What socially distanced theatre looks like: Actors share their experience
Theatres are slowly starting to reopen in the UK, with social distancing policies in place. Jesus Christ Superstar: The Concert at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre and new musical Sleepless: A Musical Romance at the Troubadour Wembley Park Theatre are two currently running shows going to great lengths to keep audience members safe as they return to the theatre. But what does social distancing and Covid safety look like behind the scenes for the actors and crew?
Cory English plays Rob, best friend of protagonist Sam, in Sleepless, which is based on ‘90s romcom Sleepless in Seattle. Pre-lockdown, he was due to perform in Paula Vogel’s play Indecent at the Menier Chocolate Factory. However, he’d actually been asked to do Sleepless back in December, so was thrilled when the opportunity arose again.
English, who contracted coronavirus early on in lockdown, was also impressed by the safety measures, like the cast’s “reassuring” daily Covid tests.
There are strict social distancing measures in place backstage too, and everyone wears masks. The ensemble uses the principals’ dressing room, since that’s the largest, and English is with three other supporting actors in the green room, men and women separated by a partition. “Probably the thing that feels most odd is not being able to interact as normal – like going to hug someone,” he adds.
Everyone tries to stay 1m-plus apart. “It helps like the theatre is nice and large,” he says. “The Troubadour definitely ticks all the boxes for the Government to say we’re doing everything right.”
Also Government-approved is Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre, where Nathan Amzi is playing Annas in Jesus Christ Superstar. He’s reprising the role from the 2019 production at the Barbican, which transferred from the Park. In fact, he was meant to be doing another Park-to-Barbican transfer, Evita, before lockdown happened.
The process was a quick one. “They said would I like to come and play Annas, but could I let them know by this afternoon, and we’re starting rehearsals next week!” recalls Amzi.
Luckily, he and multiple cast members had done the show before – with several productions to draw on, including the US tour – “though Timothy Sheader, our director, wanted to make it fresh too,” explains Amzi.
“On the first day of rehearsal, Tim said that when the Park realised they could do outdoor performances, they initially thought of hiring out the space. But then they realised it would feel wrong not to put something on themselves, and to create jobs for all those freelancers — not just the actors and musicians, but sound, lighting, costume, props.”
Rehearsals, he muses, were “like nothing I’ve done before. The Park wanted to be overcautious, so they used 3m when we’re singing towards each other, and 2m otherwise. We spent a week and a half rehearsing in the room, and every day, there was a one-way system going in and out. You’d sanitise your own chair, and only remove your masks once everyone’s seated and spaced. They created boxes for each person, so you know you’re distanced properly.”
Once rehearsals moved outside, “they put 30 markings on the floor backstage, all 2m spaced, and we’d queue up on those and stand on designated numbers when entering and exiting,” Amzi explains. “It meant we’re not all rushing to the dressing rooms at once. It is more tiring, because you have to be so alert all the time.”
However, Amzi notes that rehearsals were unusually efficient: “Maybe because we’d all been locked up, the focus in that room was incredible! Part of the Government guidance is to spend the least time in rehearsal possible, so we had added learning at home – like our MD gave us our vocal lines to work on. Then in rehearsals, we could just focus on the truth of the story.”
Amzi praises the “genius” of Sheader and his team, including choreographer Drew McOnie. McOnie’s disciplined work also made it easier to remember the socially distanced staging, with each scene mapped out in terms of which numbers the actors stand on. “You could get it into your body like normal choreography, and then just perform. There are moments of ‘connection’ built in, so you don’t feel like you need to actually touch someone.”
English had a bit more learning to do — and fast. Sleepless had finished rehearsal and was a couple of days into tech before it closed in March with the coronavirus lockdowns, but he was joining the cast fresh, “so what they called a ‘recap’ was me getting it for the first time!” he says.
“Luckily, there was some blocking from the workshop I did, and then we had to make some staging adjustments – like when Rob and Jonah, Sam’s son, sang face to face, we changed that to singing out to the audience. We also cut some lifts.”
