How an actor from the West End is helping “Cats” come to life in South Korea
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In theatre, as the saying goes, the show must go on.
And in the age of coronavirus, London actor Thomas Inge has taken that motto to heart. His work on the West End dried up in March with the UK’s mandatory lockdown, but his bills still needed to be paid. So, he took a job at his local branch of the supermarket chain Tesco to make ends meet.
Now, five months later, he’s back on stage.
But this time, more than 5,000 miles away at the Charlotte Theatre in Seoul, South Korea, where on Wednesday, he helped open a production of “Cats” to a slimmed-down audience.
“It’s all a bit of a whirlwind,” he said of the experience. “I’ve now been here seven and half weeks. We had to quarantine for two weeks at first – you get tested and you can’t leave your room for two weeks. And then we went into rehearsals from there.”
Just two weeks ago, as COVID-19 cases began to spike again, Seoul and a number of other cities re-imposed lockdown measures including limiting large gatherings and closing cybercafes, buffets, and karaoke bars.
But Inge said theatres in Seoul have implemented a number of changes to make it safe for patrons, including reducing the number of people allowed in the theatre to 60% of full capacity.
“They really appreciate their theatre and hold it in such high stead. They feel like it’s a big part of the economy and it should continue to go ahead. Hopefully the lockdown rules are eased slightly [in the next few weeks], and then we’ll be able to open up full capacity again,” he said.
As Inge and the rest of the “Cats” cast prepared in Seoul this week for their debut, the show’s composer, Andrew Lloyd Webber was back in London speaking before a Parliamentary committee about the need for more government support for the arts industry. He argued a “point of no return was near” and that it is not financially viable for theaters to operate with social distancing rules in place. He threatened to take his upcoming “Cinderella” production overseas if London venues are not allowed to reopen.
In July, Lloyd Webber spend more than $100,000 on a concert at the London Palladium to test the effectiveness of a socially-distanced event. But hundreds of seats were left empty to comply with the UK’s rules. Only two other major indoor productions have opened with limited capacity. Most theaters remain shuttered.
“There comes a point now when we really can’t go on much more,” Lloyd-Webber told the committee on Tuesday. “Theatre is an incredibly labor-intensive business. In many ways, putting on a show is almost a labor of love.”
The UK government unveiled a more than $2 billion support package for the nation’s arts industry, which was broadly welcomed. That’s in addition to other widespread support measures totalling nearly $250 billion to support public services, businesses and individuals, including the furlough scheme that covered up to 80% of worker wages while they were out of work.
But Lloyd Webber and others in the sector have said naming a date when theaters can reopen is critical to making sure the industry doesn’t collapse under the weight of coronavirus.
“I feel so lucky. Going straight from Tesco to here has meant that I haven’t actually stopped working, which has been very fortunate.”Thomas Inge, actor
An op-ed in the Mail on Sunday by the UK’s Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said a project currently in the works could allow some theater productions to return by Christmas, but a key component would be the implementation of rapid coronavirus testing capability.
“Testing is the short-term key until we find a working vaccine. We’re making exciting advances in quick turnaround testing where on–the-day coronavirus tests could give people who test negative a pass to visit the theatre that evening,” Dowden wrote.
For Inge, who would like to return to London when his work with “Cats” ends in May, the ongoing dialogue between industry and government is promising.
“I feel so lucky. Going straight from Tesco to here has meant that I haven’t actually stopped working, which has been very fortunate. And I do feel guilty because I’ve got so many friends who aren’t in this positions right now and would love to be,” he said. “But at the same time, I’ve got to enjoy it for what it is. I can’t wait to open … it’s going to be brilliant.”
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