The COVID-19 virus is the same wherever you are in the world. In fact its lack of variation (so far) is something that makes a vaccine likely to work. However, the response to the pandemic varies from place to place.

November 23, 2020
Photo of the author - Jonathan Goodacre

Jonathan Goodacre

The International Agent provides a snapshot of the situation for theatres in four cities across Europe, from our partner organisations in the Asset project...

International Signposts

Image Credit: IG Kultur Austria

Helsinki, Finland

2020 has been particularly difficult for the performing arts in Finland. The pandemic changed everything very rapidly; national borders were shut and theatres were forced to close their doors.

Professional theatres opened up again in August 2020 using government guidelines in order to ensure the health and safety of their staff and customers. Theatres have been taking these safety recommendations extremely seriously. Most theatres only sell 50% of their seats for performances, in order to ensure sufficient social distancing for visitors. This means every other seat is empty, although the same party can choose to sit together. Theatres have also reported a high level of bookers cancelling at the last moment due to suspected cases and isolation requirements.

Unlike in other countries, there has been a relatively low development of online digital preformances, with most theatres counting on being able to return to some sort of normality. National research undertaken in September 2020 showed that most theatres were working towards re-opening in that month on the basis of a 35-45% of capacity. This led to changes not only in the autumn repertoire, but also in programmes right up to the end of 2021.

There have been cuts in human resources leading many theatres to a difficult battle to survive and need for public support. In response, the Finnish government allocated an additional €18 million to museums, orchestras and theatres receiving state subsidies in order to compensate for losses in the early part of the year. This was followed by another grant in the summer of €14.8 million. Of this, state grant theatres received nearly €9.8 million.

In addition, The Arts Promotion Centre Finland has providing emergency funding to professionals in arts and culture whose livelihoods have been weakened due to the coronavirus pandemic with the aim of maintaining their working conditions.

But the situation continues to evolve, with a new regulation in the Helsinki region from November to the middle of December prohibiting indoor events of more than 20 people.

Niina Torko and Katri Halonen, Cultural Management Degree Programme, Metropolia University, Helsinki, Finland

Sofia, Bulgaria

After the initial lockdown, the theatres in Sofia took different approaches. Some were closed during the summer and others presented an extensive programme in external locations to meet the needs of their audiences. Sofia Opera and Ballet for example, took many of its performances outdoors at specially constructed venues such as at the Tsari Mali Fortress and Lake Pancherevo.

The Autumn season started promisingly. Bulgaria was one of the countries with low levels of infection with Covid-19 for the months of September and October and theatres could open, but with restrictions. Theatres could operate at no more than 50% of capacity with one seating distance between people, obligatory use of masks and the measuring of temperature of each audience member upon entering. Another nice surprise from Sofia Opera and Ballet, made flower arrangements (see photos) for the unused seats. Following the lead of other opera houses, they also used the ground floor stalls for the orchestra and the choir, distanced from each other and the audience, who only able to view from the balcony. An interesting example of how the arts adapt to the unprecedented situation.

Unfortunately, the situation has recently changed quite rapidly. The numbers infected with Covid-19 in Sofia at the end of October tripled. Shows couldn’t be performed as planned, and some of the theatres had to close. Now the theatres are adapting again to the new situation and as winter means outdoor performances are not possible, some are providing online performances, though this is confined to the larger theatres.

Katherina Kirova-Milanova, Co-ordinator European Theatre Night, Bulgaria.

Vienna, Austria

We are now (from 2nd November to 6th December) in the second cultural lockdown in Austria. Theatres are not allowed to perform for audiences.

Until now – and after the first lockdown - cultural life had slowly begun to start again. Theatres had done much to make visits safe: identifiable seats with adequate distance and names lists were introduced, guidance systems for visitors made sure crowds couldn’t be formed, visitors had to wear masks, there were no intervals, bars were closed and so on.

These strict regulations made sure that there were no cases of infection reported caused by visiting a cultural performance. Nevertheless, theatres had to be closed whilst superstores could stay open.

The Austrian government has offered a bundle of support measures for institutions and artists with 80% of revenue losses compensated.

But the big question is what happens next year? There’s a lack of new commissions and projects for artists and the theatres are silent. Financial security is guaranteed only until the end of the year. And audiences break away, losing their attendance habits. Smaller organisations and the free cultural scene fear they must begin at zero.

And - when the Pandemic is over - what will happen to culture, when state and local authorities have to adopt restrictive austerity budgets, to bring in the money they had to spend in times of crisis? Meanwhile, we have to take hope from the German filmmaker Herbert Achternbusch who said ‘Du hast keine Chance, aber nutze sie! (You have no chance, but use it.’)’

Gerald Groechenig, Co-ordinator, European Theatre Night, Austria

Zagreb, Croatia

After the first, and so far only, lockdown, which lasted from mid-March to mid-May, theatres in Zagreb are open under special epidemiological measures.

During the lockdown, many theatres performed their plays for free through their websites and social media. They published old archival plays, as well as new editions that are still on the theatre’s repertoire. Theatres with drama studios also launched platforms and designed materials for online communication with their members. The media strongly supported the work of theatres in those difficult times, making them and their efforts visible.

In the first days after the lockdown, from May 2020 onwards, many theatres performed plays or other shorter theatrical programmes on open stages near the main buildings and other public spaces, typically free of charge. Some theatres also started performing in theatre halls with special epidemiological measures.

Measures included maintaining a social distance of 1.5 metres (since November, 2 metres or 4m2), marking available seats in the auditoriums, switching to online ticketing, regulating entry and exit, mandatory face masks, hand disinfection at the hall entrance, body temperature measurement and the keeping a list of audience contacts. For the performers, especially singers and musicians in orchestras, there were also regulations around social distancing.

Since September 2020, theatres have continued to put on performances with tickets sold at the same price as normal. However, additional expenditure alongside a reduction in the number of attenders allowed has made it difficult for theatres to operate. With financial assistance from the Ministry of Culture theatres have gradually been opening new programmes that included online theatre activities, helping to recover some losses.

Although the global situation is extremely aggravating, theatres here have managed to retain their programme, audience and artists, keeping some degree of continuity and hoping for a quick normalisation of the situation.

Sandra Banić Naumovski, Senior expert associate-leader of Children's Theatre Dubrava within People's University Dubrava, Zagreb, Croatia.

To find out more about policy responses to the pandemic across the world through recent research from our partners, Centre for Cultural Value go here and here.