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How an Austrian theatre company trialled a safe production of Cats

Jellicles can and jellicles have done!

Nicholas Li (Macavity)
© Deen van Meer

An Austrian theatre has trialled reopening with its production of Andrew Lloyd Webber's Cats.

While coronavirus is hitting countries across the globe in very different ways and cultural institutions elsewhere can open in ways that may not be financially viable or possible here, it's always notable to see what is being done to allow performances to go ahead.

Lloyd Webber himself has often cited South Korea as a key case study for staging safe performances, and has employed many similar systems for his trial runs at The London Palladium.

The same is true for Austrian musical theatre company United Stages Vienna, who conducted two trial runs of their production of Cats at the start of July. Artistic director Christian Struppeck said: "After the COVID 19-related mandatory break, finally being able to present a test run of Cats in front of an audience is very emotional for us. After such a long theater-free period, we all longed to see our musical again."

The production (which had sold 250,000 tickets since the beginning of the year) was mounted twice in front of 250 guests at The Ronacher (a thousand-seater venue) as a trial run ahead of a broader return for theatres in the country expected this autumn. One of the trial runs was also performed in front of an audience composed of those that had worked on the frontline during the height of the pandemic.

Audiences were socially distanced (unlike audiences in South Korea), with the entire front-of-house and backstage areas marked out with a colour-coded guidance system to help prevent traffic jams or crowding – a similar policy has been announced by the UK government in new performance guidelines released last week.

Audiences were encouraged to wear facemasks everywhere except for their seats where they are allowed to take them off, with multiple hand sanitiser stations dotted around the theatre.

The venue has also installed a "powerful air conditioning system", which goes above and beyond industry standards to filter the air within the auditorium and prevent contamination. This last point seems all the more significant given a recent WHO initiative to see whether or not there can be an airborne virus spread.

Struppeck added: "For the time being, this was only possible in front of a small, invited group, but this allowed us to evaluate all processes in the theatre, backstage as well as in the auditorium. We are well prepared for regular performances from autumn to offer our guests a safe and relaxed theater experience."

The team started rehearsals in mid-June without social distancing inside the rehearsal room, with plans to begin official performances again in September 2020. The choreography for the show was unchanged, except that none of the cats were allowed into the auditorium.

At the moment, it is unknown when indoor performances may begin in the UK, though on Friday the Culture Minister said that this may be sooner rather than later (with social distancing measures in place), acknowledging that an end to social distancing was a "silver bullet" for the theatre community.

The company's production of Miss Saigon, which had not been rehearsed prior to lockdown, has had to be delayed for the time being to give the show more time to be put into production.

Austria has had under 20,000 confirmed cases of the virus, with under a thousand confirmed deaths so far. The number of newly reported cases has stabilised since a peak in April, with an increasing number of daily tests.