The actors do have microphones, meaning they don’t have to belt too dramatically, though English notes you still want to “pitch your performance to the back row.” The orchestra is housed in a separate area, a luxury of the Troubadour’s vast space. “The first day the band came into rehearse, I didn’t leave,” says English. “Just to hear all those instruments together, live… I was there at least two hours listening to them.”
Being back in a theatre has been moving for performers and audiences alike. “People love feeling a little bit of normalcy,” observes English. “I think we all went ‘I forgot how much I missed this.’ It’s quite a relief to come back. Definitely emotional.”
Does it make a difference playing to a smaller, spaced-out audience in masks? “Well, luckily we’re not doing stand-up comedy! Yes, it is a bit strange – usually I love looking out into the audience, feeding off their responses – so that’s tough. But the empty seats don’t bother me, because I know our limited capacity, and everyone’s working together to still have a great atmosphere.”
Amzi agrees: “Our first night, we were all in tears. It’s a smaller audience but they give back tenfold. Having this opportunity, I feel elated to be back doing my job – as well as sadness for my colleagues and peers who aren’t getting to work. That spurs you on to be extra vigilant about safety, because we owe it to the industry.”
Amzi praises the immense effort of the Regent’s Park team, who are going to such lengths as re-sanitising the microphones and changing the capsules within them for the double-cast principals. There are no dressers helping with quick changes, but the wardrobe and props departments – who all wear full PPE – are careful to sanitise everything used in the show, while “amazing” cleaners continually clean everything backstage.
Meanwhile, the performers all get a temperature check “every time we come in the front gate, even if we’ve just popped out for a bag of crisps. The extra work for stage management is huge, and I massively applaud them.”
Key to this effort is a sense of “collective responsibility,” explains Amzi. “We’re so aware that people are looking at the show to say ‘Does this work, can theatre be safe?’” he explains.
It’s also about considering every possible contingency. “Like if we have a rain stop, we can’t just dash inside together – we have to keep social distancing.”
English is grateful for Sleepless, but knows most venues aren’t built like the Troubadour. However, he’s had an incredible response. “My New York theatre buddies have all been in touch, so excited to hear we’ve got a show up. I have to say kudos to our producers for being brave – and for taking a hit in the wallet.”
Although both actors stress they’ve been made to feel very safe, there is of course an element of personal risk. Amzi, who has a two-year-old, takes that seriously, as does English, who recently had his in-laws – aged 78 and 82 – at Sleepless. “We were all a bit nervous, as it was the first time they’d been out, but they felt very comfortable.”
However, one frustration is that not everyone obeys the rules. Amzi recalls a fraught rehearsal, spending four hours on how to get everyone on and off stage safely ahead of the big finale – “with Drew, bless him, saying ‘It’s just a puzzle, we’ll figure this out.’”
“I then drove home at about 11pm, and I passed a bar in Shoreditch with people crowded together, drinking, and vomiting in the street,” he adds. “I thought ‘We’re working so hard to get theatre back – and they’re doing this!’”
But the Jesus Christ Superstar cast was hugely inspired by a visit from Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber; the latter would have been in previews for Cinderella, if that had gone ahead. The company thanked him for his tireless efforts on behalf of the industry, and Lloyd Webber spoke about needing a firm Stage 5 date from the Government and funding for smaller theatres for measures like air filtration.
“He also said ‘This is what we’re fighting for – I’ve just watched an audience on their feet cheering, and I feel so proud of you all,’” recalls Amzi. “Theatre is important for our mental health; it gets us through the worst times. It poses questions, and it provides massive revenue for our economy. We’re world renowned.”
For now, English is delighted to be in a show like Sleepless that has real resonance, “with your stars not meeting in person till the end.
“If you have any inkling towards going to theatre, this would be the one – they’ve gone above and beyond to make you feel safe, and musical comedy is just what we need right now.”
Jesus Christ Superstar is running at the Regent's Park Open Air Theatre through 27 September.
Photo credit: Jack Reynolds and Cory English in Sleepless (Photo by Alastair Muir)