For a Night at the Theater, Bring a Negative Coronavirus Test

This post was originally published on NY Times - Theater

Written by: Christopher F. Schuetze

A pilot program in Berlin is reopening some of the city’s landmark cultural venues, despite surging numbers of infections and toughened restrictions in other areas of life.

BERLIN — On a snowy, gray morning last Friday, as a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic in Germany was taking hold, Anna Schoras, 30, lined up outside a pop-up testing site inside a repurposed art gallery in Berlin.

Cultural life in the German capital has largely shut down because of the virus, but if Schoras’s test came back negative, she would be allowed to attend the first live stage production in the city in about five months, scheduled for that evening.

“I’m just really looking forward to getting out of the house and to consuming live culture,” she said, adding that before the pandemic, she would go to the theater or the opera about twice a month.

Earlier that week, Schoras had been among the lucky few to secure one of 350 tickets to the show at the venerated Berliner Ensemble theater. They sold out in four minutes.

The performance was part of a pilot project, coordinated by the city of Berlin, that allows its landmark cultural venues to put on a show in front of a live audience — as long as the audience members wear masks, maintain social distancing and present a negative result from a rapid test taken no longer than 12 hours before curtain. The test, which is included in the price of the ticket, must be administered by medically trained workers at one of five approved centers.

Along with two nights at the Berliner Ensemble, live performances are being held at two of the city’s opera houses, the Philharmonie and Konzerthaus, and at the Volksbühne theater. Holzmarkt, a nightclub, will also host a sit-down concert. The short run of shows is intended to test whether organizers can put on cultural events safely, even as infection numbers soar.

Despite an extension announced on Monday to restrictions that have been in place in Germany since October, Torsten Wöhlert, the city official in charge of the project, said he was determined to keep it running. “The pilot is designed to be safe even when infection rates are high,” he said.

But given a recent surge in new cases, regional lawmakers could be called to vote on whether to continue the project, Wöhlert conceded. On Friday, Berlin surpassed the health authorities’ warning level of 100 infections per 100,000 people in a week. The Berlin Senate decided on Tuesday to move back three shows that had been scheduled for the Easter weekend, though others set to be staged before then can go ahead.

Germany’s muddled national response to the virus has given way to local initiatives to keep life going, including a program to keep shopping and outdoor dining open for tested customers in some cities. As well as an epidemiological experiment, the Berlin initiative is a signal from a city that prides itself on its vibrant arts scene that — despite being shut down since October — culture still matters.

“There is a big appetite for art,” said Wöhlert. “That was evidenced by the speed with which the shows sold out.”

Of the 350 people who snapped up the Berliner Ensemble tickets for Friday’s performance of “Panikherz,” a gritty work examining eating disorders and featuring heavy drug use, everyone tested negative before arrival, according to the theater. (Anyone testing positive is guaranteed their money back.)

The theater’s bar and coat check were closed, but in any case there was no intermission, to keep mingling opportunities to a minimum, and the compulsory empty seat between spectators, which was supposed to ensure social distancing, also made an excellent substitute coat rack.

Gordon Welters for The New York Times

Berlin is not the only city that could benefit from the insights from the project, with findings expected in mid-April.

New York is also experimenting with ways to bring back indoor live performances. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said this month that, beginning April 2, arts and entertainment venues would be allowed to reopen at a third of their regular capacity, holding up to 100 people indoors — and up to 150 if they require audience members to bring proof of a negative test. Some venues are preparing to test audiences themselves. Others will also accept proofs of vaccination.

But with New York City still reporting high numbers of new infections each day, real risks remain. Plans by the Park Avenue Armory to stage a new work this week by the choreographer and director Bill T. Jones before a limited, virus-tested, socially-distanced audience were postponed after several members of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane dance company tested positive for the virus.

Other European nations are running their own trials. This month, the Netherlands hosted a series of pop and dance music concerts called “Back to Live,” with up to 1,500 tested attendees and no social distancing. Britain’s government has announced plans to run several similar pilot events in April, including at a nightclub in Liverpool, England.

In addition to Berlin’s performance-venue project, museums reopened around Germany last week after the federal authorities loosened the rules. At the Alte Nationalgalerie in central Berlin, each visitor — who can visit without having to present a negative test result — is allocated 430 square feet of space, meaning that only 360 preregistered guests can visit daily, about a fifth of the number the museum would usually attract on a busy day before the pandemic. Tickets are sold out for the coming weeks.

Ralph Gleis, the museum’s director, said, “You realize that museums are an essential space in society, where one can go to be distracted, to occupy oneself with external things — especially during a crisis, culture is really important.”

But even that respite hangs by a thread. Although museums were open on Wednesday, the rising rate of infections in Berlin could oblige them to close again on very short notice.

Filip Singer/EPA, via Shutterstock

Holzmarkt, a sprawling club complex on the Spree River, was the only nightlife venue to join the performance pilot. Although the club’s organizers said that they were happy to put on a concert for 80 people in a space where 400 people could usually cram in — with very few sitting — Konstantin Krex, the club’s spokesman, said that the management was not content with the rules that have kept the venue shuttered since October.

“It’s a pretty long way from the real club feeling,” Krex said of the seated concert at Holzmarkt, planned for March 27.

Even if the restricted performances lack the bustle of a packed house, the audience at the Berliner Ensemble on Friday night seemed excited to be part of the brief reopening. The actors were nervous after a five-month enforced break, said Oliver Reese, the director.

After the cast took its bows, the play’s author, Benjamin von Stuckrad-Barre, jumped onstage to thank the crowd for being part of the project.

“It is not a superspreader event — it is culture,” he said. Judging by the applause, the audience agreed. And when the findings of the pilot program come in next month, they will know if he was right.

Alex Marshall contributed reporting from London.

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