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Theater is back whether or not we’re ready

By Austin Riffelmacher


On Tuesday, Sept. 14, three of Broadway’s biggest hits, “The Lion King,” “Wicked,” and “Hamilton,” resumed performances after being in the dark for 18 months due to COVID-19.


These re-openings mark the nation’s highest-profile indication that theater is resuming even without absolute certainty that gathering publicly is safe again.


By December, 39 plays and musicals will be running again on Broadway.


This includes brand-new shows like “Six,” a hip-hop musical about the wives of Henry VIII, to “The Phantom of the Opera,” which has been running in New York since 1988.


As the curtain finally goes up after much uncertainty this past year and a half, the restart poses more questions than answers about the art form’s future.


Articles in the press have debated how theater is expected to bounce back given the nature of COVID-19 variants and the expectation that tourism will take years to recover.


So, is it too soon to go back and experience live theater?


Last week’s fanfare of the industry making a comeback made me excited to see a show again. I bit the bullet, and next month will be the first time I sit in a Broadway theater since January 2020.


As excited as I am about seeing tangible storytelling again, I am nervous.


However, there are some things that put me at ease.


To see a performance in most union houses across the nation requires patrons to show proof of vaccination.


Other theaters, like Boston’s Huntington Theatre, allow unvaccinated audience members to attend provided they submit a negative COVID-19 test. As an intellectual jewel of the city, I wish they had stricter rules like other venues.


In London, the return of theater has been anything but successful. No vaccine mandates for cast and crew have forced several high-profile productions to temporarily close amid breakouts backstage.


A quick look inside auditoriums using Instagram shows English audience’s mask participation is minimal.


No thanks, London!


Professional theaters – both on Broadway and in Boston – require masks to remain on throughout the entire performance regardless of vaccination status.


Any performance I will go to in the future will be one that requires both vaccination and, for the time being, mask usage.


Plus, New York City’s “Key to the City” program – yes, a rip off of Disney’s “Key to the World” – requires patrons at any public venue to be vaccinated, making it the strictest set of protocols currently enforced in any American city.


One would think that an industry completely broken by the pandemic would come back with ticket prices reflecting its fragility.


Quite the opposite. Most commercial shows remain as expensive as they were back at the start of 2020.


The weekend of Oct. 16, the cheapest seat available on Ticketmaster for “Hamilton” is a $240 partial view. That’s the same “Hamilton” streaming in homes after Disney bought the rights of the filmed stage version for $75 million, then received $30 million in federal aid to remount the show’s five American companies.


What irritates me most about the continued inflation of ticket prices is that now more than ever, the commercial theater in America features more work by and for people of color.


This Broadway season, there will be seven plays written by African Americans. Conventional wisdom would argue that’s overcrowding the market.


With ticket prices that still cater to the super wealthy, and the apprehension people have about being in public spaces, my personal fear is that this long overdue moment will dissipate rapidly.


I hope I’m proven wrong and that there is a great hunger for people to return to the theater. For me, the lack of the communal experience playgoing provides has deprived me a sense of creative rejuvenation.

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