Features Published 29 August 2020

When the Theaters Reopened: Observations from South Korea

Thermal cameras, hand sanitizer, and masks are the new normal for theaters in Korea. Hansol Oh saw 10 shows there and reports on her summer of theatergoing.

Hansol Oh

Sanitizer, Alcohol Swaps, Questionnaires (Sejong Arts Center) (Photo: Hansol Oh)

Long after the cast of Mozart! finished singing a reprise of the song “Gold Falls from Heaven,” an uplifting number about dreams and the courage it takes to follow your heart, audience members and the cast kept applauding each other.

It seemed like an emotional moment for many in the audience and the cast. Not only was the Austrian musical, written by Michael Kunze and Sylvester Levay, celebrating its 10-year anniversary in Korea, but it was also one of the first big musical productions to open in Seoul this summer in the midst of so many uncertainties.

As the thick red curtain came down on the stage, I could see the cast in the front row squat down to see into the audience. I stayed until the curtain finally touched the floor and the auditorium emptied out. A curtain call by itself is nothing new, but because of the current pandemic, the scene struck me emotionally and resonated for a long time. I realized in that particular moment when the fourth wall broke and the cast and audience interacted with each other in real time what I had been missing most about live theater. It was one of the most unforgettable nights in theater for me.

From Closure to Reopening

It was June 27, 2020, when I walked into a theater for the first time in more than three months. I had spent two and a half months by myself under lockdown in my tiny apartment in Manhattan then flew to Seoul for the summer at the end of May. When I came out of my two-week government-mandated quarantine in Seoul, it was mid-June.

Initially, I was hesitant about going back to the theater. I didn’t feel comfortable going into large crowds after spending almost three months in isolation, and I would be staying with my parents, who are in their late fifties and early sixties. But there were only forty to fifty new cases of COVID-19 nationwide every day, and the situation seemed pretty much under control.

Perhaps, I thought, theaters could be safer than shopping malls. After all, theater provides a much more controlled environment where audience members remain seated in one place throughout the show wearing their masks. They can easily be tracked should there be an outbreak, whereas in other public places, it is harder to contact trace. So, during my two-month long stay in Seoul, I went to see about ten theatrical productions, big and small, most of them musicals.

In February 2020, South Korea ranked second in the total number of confirmed cases after China. Not surprisingly, theatrical shows were suspended or canceled at that time. State-owned theaters took strict measures, canceling shows and closing down the venues immediately. As for commercial productions, the decision was left to individual producers. Some stayed open, playing to almost empty auditoriums, whereas others closed early to reduce loss and avoid risks. Some postponed their shows in the hopes that they would be able to resume later.

Whichever choice they made, the producers lost money. The Korean theater industry, which had been expanding over the last two decades, hit rock bottom. Musicals especially, which had been leading the market growth, felt the blow much harder. In January, before the COVID-19 outbreak, there were 264 musicals running across the country. By April, only thirty were still open.

With the government’s constant social distancing campaign and its aggressive tracking, and with public cooperation, the number of COVID-19 cases went consistently down. In early May, the government announced that the nation would ease social distancing restrictions, allowing gatherings and events as long as people followed the disinfection and safety guidelines.

Within this climate, Mozart! was one of the first big musicals to kick-start the summer season, which is normally a busy time of year for theaters in Korea. The hot and humid weather and monsoon rains drive people to indoor spaces, making theaters an ideal space to spend summer evenings.

When the news was announced that Mozart! would open mid-June, industry insiders were keen to see whether large musical productions could successfully return this summer and make up for the losses experienced in the first half of the year.

Following Mozart!, licensed productions of Rent, Everybody’s Talking about Jamie, and Fun Home, in addition to original Korean musical productions Marie Curie and Maybe Happy Ending also opened.

Protective Measures and Who Pays

These days, there are extra steps to take before you attend a theatrical show in Korea. Wearing a mask has become a new norm in theaters just as it is outside the theater. Temperature checks and filling out a questionnaire have also become new routines in theaters. You provide your contact information as well as information as to whether you have had symptoms recently, have had contact with anyone who did, or have anyone in your family who did so in the past two weeks. The questionnaires, available both in digital versions and hard copies, are part of the nationwide track-and-trace principle.

