When Europe’s Theaters Reopen, Will Followers Return?

With most European countries swaying between closings and reopenings last year, it was a disruptive time for the continent’s many theater fans.

If theaters open across Europe in the coming months, they will do so in an increasingly digital world (theaters in some countries like Spain are already open). The Deutsches Theater in Berlin, La Scala in Milan and the Schauspielhaus Zürich streamed performances during the pandemic, among other things, and fans had access to virtual theater from around the world. Some venues have expanded their audiences well beyond what is possible in their physical spaces. Around 160,000 spectators saw a streamed performance of “Carmen” by the Berlin State Opera last year, the auditorium of which has 1,300 seats.

The shift has raised questions about whether audiences will return to theaters in the same numbers as before, and whether a mix of online and in-person television will become the new norm. The answers could have far-reaching effects on 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 modern American culture as it is in European.”

To find out how the pandemic could affect the large and small European theater scenes, we spoke to theater goers in seven different countries. These are edited excerpts from these conversations.

Recognition…Ilaria Vidaletti

There was a symbolic event recently where the theater was open and the lights were on and you could go to the foyer of the Teatro Sociale and I cried. Some of the most important moments in my life are related to shows I saw – when I was pregnant, when I had my second child. I spent the first lock at my parents’ house with my kids, and every morning the phone rang. It was news that someone we knew was dead. The most important thing was to keep everything together.

The ministry asked all theaters in the public theater system to put their archives online so that at least once a week after everyone went to bed, I would see a performance that I had never seen before. I love theater so much, but it was hard to see and hear because it wasn’t a quality experience. In Italy we are not used to thinking about theater outside the theater in other media.

I have subscribed to the National Theater’s streaming platform, the Soho Theater Platform. Maybe in the future I will watch international theater online instead of Netflix and I hope Italian theater goes online with similar products.

All my 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 watch it online.

For a wheelchair user like me, access was complicated before the pandemic. For smaller theaters, you will need to go through several levels of the website to get the accessibility information. You will then need to call and tell them the dimensions of your chair. The major West End theaters also often have a policy that they are in an old building so there is nothing they can do about it.

Now I’ve been able to see shows that I couldn’t have bothered with at all because my chair can’t get into the venue, like Morgan Lloyd Malcolm’s “Emilia” at the Vaudeville Theater. It was a transformative production, but on a personal level I find it difficult to deal with virtual experiences.

I am concerned that social distancing measures in theaters will affect wheelchair space availability as they refuse to further reduce capacity.

However, I am cautiously optimistic that the pandemic will ultimately lead to positive change. I think things like Long Covid made it clear that people never know how the virus will affect you. I hope there is more compassion and support. The virtual stuff shouldn’t be used as a proxy so that all disabled people can stay at home and all non-disabled people who don’t have to think about their health can party and go to the theater.

I live in hell which has a few thousand residents and there are about 10 Revy groups here. Each Revy group usually does one performance a year, and a single performance contains 15 to 20 numbers of around four minutes each – sketches, songs, monologues.

I was 15 when I first went revy. When I was 17, I joined Lankerevyen, an award-winning Revy group, and switched to Revy from once or twice a year to see it all.

Recognition…Marthe Nygård

Revy is like a mirror to society. It includes sketches of what is happening in your community or country. In 30 or 40 years, no crisis has stopped people from doing shows. It’s the best opportunity for people to meet their neighbors and when you don’t know something is missing.

A group in Norway put a stream together and it’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing. When you are at home it is not that easy to cry, clap your hands, or talk about it to others afterwards. But in the future I think more will happen. Instead of having to play ten nights in a row, they can run it once and put it on a stream. But for me it will be a complement to the things I see, not a substitute.

In 2016 I started a YouTube theater channel and went to 150 or 200 shows or more a year – basically every night. My social life is mostly made up of the encounters I have before and after shows, but that’s not the main incentive for me. Theater is an education, a discovery of social issues. It’s a rare place where you hear people talk for an hour or two and are forced to remain silent. If you are able to talk about it when you walk off the show after the applause, time has passed and things are ripening within you that otherwise wouldn’t.

