules were employed and most of us have happily enjoyed a flu- and cold-free season like never before.

Update: Thirty theaters in the DMV have extended strict COVID protocols. Nonetheless, before purchasing seats, ticket buyers should check each theater’s protocols posted on their websites.

Now, ladies and gentlemen, curtain up!

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