Stage

COVID-19 plays the spoiler as stages try to reopen in Japan

by Philip Patrick

Contributing writer

Even in the age of COVID-19, the show must go on, and go on it will.

Theater lovers suffering from withdrawal symptoms as a result of cancellations prompted by the coronavirus will be relieved to learn that a number of companies are busily formulating plans to restart their stalled events calendars as soon as possible. However, the restrictions likely to be in place for some time mean things are not exactly going to be business as usual.

With warnings of a second wave of infections occupying minds, the nation’s entertainment venues are taking a cautious approach to reopening. Currently, the government favors a system of spaced seating that would limit audience levels to 50 percent of their capacity in order to comply with social distancing requirements.

Such a constraint could have serious financial implications, however. Companies may feel the need to compensate for drastically reduced revenues by hiking admission prices in a bid to stave off bankruptcy. Those lucky enough to get some of the limited tickets available might find their business class elbow room comes at business class prices.

Then there is the question of atmosphere. Part of the joy of attending the theater or a concert is to lose oneself within a crowd of like-minded enthusiasts reveling in a communal experience. Such transcendence may be hard to achieve as one member of an atomized audience in a half-empty hall. For evidence, witness the sterile and eerie spectacle of soccer being played in deserted stadiums around the world. However, there is something to be said for smaller audiences, which can provide an intimate atmosphere with a closer connection to the performers.

In response to requirements for spaced seating, Japan’s theaters have been mobilizing and working together on possible alternative scenarios. Theater groups such as the Japan Performing Arts Solidarity Network (JPASN) have been formed to share information, coordinate strategy and look at ways to adapt and survive in this new normal.

Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, a member of the network, is running tests to explore how performances could go ahead in front of near-capacity audiences while still complying with official health ordinances. One idea is to install protective plastic screens between each seat, discreetly compartmentalizing individuals and protecting them from the airborne emissions of rogue coughs and splutters.

JPSAN is also considering scheduling adjustments. Its members are drawing up plans to open earlier to help prevent lines building up at ticket-collection points, while programs may also need to be shortened and intervals scrapped to help avoid crowded restrooms and corridors. Exits may be staggered, with the audience released row by row — like boarding a plane, but in reverse.

As for the performers themselves, social distancing on stage could be the biggest obstacle of all, and may require the willingness of directors and playwrights to adapt their works to fit the new requirements. Imaginative solutions may be needed, such as those displayed by actors in Hamburg, who have been rehearsing in hooped skirts to keep their fellow performers at a suitable distance.

Tokyo Metropolitan Theatre, which, before COVID-19 struck, had planned to welcome the Royal Shakespeare Company for its first visit to Japan in 20 years, is hoping its experiments can prove successful and an agreement can be reached with government health experts, allowing rehearsals to begin next month. Initial reduced-audience performances have already been penciled in for August, and a return to as near full capacity as possible in September. However, all of this is contingent on a continued improvement of the coronavirus situation and, as such, much remains unclear.

What is certain, though, is that when the curtain eventually rises, although it may not quite be the theater we have come to know, those on stage will be ready to give their all.

In line with the nationwide state of emergency declared on April 16, the government is strongly requesting that residents stay at home whenever possible and refrain from visiting bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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