What it’s like to attend socially distanced, indoor theatre in New York City
Blindness at the Daryl Roth Theatre is the first Off-Broadway show and one of the first theatre shows to reopen in over a year in New York.
I attended a live, indoor theatre performance for the first time in a year with bells on — and a mask, of course. The highly-anticipated London transfer of Blindness, which bowed at the Donmar Warehouse last December, will run at the Daryl Roth Theatre in New York April 2-September 5. With strict safety measures in place, the Off-Broadway production is the first indoor performance out of the gate in New York City since theatres shuttered last March.
Blindness, adapted by Simon Stephens from José Saramago’s dystopian novel of the same name, is about a city navigating the perils of an epidemic of blindness. (Yes, really.) The light and audio experience, sans live actors, is narrated by Juliet Stevenson, whose booming voice is delivered via binaural headphones to distanced audience members. In both content and form, Blindness is a bellwether for the theatre industry and audiences to safely return to theatre.
“One of my greatest joys has been watching people walk into that space,” says the show’s associate producer Markus Potter, noting the excited theatre patrons. “Seeing that hope and seeing people respond has been incredible.” With health and safety in mind, Potter and the rest of the production team and staff are ready to welcome eager theatregoers to the Daryl Roth Theatre.
What Covid-safe measures are in place at the theatre?
From the point of ticket purchase to exiting the theatre space, the Daryl Roth Theatre keeps ticket holders well-informed about the safety protocols practiced at the venue. Ahead of the show, ticket holders are emailed a list of the Daryl Roth Theatre’s health and safety measures, as well as a link to a detailed four-page safety plan.
“In the theatre we’re always talking about the audience experience, but there is a greater emphasis on taking care of the community in terms of what people are thinking and feeling walking into the space, and really being mindful and considering their experience,” says associate producer Potter of the Blindness team.
The health and safety measures communicated by the Blindness production include:
Mandating Covid compliance training for all staff
Administering temperature checks for all staff and visitors
Requiring masks for all staff members and patrons while inside the theatre
Sanitizing the venue between performances
Limiting the number of attendees per performance
Spacing pairs of seats six-feet-apart
Selling and collecting tickets electronically
Opening the venue 10 minutes before curtain to ease the ticket exchange process
How Patrons Enter the Venue
There are distant markers on the sidewalk along 15th Street where patrons wait to enter the building. Front-of-house staffers present a pre-show curtain speech of sorts to prepare everyone for entry. There’s no box office for Blindness — instead, pairs of tickets are sold in advance online and printed tickets or e-tickets are scanned upon entry. To avoid queueing in the small lobby space, the theatre opens its doors 10 minutes before each performance to help streamline the ticket exchange process. Ticketing and temperature taking is done in one fell swoop — wrists are scanned for temperatures just before tickets are scanned.
Covid track and trace procedures for socially distant theatre
The day before the show, ticket holders are emailed a health questionnaire to complete and submit online. Ushers ensure that all pod members complete the forms upon arrival, and paper copies are on hand if patrons need to fill it out. The health questionnaire vets any patrons that may have symptoms of COVID-19 or have been in contact with an infected person. Moreover, the form collects contact information for contact tracing.
How does seating work at socially distanced theatre?
As mandated by local and state regulations, tickets are sold to a limited number of audience members for each performance. (The max capacity for Blindness is 84 patrons.) Pairs of tickets enable two people within a social pod to be seated together, and each seating pod is placed six-feet-apart from other pods. Patrons are led by an usher along a taped pathway to their seats.
Each patron is equipped with a flashlight tethered to the bottom of their seat. Patrons can flash the light on the floor at any point during the show to get the attention of an usher for assistance with the headphones or help exiting the space if need be.
“Giving folks a flashlight gives them the comfort of knowing that they can leave if they want to leave,” explains Potter. “We know that walking back into the theatre after a year, people are gonna be hyper-aware of what they’re feeling.”
Venue safety updates for socially distanced theatre
The Daryl Roth Theatre is housed in a cavernous, four-story bank building. Ahead of the production, MERV-13 filters were installed to the air filtration system. Additionally, the HVAC vents are kept open during the show for maximum air circulation. There is a separate entrance and exit to create a single direction of traffic flow.
What to bring to socially distanced theatre
These days, it is de rigueur to leave your home with a mask or two and hand sanitizer. I am a bit hyper-vigilant and traveled to the theatre on the subway with two maks and disinfectant wipes in tow. Because the Daryl Roth Theatre has enhanced its air-circulation, I brought a sweater in case the venue was chilly, which it was.
The space is shrouded in darkness for much of the 70-minute performance, so I would recommend wearing sensible shoes in case you have to exit mid-performance for any reason. There are no concessions offered, and there is just one bathroom stall available at the space, so be sure to eat, drink, and use the restroom before attending a performance. Here are some suggestions of what to bring with you:
How the theatre venue Is cleaned and sanitized
Sanitization is a primary concern for people re-entering public spaces after this year of social distancing and quarantining at home. An on-staff porter thoroughly cleans the space between shows in accordance with CDC/EPA-approved guidelines, and wipes down high-traffic areas during each performance.
“The team has been thinking about safety with great rigor and is taking it very seriously,” says Potter. “They've followed every single protocol and paid close attention to details, like on any door handle there are self-cleaning sanitary mechanisms so we're not collectively touching doors.”
Indeed, the experience of Blindness is pretty hands-off for patrons. The Daryl Roth Theatre has installed automatic soap dispensers, as well as touchless faucets and toilet flushers. In addition to the flashlight, each seat is equipped with a pair of headphones sealed in a plastic bag. These special binaural headphones — which are central to the show and provide an immersive experience — are collected between shows to be individually sanitized with disinfectant wipes and UV lighting, a process Potter calls “a well-oiled machine.”
What is it like to attend Blindness?
The audio-centric show offers far more than an at-home podcast play. The binaural sound design is transportive and pulls audience members into the story. I felt like I was surrounded by actors, with the sound of footsteps pacing around me and whispers seemingly delivered directly into my ears. Ascending and descending lighting grids illuminated and framed the space. Best of all, I shared the experience with masked strangers, who I could observe from tete-a-tete seating, sitting in anticipation, many with their arms looped around their pod partners.
“Observing the show with our shared community and being in the presence of others really makes it feel familiar,” says Potter. “It is a live experience — we're engaged with the community as this story unfolds.”
The experience of attending Blindness was not only a homecoming to the theatre, but also a soft return to society and the world outside my apartment. Blindness offers a message of how to slowly, softly reemerge in a community in a post-epidemic world. I entered the theatre jittering with excitement, and I left more ready for the months of recovery that lie ahead.
“The subject matter intersects and explores the subject of a pandemic, but I will heartfully say that the show is not about a pandemic,” says Potter. “It's really about how we respond to each other, how we care for each other, and how we value each other. It’s a call for radical empathy in this world right now.”
Blindness is playing at the Daryl Roth Theatre through September 5.
Photo credit: Blindness at the Donmar Warehouse (Photo by Helen Maybanks)