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No mask required: the joys and fears of seeing UK theatre now

  • >> Alex Marshall, The New York Times
    Published: 2021-10-20 02:48:25 BdST

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People outside London theatres on July 10, 2021. Theaters here have now been allowed to open without restrictions for three months, and while many audience members have been delighted to return to live performances, inconsistent rules are troubling some fans. (Jeremie Souteyrat/The New York Times)

Before the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Nicolette Jones used to go to the theater with her daughter about 50 times a year.

Now she’s not going at all. “Theater is my relaxation, my escape,” said Jones, 61. “The thought of sitting next to somebody who is unmasked for two hours, laughing and whatever, that is going to remove all that,” she added.

Theaters here have now been allowed to open without restrictions for three months, and while many audience members have been delighted to return to live performances, inconsistent rules are troubling some fans.

Unlike on Broadway, theatregoers in England are not required to wear masks in their seats or be fully vaccinated. Instead, it’s up to each venue to decide what they require. Most West End venues are asking for proof of vaccination or a negative test result at the door, but some smaller venues don’t. Spectators are also encouraged to wear masks, but many choose not to, even as the number of virus cases in Britain steadily grows.

How are theater fans feeling about this new normal? Has the pandemic changed what they’re seeing and how they’re seeing it?

We spoke to seven other theater enthusiasts to find out. These are edited extracts from those conversations.

Robbie Curran, 29, actor and writer

I’ve mainly been going to fringe theater. The best moment so far was probably in “The NW Trilogy” at The Kiln, these three plays about immigrants in northwest London.

At the end, the whole cast came together with banners and marched. And it had such a high energy and pulse, I turned to my partner, and she went, “Wow, we’ve missed this!” It’s those moments of real connection and catharsis that we were lacking in lockdown.

At the small venues, no one’s asked to check vaccine status or any of that. They’re probably just trying to get their audiences back, so going on trust that everyone is doing their best.

With masks, it’s different every night. Sometimes one person is wearing a mask, sometimes half the audience is; sometimes no masks, sometimes all masks.

Fazilet Hadi, 64, works for a disability organization

I hate to admit this — some of my friends would be horrified — but I haven’t been wearing a mask. I don’t know why. I suppose because I’m blind, I can’t see who’s wearing them and who’s not, so in my little world no one is! No one’s said anything to me.

I’m not fussed about COVID, really. We’ve all got different levels of risk.

I’ve been to “Twelfth Night” at The Globe, with audio description, and that felt so good. There wasn’t an interval, and I did think, “Oh, my goodness, two hours, 40 minutes without a break!” But it flew by.

I’ve got three more plays booked. What COVID’s done to me is just clarify what I love doing, accentuating the pleasure. That might wear off but hasn’t yet.

Nikki Reilly, 46, maths and computing teacher, and Izzy Reilly, 15, student

Nikki: Going to the theater’s always been expensive, but we found this app where you can buy rush tickets on the day, and because many people aren’t ready to go back yet, and there isn’t the influx of tourists you normally get in London. We saw “Heathers” one day, and we saw “Come From Away” in the stalls for just 25 pounds ($34). Normally it’d be 150 pounds!

Izzy: It feels like I’ve got so much more agency to see things I want to. I can go, “Can we see this?” and normally we can.

Nikki: We’ve been to the West End six times. As soon as it gets busy again, we’ll probably go back to local theaters. Izzy’s at school, and I’m a teacher, so maybe we’re more used to being around big groups of people. We haven’t been concerned about COVID. And everyone’s been wearing masks. What bothers me more has been traveling to the theaters — people not wearing masks on the train, the tube, particularly if they’re ill and coughing. That does concern me.

Jane Duffus, 43, author

Pre-COVID, I used to go to the theater all the time. But tomorrow is my first trip. I’m going to see “Wuthering Heights” at the Bristol Old Vic, and I specifically booked it as it’s socially distanced. We’re lucky where I live, a few theaters are still doing distanced performances.

I just haven’t been ready until now. I went to an event in August, and it really freaked me out: about 400 people, no distancing, and I was one of only about six people wearing a mask. A few days later, a friend texted me to say they had COVID. I didn’t feel remotely relaxed. Every time I heard a cough … It was a lot.

I picked “Wuthering Heights,” as I love Wise Children, the company doing it. If you’re going to put yourself through anxiety, it should be something you know you’ll enjoy.

Bryony Rose, 20, Theater YouTuber

I used to see some shows again and again: “Six” and “& Juliet.” But when theater wasn’t there, it sparked a passion for shows I hadn’t seen, so I’ve tried to really branch out. It’s still mainly musicals, but I love them.

“Frozen” was absolutely incredible, especially seeing the younger generation in the audience and their eyes lighting up, like mine did at that age. At the end of “Let It Go,” I almost cried. The diversity in the ensemble was really inspiring too.

In lockdown, when I couldn’t express my passion for theatre, it was really difficult. I hadn’t realized how much I relied on that to express who I was.

When theaters reopened, I got so many comments from people on my channel saying, “I want to go to a show, but I’m worried it’s not safe.” So I started using my blogs to show there were things in place to keep people safe and how people can do things themselves like a test at home. Now I’m getting all these comments saying, “Because of you, I feel safe enough to go.”

Stephanie Kempson, 34, director

I’m a theater director, so I need to see work, but I’ve been getting nervous as people stopped wearing masks this autumn.

I’ve been trying to pull favours so I can get into rehearsals to see things, and I’m trying to watch livestreams, but often only one performance in a run is being livestreamed now.

So socially distanced performances are the way to go for me. I have ME/CFS, so I’m aware of what long COVID could be like.

People are so excited to be back, and I can forgive them for that, but it does seem there’s a lack of awareness and common-mindedness.

© 2021 The New York Times Company