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German theaters adapt to the coronavirus

Verena Greb | Nadine Wojcik
July 23, 2020

Nebulizers, plexiglass partitions, seats far-apart, one-way street principle — here's how German theaters plan to keep theatergoers safe after reopening.

view of a theater stage with huge fan meant to disseminate disinfectant
This theater is trying out a nebulizer device to disinfect the auditorium and stageImage: M. Haase

Anyone who gets a sneak peek at the Berliner Ensemble's historic auditorium these days might think that renovation is still underway. Before the coronavirus, theatergoers sat side by side on wooden theater folding seats covered in red velvet.

But of the 700 seats, only 200 remain in the auditorium, spaced far apart. Some are single seats, most groups of two. It looks and feels odd, but then again, when has anyone had the opportunity to focus on a play without vying for the armrest with the person next to them or having to crane one's neck to see past the hairdo of the person seated one row further up?

The Berliner Ensemble showed off its revised seating scheme ahead of the opening of the new season on September 4: 

Measures to deal with the coronavirus pandemic demand a lot from theaters. Enclosed spaces and crowds can quickly become a hotbed of aerosol transmission. As they must comply with the 1.5 meter (six feet) distance rule, most theaters can only use a quarter of their seats to ensure the requisite distance to the seats to the left and right and to the rows in front and behind. A minimum distance of 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) is mandated between audience and stage.

From the supermarket to the theater: plexiglass 

Some theaters plan to install plexiglass partitions. Hamburg's Thalia Theater says it is setting up transparent partitions in the boxes, the kind already familiar at supermarket checkout counters.

Those are just some of the many measures theaters are planning before reopening after the shutdown in activity. Others include no coat checks and requiring theatergoers to use hand sanitizer at the entrance and to proceed along a one-way system, with separate entrance and exit so that people do not pass one another. Such specifications are mandated by the respective state.

Soon to come to a theater near you: nebulized hydrogen peroxide

A remarkable approach: Theaters in Augsburg and in Berlin (title photo) have been testing an array of machines and fans to nebulize eco-friendly, biodegradable hydrogen peroxide with a hoped-for lethal effect on the virus. The devices work in rooms with up to 150 cubic meters (5,300 cubic feet). In a technique originally developed for hospitals, a cold-fogging solution distributes hydrogen peroxide throughout the room, disinfecting all surfaces.

The test results have been promising and are probably of interest not only to theaters: The Berliner Ensemble reported that the nebulization eliminated 99% of the viruses and bacteria in the interior space. The theater now plans to equip the entrance area and restrooms with the new technology.

photo of rows of red theater chairs, some of them with signs that read
Presentation of a concept to safely re-open the Volksbühne Theater in CologneImage: picture-alliance/dpa/H. Galuschka

Actors must stay at arm's length too

Some theaters have already opened for the season, though in a markedly different way than before. Munich's Residenztheater, for instance, availed itself of a hygiene concept approved by the state of Bavaria for museums in early June. Rather than a regular performance for a large audience, the theater offered a one-hour play to a select few — and every ten minutes, a group of four was allowed to meet with actors inside and in front of the building.

By mid-June, audiences of 50 people were permitted. Since the actors also have to keep their distance from each other, Antonio Latella's production of The Three Musketeers with only four actors seemed a good choice. There is no intermission, however. Anyone who needs to use the restroom during the performance is accompanied. The Residenztheater restaurant remains closed.

Here the Residenztheater announces increased availability of tickets — 200 — for a performance of "Lulu & The Three Musketeers:

Highly physical productions verboten

"We definitely want to play again, that is our mission," Oliver Reese, the Berliner Ensemble's artistic director, wrote on the theater's website — even if the original schedule is outdated. Highly physical productions like Michael Thalheimer's Macbeth — which has the actors pouncing on and licking one another — have been removed from the playbill for the time being.

"Plans for the next season had to be completely rethought and reorganized over the past few weeks," Reese says. "In close cooperation with the artistic teams and our ensemble, we have succeeded in developing new visions for the upcoming, extraordinary season."

How the actors will redefine the interaction among themselves and with the audience is being kept secret; audiences will find out when the season starts in September. But even during the lockdown, the Berliner Ensemble remained creative, staging a production outdoors in early June and keeping in touch with its audience via digital channels.

Two men drink beer in the rain outdoors under an umbrella with labeled
Beer with breathing space: the Residenztheater offers outdoor refreshments Image: A. Meister

The final curtain call for small-town theaters?

German theaters are gradually finding their way back into a cultural landscape that is slowly awakening from its more than three month-long state of shock. Many will not open until the new season, after the summer break.

While artistic directors are unlikely to question the protective measures in general, the situation does beg the question: Why are airline passengers allowed to sit close together, and theatergoers not? How important is culture compared to the German airline industry?

The country's major theaters depend on ticket sales; if running at only 30% audience capacity, they lack key income. Quickly recognizing the problem, the government has issued special funding — but those resources are finite and have not reached every theater.

Germany's states are supporting major theaters long-term, but small ones say it is simply not worth reopening if they can sell only 25 out of 100 seats. For many a small-town theater, an end to the coronavirus pause is not in sight. It's to be hoped that it won't be their last curtain call.

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