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How a Berlin Theater Will Enforce Social Distancing

The venue removed more than half of its seats to keep audience members safely separated

A view of the modified seating arrangement at the Berliner Ensemble (Photo by Maja Hitij / Getty Images)

As museums and theaters shuttered by COVID-19 slowly reopen their doors, many cultural institutions are employing creative techniques to keep visitors safe. At one Parisian gallery, art lovers don colorful papier-mâché hats that warn others to keep their distance; in Italy, tourists wandering the halls of Florence Cathedral wear electronic necklaces that buzz and light up if a neighbor gets too close.

Last month, the Berliner Ensemble in Germany’s capital city shared a photo of its own COVID-19 plan on Twitter.

“New reality,” the theater group wrote alongside a photo of its modified seating scheme: plush red seats scattered throughout the half-empty space in an arrangement that resembles a gap-toothed smile.

“By removing the seats, the remaining ones are easier to access,” artistic director Oliver Reese tells Tom Ravenscroft of Dezeen. “This allows us to follow the rules of social, or the way we like to put it, the rules of physical distancing.”

View of the modified seating arrangement at the Berliner Ensemble (Photo by Florian Gaertner / Photothek via Getty Images)
A view of the Berliner Ensemble's new, socially distanced seating arrangement (Photo by Florian Gaertner / Photothek via Getty Images)
An employee demonstrates the Berliner Ensemble's new, socially distanced design. Audience members will be seated in groups of one or two people at least five feet apart. (Photo by Maja Hitij / Getty Images)
View from the stage of the modified seating arrangement at the Berliner Ensemble (Photo by Maja Hitij / Getty Images)
About 500 chairs at the Berliner Ensemble have been removed. While they're out of commission, the chairs will be refurbished and renovated. (Photo by Florian Gaertner / Photothek via Getty Images)
Indoor theaters haven’t reopened in Germany yet, so the Berliner Ensemble has started offering free outdoor performances. (Photo by Maja Hitij / Getty Images)

The unusual new seating arrangement is designed to keep audience members at least 1.5 meters (roughly five feet) apart—in line with the German government’s safety ordinances, as Philip Oltermann reports for the Guardian. Though it can now hold open-air performances, the Berlin-based theater doesn’t anticipate that it will be allowed to reopen its doors for in-house shows until the fall.

Once the playhouse reopens, audience members will be allowed to leave the show for bathroom breaks whenever they want. No intermission will take place. Combined, these measures will hopefully curb unnecessary crowding in bathrooms.

The Berliner Ensemble has also adapted its roster of plays: Per the Guardian, the theater cut a production of Macbeth because it involved too much “kissing and licking.”

Founded in 1949 by actress Helene Weigel and her husband, playwright Bertolt Brecht, the venue normally holds about 700 people. In its new, pared-down format, the space holds 200, writes Juliana Neira for Designboom. Doors will be kept open during performances so air can continue to circulate in the theater.

“We simply could have blocked seats or taken out only entire rows, but that would have looked ghostly,” Reese tells the Guardian. “We want to create an experience that is special, that will anchor itself in people’s emotional memory. … It will be a new experience, with new rituals.”

As the theater noted on Twitter, decommissioned seats will be refurbished while they’re not in use.

The Berliner Ensemble is far from the only venue set to test out new seating arrangements in the coming months. As the Guardian reports, the Schaubühne theater in west Berlin is considering using plexiglass separators between audience members to prevent the virus’ spread. On Twitter, the Forum Theater in Stuggart responded to the Ensemble’s photo with a snapshot of its own half-empty seating plan, adding, “Greetings from Stuggart…”

About Nora McGreevy

Nora McGreevy is a freelance journalist based in South Bend, Indiana. Her work has appeared in Wired, Washingtonian, the Boston Globe, South Bend Tribune, the New York Times and more. She can be reached through her website, noramcgreevy.com.

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