What lessons can we learn from South Korea, where theatre has remained open

As theatres across the globe ushered in indefinite closures, theatres in South Korea have remained largely open. In Japan, there were no restrictions enforced on the movement of millions of people, no COVID-19 safe apps downloaded and tracked, and with one of the fastest ageing populations in the developed world, only 0.2% of the population was tested. Japan appeared to have escaped a disaster, with about only 840 deaths in a country of 126 million people. Both South Korea and Japan have developed economies, with populations 2 and 5 times the size of Australia’s respectively, who have been able to maintain a certain degree of business activity throughout the coronavirus crisis.

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The South Korean government has been commended for its fast and decisive action in responding to the crisis and have successfully kept some of its large scale theatre productions running throughout the pandemic. The country has reported less than 300 coronavirus deaths with a population of almost 50 million. Similarly, Japan’s state of emergency is set to end, with new cases approaching single digits, and the nation largely defying the conventional COVID-19 rule book. As Australia prepares to come out of its economic freeze, are there some lessons we can learn from South Korea and Japan’s success stories?

South Korea has a prosperous theatre community with a size and scale that could rival London’s West End. The South Korean government gave theatres the choice of staying open but enforced a 15 day lockdown if any member of the audience or presenting company tested positive to COVID-19. This was only possible through a rigorous system of testing and contacting all attendees and staff. Three notable commercial productions continued to run throughout the pandemic, all with attendance rates over 90% capacity.

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One of these was Andrew Lloyd Webber’s international production of The Phantom Of The OperaThe production was briefly sent into hibernation when a returning Canadian and American cast member developed symptoms and forced the entire production into quarantine from March 31. This led to the entire 126 production team being tested including every one of the 8,578 attendees from March 15 – 31. After the enforced 15 day quarantine, the production was given the green light and performances resumed on April 23. In venues seating 1,255 and 1,247 people, these notable productions averaged over 95% capacity at the peak of South Korea’s virus wave in February.

Apart from the rigorous testing and strict contact tracing employed in South Korea, it was a condition of entry that all audience members wear masks. In neighbouring Japan, masks are a common sight during the winter flu season including in spring when there is a spike in allergy symptoms. The Japanese custom of bowing rather than hugging or shaking hands, and generally high standards of personal hygiene, are all thought to be attributed to the mystery of their low infection rate.

Andrew Lloyd Webber

The Korean theatres installed automatic doors to reduce contact and offered no food or drink to patrons to contain any potential airborne spread and to minimise the need to remove the mandatory masks during performances. All audience members were required to have their temperature checked upon entry as were each member of the production cast and crew. In addition to this, the venues were deep cleaned between each performance and hand sanitiser was freely available.

It has been reported that British producer Andrew Lloyd Webber has urged UK lawmakers to follow South Korea’s lead in order to save an industry that is on “the brink of total collapse” and to prevent more than 1,000 venues from permanent closure. Lloyd Webber has urged British parliament to learn a lesson from Seoul in adopting a system of thorough testing, tracing and tracking to contain the virus and kickstart the journey back to its pre-COVID state.

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Across the pond, researchers at Columbia University have been working on a new type of ultraviolet lamp that could be used in stations, aeroplanes, schools and theatre entrances to kill pathogens. These sorts of UVC lamps have been used to kill fungi, bacteria and viruses most notably in hospitals and food processing facilities. The New York Subway system, following the lead from Chinese subways, has unveiled plans to disinfect trains using an ultraviolet system. There are still some hurdles and pitfalls for this type of practice to be considered safe as ultraviolet radiation can lead to skin cancers and eye problems. But it does beg the question whether these types of practices could be employed in the road map to bringing live entertainment back to the stage in Australia.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison yesterday addressed the National Press in Canberra saying that the road to economic recovery could take years and that “opening up will be harder than closing down”.

Unfortunately for many theatres, time is not on their side. With the myriad of hurdles that complicate the road to recovery, this road map offers just a glimmer of hope to an industry on its knees.

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