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Will Socially Distanced Rehearsals Leave Space for Good Theater?


Both countries also have plans to restart theaters — or at least get actors and directors back to work.

Performances in front of an audience are still out of the question for now. But on May 18, Austria will become one of the first countries on the continent where theater troupes can return to rehearsal, with detailed restrictions to limit the virus’s transmission. Actors must stay at least three feet apart, government guidelines say, and performers can come closer only if they wear face coverings or masks. In Germany, an insurance body has outlined similar rules.

In interviews, leading theatermakers in both countries said rehearsals would be impossible under such conditions. Several said they simply would not return to work unless actors could rehearse just as they did before the pandemic.

Austria’s safety requirements are “so unrealistic you’d think the people who wrote them had never been inside a theater,” Herbert Föttinger, the artistic director of the Theater in der Josefstadt in Vienna, said in an email exchange.

The rules weren’t necessarily developed with theaters in mind: They also apply to other workplaces like offices and stores. One of the most troublesome restrictions for actors, announced by the government on April 17, is a rule that a room could hold only one person per 20 square meters of floor space, about 215 square feet.

The idea of working under such conditions was “completely cuckoo,” Martin Kusej, the artistic director of the prestigious Burgtheater playhouse in Vienna, told the country’s news agency shortly after the rules were announced. Since then, the government has cut the floor space requirement in half.

Heike Warmuth, a spokeswoman for the Austrian Culture Ministry, said in an email that the rehearsal rules were being reviewed and that officials had met with theater administrators to discuss them. But she added that the government had to be guided by medical advice.

The ministry hoped to allow rehearsals “on a larger scale” by the beginning of June, she added, “if the number of infections remains low.”

Not one of the regional governments in neighboring Germany has said rehearsals can restart, though guidelines issued by the V.B.G., a state-established trade body for insurers, suggest restrictions could be even tougher there. Actors would have to wear masks covering their nose and mouth, the rules say, and stay 1.5 meters apart, about five feet. If the actors were singing or “speaking excessively,” that distance would rise to at least six meters, about 20 feet.

For productions involving musicians, extra conditions would apply: Wind and brass players must have at least 12 meters, or 40 feet, clear in front of them and three meters on either side; if rehearsing a ballet or dance, the studio floor should be mopped hourly, the guidelines say.

These regulations would have to be followed to avoid potential legal problems, Marc Grandmontagne, the managing director of the German Stage Association, said in a telephone interview. He said his organization was in discussions with the V.B.G. to get clarity on some rules: He had asked what “speaking excessively” meant, for instance.

Föttinger has been the theater scene’s most vocal objector to the Austrian restrictions. “Theater is created in the moment, and that moment must be free, or else it’s not theater,” he said in an email, adding: “Politicians can’t regulate artistic processes.”

His objections are not just artistic. Theaters are being asked to start rehearsals without knowing when they can hold performances, or under what conditions, Föttinger said. “We are rehearsing for a specific moment: the premiere,” he said. If it’s not clear when that will be, he added, “you have to ask yourself what’s the point of the whole undertaking.”

Most artistic directors at Germany’s major theaters thought the insurer’s guidelines were “going too far,” Thomas Ostermeier, the artistic director of the Schaubühne Berlin playhouse, said in a telephone interview. He said that he took part in a telephone conference in late April with 20 other artistic directors from around the country, and that most had expressed annoyance at the restrictions.

Some even said they would not respect them, he added, “as it’s just insurance.”

Joachim Lux, the artistic director of the Thalia Theater in Hamburg, Germany, said in an email that the rules “hit theater at its very core,” but were understandable. He said he hoped to return to rehearsals in mid-May if the theater’s staff agreed, adding that he would follow the rules.

Rather than rehearsing with masks or wide distances between performers, Föttinger said, “the only option that currently makes sense” was testing the actors before, so they could carry on as usual. But he acknowledged that many theaters would not be able to afford that.

Ostermeier said the whole company would need to be tested at least twice a week before he would be happy to return to work. He would prefer not to rehearse at all until there was a vaccine, he added, but he felt politicians in Germany were pressuring theaters to reopen in the fall, to give the public hope.

Not all of Europe’s star theatermakers were pushing back on restrictions that could change how they work, however. Milo Rau, the Swiss “enfant terrible” who is the artistic director of the NTGent theater in Belgium, said in a telephone interview that he planned to start rehearsals on May 18 for a one-woman show that is still scheduled to have its premiere at the Salzburg Festival in August. (The festival has said it will announce whether the event can take place by May 30.)

Those rehearsals would involve only him, the actress Ursina Lardi and a dramaturge, he said. “Of course, I had plans to have a huge set design and stuff, but I’m reducing that now,” he said. “That’s not possible, so I don’t do it.”

Rau has long called for theaters to move away from staging huge productions in grand 19th-century buildings and instead perform in settings ranging from city streets to war zones. He said that theaters should use this moment to experiment, rather than simply demanding to act as before. In the 1980s, directors in Belgium reacted to funding cuts by staging minimalist works in unusual locations, Rau added: “They made corona theater then. They didn’t wait for the moment they could have a big revolving stage and 500 actors in fat suits.”

But these stripped-down solutions were not favored by some of his colleagues. Föttinger said he did not want to be in a situation where monologues were the only stage performances allowed. “If we don’t find a way to enable rehearsals in an artistically meaningful way, theater will have to be declared dead for the long term,” Föttinger said. “Probably until a vaccine is found.”

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