Based on the collected data, theaters keep a digital roster of visitors for thirty days at a maximum so that if anyone with symptoms is identified, those who sat around the person can be instantly reached and get tested. Paper tickets are still used, but some theaters plan to switch to digital ticketing soon. The Seoul city-run Sejong Arts Center, for instance, is going to digitize tickets for upcoming performances. Like at a subway turnstile, audience members will scan the QR code at the entrance, and the gate will automatically open.

For disinfecting measures, the basic rule is that individual productions and theaters are responsible for their own disinfecting supplies, but depending on how a production is financed, there may be additional support. For instance, if a production is subsidized by the Arts Council Korea or Seoul Foundation for Arts and Culture, these public institutions provide extra disinfectant products and cleaning supplies. To make sure that individual productions meet the safety requirements mandated by the Korean Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (KCDC), local district officials visit the theater to approve it.

For the presentation of Mozart!, the Sejong Arts Center where it was staged, EMK Musical Company who produced it, and the city closely cooperated to implement thorough preventive measures. Other big productions that I attended followed more or less similar protocols.

There is not an equivalent of Actor’s Equity in Korea. Everyone is an independent or freelance worker, but with live stage performances being such high-risk endeavors with tens or hundreds of people on and off the stage every day, producers are taking aggressive measures to keep theaters safe. So, in close collaboration with the local officials, productions follow the protocols provided by KCDC, which include disinfecting the venue regularly, checking temperatures, wearing a mask, and keeping a digital roster of attendees for contact tracing purposes.

The theater buildings have installed thermal cameras at the door so everyone who enters the building gets their temperature checked. (Bigger theaters in particular have closed off other entrances to ensure that everyone who enters the building goes through the one with the thermal camera.)

Thermal camera at Sejong Arts Center (Photo: Hansol Oh)

From what I observed this summer, the attendees were cooperative, standing in queues and entering the building one by one. Inside, the theaters are regularly disinfected. There are hand-sanitizing stations throughout. Depending on the size of the show, some theaters open the house early to give the audience extra time to follow the new safety and hygiene protocols. Mozart! had more than a thousand attendees per performance, so the house opened forty-five minutes prior to curtain (usually it opens thirty minutes prior).

At the entrance of the auditorium, ushers make sure that only those who have filled out a questionnaire are let in. Audience members have to submit questionnaires to enter the auditorium; those who complete the survey digitally show the confirmation text they have received on their phone.

Marie Curie – Digital Survey Confirmation Text Message (Photo: Hansol Oh)

Normally, theaters in Korea do not allow food and beverages inside the auditorium, except for bottled water, so this policy has remained the same. But because the industry is becoming more alert to the way the virus spreads, now theaters are no longer allowing bottled water to assure the audience will keep their masks on at all times. They are also encouraging audience to applaud only with no cheering to reduce the chance of droplet spread.  Ushers wearing masks and gloves keep reminding the audience to fully cover their noses and mouths.

Audience filling out questionnaire (Sejong Arts Center) (Photo: Hansol Oh)

One thing that surprised me, though, was that most Korean theaters were not implementing socially-distanced seating. Only one performance I attended at a public theater, funded by the city, implemented socially-distanced seating, leaving two seats empty between each audience member. Unlike state-funded productions, initially commercial productions were not mandated to implement socially-distanced seating when theaters re-opened (this has recently changed).

In an interview with a local newspaper in early August, Sung-kyu Kim, CEO of Sejong Arts Center, said socially-distanced seating may not be required inside the auditorium. He said, “The audience members are not sitting face-to-face. Everyone is facing one direction, and I’m dubious about the effectiveness of socially distanced seating.”

As of this writing, there have not been any reported cases of outbreaks among theater attendees so far. Kim suggested that instead of enforcing socially distanced seating, it would be more effective to digitize everything in the theater to minimize contact. A digital transition would be costly, Kim acknowledged, but it would be better than simply shuttering the venues indefinitely.

Smaller Venues

Smaller venues seemed to take extra precautions because of the tighter space. Depending on available resources, each one I visited found creative ways to keep social distance and implement safety measures.

The Zoom Arts Center, which seats about 130, recently had a successful sold-out run of Stranger’s Song, adapted from Gabriel García Márquez’s short story Bon Voyage, Mr. President. The night I attended, I arrived thirty minutes before curtain, and the theater was already full and busy with audience members who came early and had completed all the pre-show requirements well in advance.

