(Philip Oltermann’s article appeared in the Guardian, 5/29.)

Extra legroom and no interval: Germany plans for post-lockdown theatre

Berliner Ensemble unveils auditorium with most chairs ripped out, but some left in pairs, for a socially distanced audience who can visit the toilet during the play

Going to the theatre after the coronavirus lockdown could be not just a novel but a more pleasant experience, if the plans of Germany’s leading theatres are anything to go by. There will be generous legroom for spectators and a more casual attitude to toilet breaks.

As Germany continues to relax social distancing restrictions imposed to curb the spread of Covid-19, playhouses in most cities are still waiting for an official date when they can reopen their doors to the public. The Berlin senate announced on Friday that open-air cultural events will be allowed from 2 June, but theatres are likely to remain shut until September. Venues such as the German capital’s Berliner Ensemble, however, are already providing a glimpse of what drama could look like in a world of social distancing.

The theatre by the River Spree, founded in 1949 by Bertolt Brecht, has spent the last week uninstalling 500 of the 700 seats in its main auditorium, to allow for a viewing experience that adheres to government requirements of a 1.5m safety distance.

“We simply could have blocked seats or taken out only entire rows, but that would have looked ghostly,” said artistic director Oliver Reese. Instead, the theatre went with an arrangement resembling a gap-toothed smile, with 70% of seats arranged in pairs. “We want to create an experience that is special, that will anchor itself in people’s emotional memory.”

When the first production opens, which is likely to be on 4 September, there will be no interval, to avoid a crush at the toilets where social distancing would be hard to guarantee. Instead, spectators are allowed to dash to the loo whenever they need. “It will be a new experience, with new rituals.”

Ticket prices, Reese said, would stay the same since they are already subsidised by the state. “If we were to put up ticket prices, that would send a fatal signal to a society in which a lot of people are struggling for their livelihoods at the moment.”

Private Berlin playhouses such as the Grips youth theatre, which could only fill 70 out of 360 seats under new distancing rules, said they were hoping to make up their losses at the box offices with expanded subsidy schemes from the city’s education senate.

There is a striking contrast between subsidy levels for theatres in Germany and theatres in the UK, where it is more difficult to reduce capacity and still make enough income to cover running costs. According to the British producer Sonia Friedman, most theatres need to sell 60% of seats just to survive. 

In Germany theatres were among the first establishments forced to close their doors as the spread of the pandemic accelerated in mid-March, amid fears that crowds of people crammed together in a closed space made them the perfect environment for the virus to spread.

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