Auckland Theatre Company opened two shows this week, performed under Covid-19 restrictions. So what’s it like to go to the theatre during a pandemic?
One of the last theatre shows I saw before we went into the first lockdown was Auckland Theatre Company’s Black Lover. It’s fitting, then, that it’s one of two shows the company has brought back for its first live performances since March, the other being DF Mamea’s critically acclaimed Still Life with Chickens. The difference now is that rather than being packed into Q Loft, the audience is being spread across the ASB Waterfront Theatre, thanks to that 2020 bogeyman of live performance in Auckland: level 2.5 guidelines.
Theatre’s a risky business even during peacetime. A company puts months of work, perhaps years of planning, into a show, and then has to hope that people actually come. During Covid-19, it’s even more of a risky business, despite record levels of support from the government. Even if the government restrictions allow a company to put on a show, with guidelines in place, they have to hope that people show up in the same kind of droves they showed up to bars, beaches and restaurants after the first lockdown. Hell, even half would be a win.
The guidelines, outlined on the ATC website and sent out to all ticket holders beforehand, are clear and concise. The company has created three zones within the ASB Waterfront Theatre, each with its own entrance (complete with QR code) and its own box office, bar, toilets and defined seating area. Essentially, each zone is its own mini-theatre.
The three zones allow the theatre to safely accommodate 300 people, 100 in each zone (which is a little under half of the theatre’s 650-seat capacity). Inside the theatre, audiences are distanced, seated in sets of pairs in a chequerboard fashion. Physical distancing is encouraged, as it is in any public place. Mask wearing is similarly encouraged, but not enforced – it’s hard to gulp down a wine pre-show from behind a mask.
The company’s general manager, Jonathan Bielski, received advice and guidance from Palmerston North’s Regent on Broadway Theatre, one of the few large-scale venues that has operated throughout level two, on its guidelines. The Public Health Order announced on August 31 created a new category of controlled venue, a category designed so that venues like a theatre would fall into it. “We realised the idea of a ‘defined space’ was actually intended to be quite different from what I think most people had assumed, which was a separate sealed room,” says Bielski. Looking at the temporary partitions at SkyCity Casino and the Regent On Broadway, we could see the intention was distinct separation of groups of no more than 100, not hermetically sealed rooms.”
This season was actually planned way back in level three, when the theatre was putting on its Zoom production of The Seagull. Since then, it has done a filmed version of its planned 2020 production, Master Builder, and has worked to support the artists who were booked for gigs this year. The shows the company has brought back make sense: Black Lover was an Arts Festival hit, featuring company stalwart Cameron Rhodes as Sir Gareth Todd, while Still Life with Chickens, about a Samoan woman making friends with a chicken in her backyard, has toured around the country to great success. This season isn’t necessarily focused on being a commercial success for the company, though. “A season like this with audience size limitations is not a money-maker, it is an investment,” says Bielski. “Instead, we want to keep people employed, have creative opportunities for artists and engage our audience.
“We wanted to create a ‘comeback’ moment that was familiar to audiences to slowly rebuild confidence about feeling safe in the theatre. As things transpired, the audience was way ahead of us and people were keen as mustard to get to the theatre. They did not seem to need much confidence boosting.”
But confidence boosting is essential here. I’ll be honest: the guidelines initially put me off. Not necessarily because of the complexity or the danger involved, because trust me, nobody does contact tracing better than theatre people. If you’ve ever booked a ticket to a show, you know those buggers have no trouble tracking you down to try to make you see their next show.
No, they put me off because I was worried it wouldn’t feel like theatre. One of the best things about going to the theatre is the social aspect of it – the ability to be in the same room with a bunch of like-minded people (or at least like-minded enough to buy a ticket) experiencing something that won’t ever happen again in quite the same way is electric. It’s milling around beforehand and after, seeing people you haven’t seen since the last show, and feeling part of a community.
While a bit of that feeling was lost – empty seats can’t help but be a little bit depressing, due to low sales, shady whispers or global pandemic – once the lights went down the pre-show and post-show experience seemed to hardly matter. It helps that Still Life with Chickens (the show in the double-bill I saw) is a tried and true audience hit: Goretti Chadwick’s performance is rightly award-winning, and there are few performers I trust more to make me forget the world outside. She’s easy to watch, easier to love, and even in a pandemic, to see a solo show written by a Pasefika man, directed by a Pasefika man and starring a Pasefika woman on a mainstage is an absolute landmark moment.
Theatre is, at its core, about pretending that the real world isn’t there, if only for a moment. Once the lights are down, if the show is good enough, you forget it. Still Life with Chickens, or at the very least Goretti Chadwick, can provide that moment that makes you forget that half the people around you are wearing masks, there are glass screens separating you from the rest of your audience, and that there’s a pandemic bubbling outside. It transports you somewhere, somewhere that’s hopefully better.
Bielski felt it too. “There was a moment when Goretti Chadwick stepped out on stage, the first time this has happened for ATC since 19 March, familiar yet somewhat forgotten, and the connection was instant.I felt it – indescribable, and I love that it cannot be described. That is theatre and it is back.”
Auckland Theatre Company’s Back on the Boards season runs until Sunday September 20 at the ASB Waterfront Theatre. You can book tickets here.