Indoor Theater Slowly Resumes In A Socially Distanced Way In New York City

Apr 3, 2021
Originally published on April 4, 2021 10:31 pm

Indoor theater has been shuttered in New York City for more than a year, due to safety concerns associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

But there are indications of slow movement on this front.

Friday is opening night for Blindness at the off-Broadway Daryl Roth Theatre. At a recent preview, there was a short line outside the theater, where invited patrons waited to see the show — a piece based on a novel by José Saramago.

Before entering, a staffer gave instructions: During the 70-minute-long show, there would be no intermission, no re-entry and no public restroom. Attendees had temperatures checked and showed tickets on phones. Then they walked, alone or in pairs, to socially distanced seats spread about the vast auditorium.

What followed was not exactly theater, per se, but a sound and light show. At times, it felt like actress Juliet Stevenson was whispering in your ear, telling you about an epidemic of blindness.

"It's not a traditional play in the way we think of it," says Blindness Producer Daryl Roth. "But what it is, is a wonderful way to story-tell in a safe environment. ... The headphones are sanitized. There is no interaction with actors. There is nothing that isn't comfortable for people to come and gather."

Other producers in the city with access to large, flexible indoor spaces talk about moving towards opening shows by implementing safety measures like separate entrances and exits, new ventilation filters, and no physical Playbills. President and Executive Producer of the Park Avenue Armory Rebecca Robertson says they plan to do COVID-19 tests at the door regardless of vaccination status. "It's a rapid test and it takes 15 minutes to find out what the answer is," she says.

The cost of the rapid COVID tests are included in the $45 ticket price.

The audience will be led, single-file, into the Armory's 55,000 sq. ft. Drill Hall, where seats will be spread out more than 6 ft. apart.

"I can say that with 100 people in the Drill Hall, you feel like you're seeing the work by yourself," Robertson says.

The Armory ran tests in the fall. But its grand reopening slated for last week — with a new piece by choreographer Bill T. Jones — was postponed when several members of the dance company tested positive. The show has been rescheduled for May. Robertson says that while she's disappointed, it proves the protocols work and it's important to build flexibility into their plans.

Over the course of the pandemic, the Armory has been having weekly meetings, via Zoom, with other similar arts organizations to share information, lobby the city and state — and to just commiserate, says Susan Feldman, founder and artistic director of St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn.

"There's a void that we're all feeling," Feldman says. "And it's kind of like how do we bring people together and yet stay safely apart? You can say it both ways. You can say, how do we stay safely apart and still come together? Because we need both."

Feldman's opening her theater in mid-April for a workshop of a new piece by The Bengsons, a husband and wife band. And she's planning a fall season, as is the Armory.

Manhattan resident Laura Knutsen, an audience member who attended Blindness, admitted she'd had some trepidation about returning to the theater.

"It's a pandemic. Large gatherings inside are just a fundamental no," she says. "But it seemed like this might be the best way to possibly transition into normalcy."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

Here's something we haven't been able to say in more than a year. It's opening night at the theater. Reporter Jeff Lunden used to see multiple shows a week, so he was very excited to head out masked and vaccinated to see an early preview of what might be to come.

JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: There was a short line outside the Daryl Roth Theatre off Broadway where patrons waited to see "Blindness," a piece based on a novel by Jose Saramago. Before we entered, a staffer gave us instructions.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So here's what's going to happen. The show is 70 minutes long. There is no intermission, no re-entry and no public restroom.

LUNDEN: We had our temperatures checked.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: On the circle.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible) this circle, right?

LUNDEN: We showed tickets on our phones...

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And you have our tickets.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We do.

LUNDEN: ...And walked singly or in pairs to socially distant seats spread about the vast auditorium. What followed was not exactly theater per se but a sound and light show. At times you felt like actress Juliet Stevenson was whispering in your ear, telling you about an epidemic of blindness.

JULIET STEVENSON: (As Doctor's Wife) Advise the health authorities, the ministry. That's the first thing to do. If it turns out to be an epidemic, measures must be taken.

DARYL ROTH: It's not a traditional play in the way we think of it, but what it is is a wonderful way to story-tell in a safe environment.

LUNDEN: Daryl Roth is producing "Blindness."

ROTH: The headphones are sanitized. There is no interaction with actors. There is nothing that isn't comfortable for people to come and gather.

LUNDEN: I talked with other producers about how they're planning to reopen their theaters, all large, flexible indoor spaces. I heard about separate entrances and exits, new ventilation filters, no physical playbills. And regardless of vaccination status, the Park Avenue Armory even plans to do COVID tests at the door, says president and executive producer Rebecca Robertson.

REBECCA ROBERTSON: It's a rapid test, and it takes 15 minutes to find out what the answer is.

LUNDEN: Then the audience will be led single file into the Armory's 55,000-square-foot drill hall.

ROBERTSON: And I can say that with 100 people in the drill hall, you feel like you're seeing the work by yourself.

LUNDEN: But its grand reopening last week with a new piece by choreographer Bill T. Jones was postponed when several members of the dance company tested positive. The show has been rescheduled for May. Robertson says while she's disappointed, it proves the protocols work, and it's important to build flexibility into their plans.

ROBERTSON: Everyone's got scenario A, scenario B, scenario X, you know?

LUNDEN: Over the course of the pandemic, the Armory has been having weekly meetings via Zoom with other similar arts organizations to share information, lobby the city and state and just commiserate, says Susan Feldman, founder and artistic director of St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn.

SUSAN FELDMAN: There's a void that we're all feeling, and it's kind of like, how do we bring people together and yet stay safely apart? You can say it both ways. You can say, how do we stay safely apart and still come together? - because we need both.

LUNDEN: But will people come? I met an audience member after seeing "Blindness," Manhattan resident Laura Knutsen. She admitted she'd had some trepidation about returning to the theater.

LAURA KNUTSEN: It's a pandemic. Large gatherings inside just a fundamental no. But it seemed like this might be the best way to possibly transition into normalcy.

LUNDEN: And she added she liked the show a lot. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE COMET IS COMING'S "SEVEN PLANETARY HEAVENS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.