I couldn’t get into the digital offerings of the theaters. It’s not theater, it’s proof of theater. The mistake of streaming is believing that a show starts when the curtain goes up and stops when the audience claps – but the theater reserves the ticket and waits in the lobby, it’s an entire social event. When it rains outside, a show is not the same as when it is sunny outside.

The Comédie Française had streams of archived shows every evening, but I would never sit on the couch for 2.5 hours and watch Klaus Michael Grüber’s “Bérénice”. After five minutes, I get up to go to the fridge or check out Twitter. We’re so used to the cuts, the rhythm of the cinema, that something that uses the language of the cinema but is live on a screen without cuts just becomes long and annoying.

I go to the theater maybe four or five times a year. There are two or three actors – like Adel Kovats – that I see all of their bad shows on just because I know they are going to do a brilliant job, and I watch all of Dollar Papa Gyermekei’s shows. When it was my fortieth birthday, I wanted to hire her to come into my apartment because they have a program where you can do that, but Emoke Kiss-Vegh the leading lady was pregnant. Ordering a show in your own apartment will give your home a story that you will never forget. It’s like in space theater, a Hungarian theater movement from the 60s and 70s.

At the beginning of the shutdown, my partner and I were streaming five or six games. We have different tastes in theater, but I do his much better. I saw the National Theater of London put Gillian Anderson on “A Streetcar Named Desire” and she was great.

But I want to see theater in a theatrical setting. When I’m in the audience in a theater, I can watch what I want. If I don’t want to look at the face of the person giving the monologue, I can look at the face that is hearing. Theater is one lens to reality, and if it’s theater on TV, it’s two lenses.

But I won’t go to the theater more often just because we had a pandemic. If it’s New York and I can’t fly there, it’s a shame. I’ll watch clips on YouTube, but I don’t believe the whole show.

The city of Oberammergau started the Passion Play in 1634 during the plague. The villagers promised that if the village were spared further sacrifices, it would perform a passion play every ten years, representing the end of the life of Jesus. Before 2020, it wasn’t interrupted until World War II and in 1770 when authorities banned it.

In 2000 we went to the Passion Play. It was more overwhelming than we expected. You feel addressed in the strongest sense. You sit close to around 4,000 spectators. It’s not an advertisement for religion, but it does exist in an overall atmosphere that takes religion for granted, which is strange in Germany because we tend to separate them more here.

We had reserved tickets for 2020. We were very disappointed when it was pushed back to 2022, but we were mostly concerned about the people who were directly involved. The people in Oberammergau measure the passage of time with the Passion Play. We met an older man once who had played seven times and he was over 80 years old and tears ran down his cheeks when he told me he was not going to see the next Passion Play.

Hopefully the long wait will lead to an internal explosion and the frustration will pour into the piece so that it becomes a personal reward not only for the actors but also for the audience.

Theater is the only thing I would be willing to leave the house for the time being. My area is rural and the government is particularly underserved in terms of support for industry and jobs, but it is struggling, especially in the cultural area. That’s probably the only thing we have to offer. There is a theater group in every second village. These would not be top-notch performances: you would have good characters, good actors, but the sets are very simple.

One thing I’ve seen over the past 20 years is the level of improvement. We are really talking about pieces from the Irish canon and it has to do with the feeling that we are doing our own thing, that this is our own experience, our own story. Of course, there is also the possibility that something could go wrong.

During the lockdown, Dublin’s Abbey Theater immediately came up with something called “Dear Ireland,” which invited 50 writers to write about their experiences and 50 actors to play it, and they posted it on Zoom. But for me it wasn’t a drama. I couldn’t stand the flatness of the screen compared to the three-dimensional performance.

I would rather watch a TV show than any of the streamed pieces. It makes you realize what you are missing. I would love to go in and sit next to someone and hope they have been vaccinated, but I look forward to it. I just hope they don’t get too into the pandemic in new plays. I don’t particularly go to the theater to be depressed. I can do this alone.

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