This theater plans dividers to keep patrons socially distanced

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This theater plans dividers to keep patrons socially distanced
An image provided by Sara Brown shows a model for the Wilma Theater’s new seating structure, which is based on Shakespeare’s Globe. The Wilma, seeking to reopen in Philadelphia, says it will erect a new seating structure in which every party is in its own separate box. Sara Brown via The New York Times.

by Michael Paulson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Like most other large regional nonprofit and commercial theaters, the Wilma in Philadelphia plans to stay closed through the fall.

But this theater has an unusual idea for how to reopen when the time comes: It will prevent theatergoers from breathing on one another by separating them with wood dividers.

The Wilma, which normally seats 300 people in a traditional auditorium, says it will build a new structure, seating as many as 100 or as few as 35, on its stage. The two-tiered structure, which can be configured in the round or as a semicircle, is based in part on Shakespeare’s Globe Theater.

The most distinctive feature is that each party of patrons — whether they be solo or in groups of up to four — is seated in a box, physically separated from all other parties.

“As we were thinking about how to approach next season, and recognizing that even when we gather we would still likely have some sort of distancing and limited capacity, the idea of having everyone spread out in our existing space didn’t feel like it served our work,” said Leigh Goldenberg, the theater’s managing director. “So we looked at other models through history that allowed both distance and intimacy with the artists.”

The structure is expected to cost up to $115,000, which the Wilma said it should be able to afford with its production budget because it will be spending less on sets. The theater also hopes to be allowed to stream its productions to recapture some of the revenue lost as a result of having a lower seating capacity.

The theater has not yet decided what other safety measures it will put into place upon reopening and plans to consult with medical professionals.

The Wilma, established in 1973 as a feminist collective called the Wilma Project, moved into its current theater in 1996.

Earlier this year, it announced an unusual leadership structure in which four artistic directors are jointly overseeing the organization. Their hope for next season is to stage productions of “Fairview,” the Pulitzer-winning play by Jackie Sibblies Drury; “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” a play by Will Arbery that was a Pulitzer finalist; as well as “Fat Ham” by James Ijames and “Minor Character” from the troupe New Saloon.

“We’re embracing forward motion,” Goldenberg said of the seating plan. “We want to experiment with how we can keep creating and producing, and this feels like the next step of that.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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