AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
Here's something we haven't been able to say in more than a year. It's opening night at the theater. Reporter Jeff Lunden used to see multiple shows a week, so he was very excited to head out masked and vaccinated to see an early preview of what might be to come.
JEFF LUNDEN, BYLINE: There was a short line outside the Daryl Roth Theatre off Broadway where patrons waited to see "Blindness," a piece based on a novel by Jose Saramago. Before we entered, a staffer gave us instructions.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: So here's what's going to happen. The show is 70 minutes long. There is no intermission, no re-entry and no public restroom.
LUNDEN: We had our temperatures checked.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: On the circle.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Unintelligible) this circle, right?
LUNDEN: We showed tickets on our phones...
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: And you have our tickets.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: We do.
LUNDEN: ...And walked singly or in pairs to socially distant seats spread about the vast auditorium. What followed was not exactly theater per se but a sound and light show. At times you felt like actress Juliet Stevenson was whispering in your ear, telling you about an epidemic of blindness.
JULIET STEVENSON: (As Doctor's Wife) Advise the health authorities, the ministry. That's the first thing to do. If it turns out to be an epidemic, measures must be taken.
DARYL ROTH: It's not a traditional play in the way we think of it, but what it is is a wonderful way to story-tell in a safe environment.
LUNDEN: Daryl Roth is producing "Blindness."
ROTH: The headphones are sanitized. There is no interaction with actors. There is nothing that isn't comfortable for people to come and gather.
LUNDEN: I talked with other producers about how they're planning to reopen their theaters, all large, flexible indoor spaces. I heard about separate entrances and exits, new ventilation filters, no physical playbills. And regardless of vaccination status, the Park Avenue Armory even plans to do COVID tests at the door, says president and executive producer Rebecca Robertson.
REBECCA ROBERTSON: It's a rapid test, and it takes 15 minutes to find out what the answer is.
LUNDEN: Then the audience will be led single file into the Armory's 55,000-square-foot drill hall.
ROBERTSON: And I can say that with 100 people in the drill hall, you feel like you're seeing the work by yourself.
LUNDEN: But its grand reopening last week with a new piece by choreographer Bill T. Jones was postponed when several members of the dance company tested positive. The show has been rescheduled for May. Robertson says while she's disappointed, it proves the protocols work, and it's important to build flexibility into their plans.
ROBERTSON: Everyone's got scenario A, scenario B, scenario X, you know?
LUNDEN: Over the course of the pandemic, the Armory has been having weekly meetings via Zoom with other similar arts organizations to share information, lobby the city and state and just commiserate, says Susan Feldman, founder and artistic director of St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn.
SUSAN FELDMAN: There's a void that we're all feeling, and it's kind of like, how do we bring people together and yet stay safely apart? You can say it both ways. You can say, how do we stay safely apart and still come together? - because we need both.
LUNDEN: But will people come? I met an audience member after seeing "Blindness," Manhattan resident Laura Knutsen. She admitted she'd had some trepidation about returning to the theater.
LAURA KNUTSEN: It's a pandemic. Large gatherings inside just a fundamental no. But it seemed like this might be the best way to possibly transition into normalcy.
LUNDEN: And she added she liked the show a lot. For NPR News, I'm Jeff Lunden in New York.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE COMET IS COMING'S "SEVEN PLANETARY HEAVENS")
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