To American ears, the routines of theatergoing sound almost as exotic these days as the enchanted happenings in “Frozen.” But they are indeed occurring in Australia — home to Estreich, a children’s therapist at Sydney Children’s Hospital — where plays and musicals and the people who love them are back where they belong.
“I walked in the door, and I had tears running down,” Estreich, who lives in Wollongong, a city 90 minutes south of Sydney, said in a Zoom interview. “We’ve been impressed with the kind of covid-safe plans that came into place for the return to theater. And it just hit me that this was like the first time in a year, and it just gave me goose bumps all over.”
A stringent standard for monitoring and isolating those with the coronavirus, combined with daily new cases that can now be counted on one or two hands, have made Australia one of the safest places on the planet when it comes to the virus. On Tuesday, for instance, the nation’s Department of Health reported only two “locally acquired” cases and three from overseas sources. These numbers have meant a return of audiences, with crowd-control protocols, to such live events as the Australian Open and theater in the big playhouses of Sydney and Melbourne.
And, as a result, Australia has become a test case for the rest of the performing-arts world.
“You feel like you are living six to eight months ahead of us in Sydney,” said Thomas Schumacher, president of the Disney Theatrical Group, who is based in New York and spent six weeks in Australia supervising “Frozen’s” opening in December.
Although the timetable for reopening theaters in the United States and Europe remains anyone’s guess, Australia began restarting theatrical productions in the fall, with a revival of “Pippin” at the Sydney Lyric in November and “Frozen” at the Capitol Theatre the following month in Sydney. In a few other cities that have imposed strict guidelines, such as Seoul, some shows — “The Phantom of the Opera,” for instance — have been able to open. But Australia’s resurgence is happening at an astonishing pace.
“Come From Away” is playing at Melbourne’s Comedy Theatre, and this week, the two-part “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is scheduled to open at the city’s Princess Theatre. And “Hamilton,” that biggest of Broadway cahunas, will begin previews at the Sydney Lyric in March, making Sydney the only city in the world with a live production of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Tony-winning phenomenon.
“We look at this as an opportunity to mount the safest and best production we can there,” said Thomas Kail, who directed the Broadway production of “Hamilton,” as well as the film version, which debuted last summer. Kail met the Australian cast in a Zoom call from New York; an assistant director handles the day-to-day work on site. “It was thrilling just to go on screen and see the set’s turntable,” Kail added.
The success in managing the spread of the coronavirus in Australia encouraged theaters months ago to consult with the states of New South Wales, where Sydney is located, and Victoria, where Melbourne is situated.
“From September, the venues have led the preparation and worked with epidemiologists and health departments both in New South Wales and Victoria to create the plans to make them safe,” said Michael Cassel, the Australian producer of “Harry Potter” and “Hamilton.”
“And what that comes down to is sort of the two bubbles, which we’re now dealing with. One is the bubble of the company and keeping anybody who’s onstage and backstage essentially isolated. And then the other is the bubble of the audience.” (To keep cast and crew members safe, coronavirus testing is regularly administered.)
Occasional interruptions in a seamless return still crop up: Last week, “Come From Away” was forced to cancel performances after coronavirus activity was detected locally. But the rapid localized response only reinforced a faith that protections were in place to keep the productions healthy.
Some of the consumer confidence can be traced to a sophisticated tracking system when outbreaks occur. As both Cassel and Estreich recounted, phone apps containing personal QR codes — those square bar codes that can be read by identification devices — have become a regular part of Australians’ lives. When they enter public buildings, the QR code readers record their entry for possible tracing later.
“That’s really the heart of covid management here in Australia, that ability to be able to quickly contact-trace and lock everybody down,” Cassel said.
Schumacher learned firsthand how meticulous the Australians are about isolating visitors for a mandatory 14-day quarantine. Arriving at the airport in Sydney, he recalled, passengers were met by soldiers. “And they guide you onto one of a handful of buses,” he said. “You’re socially distanced on the bus, you have a military escort on motorcycles, with the bus going into the city. They take you off the bus two by two. It’s a little bit like leaving the Ark, if you will. And you didn’t know what hotel you were going to until the door of the bus closed.”
Once registered, an airman escorted him to his room, and locked him in. “You don’t have a key. You can’t get out,” he said, adding that meals were delivered three times a day.
Theaters in Sydney and Melbourne are operating at 75 percent to 85 percent capacity, without social distancing. Ticket holders can even buy drinks and merchandise at kiosks.
“The focus is all on ingress and egress of patrons,” Cassel said. “The biggest challenge is not when they are in the theater; there’s a confidence that when people are in the theater, they’re wearing masks, they’re facing forward.”
Ticket holders at “Frozen,” for example, are given staggered entry times, depending on their seat location. “They filled up from the center out,” Estreich recalled. “There was none of that stepping over people. That’s brilliant. I’m 6 foot 1, so I always have to tuck my legs in.”
The Australian shutdowns have been so severe that travel between states at times has been curtailed. Even so, ticket sales have been pretty brisk. Cassel noted that when the “Harry Potter” run had to be postponed last year, 80 percent of patrons exchanged their tickets for a later date.
“Obviously, from a commercial perspective, we will all want the ability to be playing to 100 percent,” he said. “But the fact that we could be playing at all and bringing people in and getting people onstage, you know, that’s been the absolute focus for now.”
What the Australian experience means for Broadway and the rest of North America, Schumacher said, is that a concerted effort by health and industry officials can overcome the obstacles to reopening. “There are things that can mitigate and make this possible,” he said. “It just takes everyone working together.”
For Estreich, who performs in community theater, the absence of shows made her heart grow even fonder. She felt no anxiety going back, and now looks forward to seeing an upcoming performance of “Hamilton.”
“It was like a different energy than you’ve ever seen on a stage before,” she said of her experience at “Frozen.” “You could see the cast’s gratefulness for having a job during this time just radiating off them.”