To keep the lobby from being packed, the theater gave the audience access to its outdoor terrace next to the auditorium, like the one at Lincoln Center’s Claire Tow Theater. I was able to spend a good twenty minutes in fresh air before entering the auditorium. Also, the staff kept directing the audience to use restrooms on different floors to spread them out as much as possible.

Another theater I visited was more rigorous in keeping the audience distanced and masked in the auditorium. I went to see the award-winning musical Maybe Happy Ending featuring three cast members and a six-piece orchestra (this musical had its English-language American premiere in January).

The theater, YES24 Stage, is located in Daehangno, Seoul’s theater district, where approximately 150 small theaters are congregated. YES24 Stage seats about 400 people and boasts strong ticket sales, filling 80% of the auditorium on average.

The musical stars Mi-do Jeon, a famous actress from the recent hit Netflix series Hospital Playlist, in the title role, and the auditorium was packed with young audience members eager see her perform live. I managed to grab a ticket for the same production with a different actress in the role, but nevertheless, the theater was still packed.

Like in other venues, socially-distanced seating was not implemented, but the production seemed to take a more proactive approach to enforce safety measures, presumably because of tight space and its location on the basement level.

I was impressed to see ushers spend a good amount of time giving specific instructions on wearing masks: press the upper part of the mask so the area around the nose is sealed tight. They also reminded the audience that if anyone pulled their mask under their nose, they would be asked to leave. The ushers also asked the audience not to lean forward for a better view; instead, they were instructed to lean back into their seats to keep a safe distance.

All this may sound annoying and patronizing, but the staff handled it in a friendly manner with humor and made everyone in the audience understand that the safety measures are there to ensure public health and that they are responsible for each other’s well-being.

In addition to aggressive contact tracing and disinfecting measures, from what I observed, efficient and effective communication with the audience seemed to play a key role in keeping theaters open. At the time of ticket purchase and before the performance, audience members receive e-mail and text notifications regarding each production’s safety protocols.

Attendees are well-informed as to arriving at the theater earlier than usual and what is expected of them inside. Also, similar measures are taken in other public spaces these days, so many are already familiar with the drill.

Audience Entering the Theater (Thermal Camera, Sejong Arts Center) (Photo: Hansol Oh)

In an interview with me, Eon Kim, the managing director at The Zoom Arts Center, confirmed the importance of communication and cooperation with the audience. He said, “We had patrons who reached out to us before the performance and told us they had a fever, which allowed us to refund their tickets immediately and keep the performances going. One time, we had a patron who had to be turned away at the door because her body temperature measured higher than 99.5°F. When we told her we wouldn’t be able to let her in, she complied.”

Backstage Procedures

COVID-19 also changed rehearsal and backstage practices. The company manager of Mozart! Jihae Yoon told me that for each rehearsal, cast and staff report how they are feeling. If anyone doesn’t feel well, they are asked to take a day off and keep the production team updated about their condition.

The backstage entrance is also strictly controlled to ensure that everyone uses one entrance, where under the supervision of a staff member, cast and staff check temperatures and sanitize hands thoroughly before entering the backstage area. Backstage staff wear masks and keep everything regularly sanitized. Outside visitors including friends and family members are not allowed in the backstage area. Neither are outside food, flowers, letters, or gifts from fans or family. The cast and staff members are doing their best to minimize contact with people outside of their production to protect each other. Of course, this means that the productions are no longer allowing stage door activities. In case anyone contacts somebody who has, or might have, the virus outside the production team, they have to notify the production team and theater immediately. This intense backstage cooperation among cast and staff kept shows running without safety issues for the last two months.

A Second Wave

Theaters nevertheless remain vulnerable. South Korea has seen a significant uptick in new cases in the metropolitan Seoul area this past week. As the country is going through a second wave of the virus, there are new confirmed cases being reported among theater company members—an alarming reminder that the only way the shows can go on is when the virus is under control outside the theater. To bring the numbers down again, the government is reinforcing safety measures.

The new protocol mandates commercial productions to implement socially-distanced seating henceforth. This means that the capacity will be severely cut, and the productions may be at a worse financial loss. If they do not follow the new protocols, their shows may be forced to shut down and be heavily fined.

Some productions are adjusting quickly and devising socially-distanced seating plans, and some are postponing their shows altogether.

In Korea, curtains are still coming down on stage every night in the hopes that it is not their last.

Hansol Oh is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine