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The show must go on

Gaby Reucher
February 1, 2021

Despite feeling the pinch of a prolonged COVID lockdown, theaters are harnessing technology to keep their audiences engaged.

 Charly Hübner | Deutschen Schauspielhaus Hamburg 
Deutschen Schauspielhaus Hamburg
Image: Deutsches SchauSpielHaus Hamburg

With hundreds of German state, regional and private theaters currently closed to the public as the COVID-19 pandemic rages on, many have been forced to improvise.

At the Hamburg Schauspielhaus, for instance, renowned German actor Charly Hübner (pictured top) is playing a ghost that haunts the dark stairwells of the theater as part of streaming program series that started in November. Such behind the scenes dramas are one means of retaining regular audiences during the lockdown — and perhaps even gaining new ones.

Theater am Marientor in Duisburg has been transformed into a vaccination centerImage: Udo Gottschalk/imago images

Other houses have been unable to create such theatrical solutions. Duisburg's Theater am Marientor in western Germany has functioned as a coronavirus test and vaccination center since November 2020. It is not planning to host cultural events again until the pandemic has passed.

Curtains down — and not just in Germany

Across most of the world, theaters, cinemas, concert halls and event spaces have long stood still. Renowned theaters like Shakespeare's Globe Theatre in London was hit hard financially after the first lockdown but has since launched a "Globe Player" that allows patrons to rent or buy productions including The Two Noble Kinsmen and A Midsummer Nights Dream — a host of extra content can be viewed including backstage footage and documentaries. 

The National Theater in London is also offering an extensive streaming program, including a recent production of Othello

At the end of 2020, the Spanish capital Madrid took a daring step and opened theaters and cinemas despite relatively high COVID numbers elsewhere in the country. The press spoke of the "Miracle of Madrid."

But with Spain in a state of emergency until May 9, 2021, events fail to attract large audiences and there is a fear that curfews will be reimposed.

Actors struggle without state funding

More than in almost any other country, theaters in Germany are financially supported by municipal and state governments. Full-time employees of municipal theaters are mostly now on subsidized "short-time" working hours and at least are not unemployed.

However, the situation is different for private theaters, and for self-employed actors and actresses who often do not qualify for emergency funding from the state.

"This has affected the mood," said the executive director of the German Stage Association, Marc Grandmontagne, in an interview with DW. "Many artists and musicians are throwing in the towel."

Fear of post-COVID austerity program

As the employers' association for theaters and opera houses, the German Stage Association was able to apply for €30 million ($36.3 million) for privately run theaters under a special federal government program. However the money is tied to productions and will only be disbursed when a theater is up and running again. That's why everyone is hoping that things will pick up soon.

"It's an insanely turbulent time," said Grandmontagne, who currently has to deal with constantly changing hygiene and short-time work regulations. "When you open and close houses all the time, it's a strain on the nerves."

And with COVID-related expenses having drained public coffers, there is great fear that financial allotments for culture will be cut again after the pandemic.

The Global Theatre in London was always a sellout pre-COVID Image: picture-alliance/World Pictures/P. Phipp

Streaming as a way to survive

Grandmontagne expresses admiration for those artists who have kept the ball rolling despite the crisis. "They still have the will and the strength and try to reach their audience through creative ideas," he said.

The illustrious Munich Residenztheater is, like the Globe Theatre in London, now also relying on streaming performances online. A "pay-as-you-want" principle applies, ranging from a saver ticket of €15 ($18.11) to a "solidarity ticket" of €100 ($120.76).

The TUP (Theatre and Philharmonic Hall) in Essen is also streaming performances after the technology was updated during the first lockdown.

"We don't think we'll open again so quickly," the spokesman for the drama and ballet division, Martin Siebold, told DW. For now, the theatre is cautiously preparing four new premieres for April.

Germany: Corona instead of Carmen

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Meeting younger audiences' needs

Theatre educator Marguerite Windblut has come up with something for younger audiences in Essen. Since children and young people in particular receive little outside stimulation due to ongoing distance learning in schools, she has engaged actors and actresses to read aloud an exciting story for 6 to 10-year-olds — not via streaming or podcasts but rather by telephone.

"Every registered child gets their own telephone story suitable for their age and which is individually related to them for ten to 15 minutes," Windblut explained. Others in the household can of course listen in via loudspeakers.

"Talk To" session brings audiences closer to the people behind the scenesImage: Theater Bonn

Fellow theater educator Alessia Heider from the Bonn Theatre relies on interaction with young people. For her "Talk To..." program, she invites people under 27 to talk to theater employees via Zoom. "We want to put those who are often behind the scenes into the limelight," she said. First up was Gerd Kreuzer, a wardrobe supervisor at the Bonn Opera.

Heider has even found a silver lining to going digital in the wake of the COVID restrictions. "You are up close and personal. Especially now, it's nice to see people in virtual conversation, even if they're not wearing a mask."

Adapted from the German by Brenda Haas

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