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amBroadway: Theater industry slowly reopening eyes

The Company and Creative Team of Romeo y Julieta.
Photo courtesy of The Public Theater

Well, it’s not exactly the return of “The Lion King” and “Wicked,” but it’s a start. 

Slowly but surely, the New York theater community is beginning to show some signs of life following last week’s long-delayed announcement from Governor Andrew Cuomo that theatrical performance venues can reopen beginning April 2 at very limited capacities and with social distancing/safety measures in place. The announcement came almost exactly one year since the industry shut down overnight due to the pandemic on March 12, 2020. 

Flexible venues throughout the city that can be adapted to allow for social distancing (such as the Apollo, St. Ann’s Warehouse, the Shed and LaMaMa) will present live pop-up programing as part of the State’s “NY PopsUp” series, which is intended to function as a pilot program, which will hopefully lead to the complete return of live performance in New York. Select Broadway theaters will also temporarily reopen their doors as part of the series, including the Music Box (which was most recently home to the Tony-winning musical “Dear Evan Hansen”).

The Upper East Side’s massive Park Avenue Armory, which is taking part in “NY PopsUp,” has also announced plans for “Social Distance Hall,” an entire slate of socially-distanced productions created during the pandemic by prominent artists such as choreographer Bill T. Jones, singer-songwriter David Byrne, and performance artist Laurie Anderson. “Afterwardness,” a dance piece created by Jones exploring isolation and violence, with audience members placed 9 to 12 feet apart, will open on March 24. Ticket buyers will be required to take a rapid COVID-19 test prior to entering the venue. 

“Blindness,” a 75-minute sound and light installation/immersive experience with prerecorded narration by English actress Juliet Stevenson, will become the first Off-Broadway production in New York in over a year. It will begin performances at the Daryl Roth Theatre in Union Square on April 2. Back in October, its producers announced that the show would play the venue once it was permitted to reopen. Audiences will be limited to 50 people per performance, with all tickets sold in two-seat pod that are six feet apart from each other.  

Meanwhile, the city’s “Open Culture” program, which was intended to encourage outdoor performances on city streets, has attracted criticism from Actors’ Equity Association (the union representing professional stage actors) for not meeting the union’s standards on living wage compensation or COVID-19 safety. On the other hand, the union has issued its approval of the “NYPopsUp” series. 

Notwithstanding the limited inclusion of Broadway as part of “NYPopsUp,” Broadway performances remain suspended through May 30 and are unlikely to resume until at least the fall. In numerous interviews throughout the pandemic, industry leaders have repeatedly emphasized that Broadway shows cannot survive economically under social distancing regulations that would only allow for limited audiences. In other words, Broadway will not reopen until all seats in theaters can be sold.

Nevertheless, in the coming weeks, more nonprofit and commercial productions are likely to be announced for the spring and summer. At present, it is unclear whether the Public Theater will present Shakespeare in the Park this summer at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park. Last year’s season was supposed to include productions of “Richard II” and a musical version of “As You Like It.” Under the guidelines released by Governor Cuomo last week, an outdoor venue such as the 1,800-seat Delacorte Theatre can have up to 500 audience members so long as they present proof of a recent negative COVID-19 test. 

This week’s streaming recommendations…

“Romeo Y Julieta” (bilingual podcast production by the Public Theater starring Lupita Nyong’o and Juan Castano), debuts March 18, publictheater.org…”Gutenberg! The Musical!” (satirical two-hander in which two writers perform a musical they write about Johannes Gutenberg), debuts March 18, broadwaycares.org. 

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