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The Drive-In Theater: Keeping Drama Alive During the Lockdown

2020-05-31 16:34:23
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Patrick Kingsley, an international correspondent, and Laetitia Vancon, a photojournalist, are driving more than 3,700 miles to explore the reopening of the European continent after coronavirus lockdowns. Read all their dispatches.

PRAGUE — To attend her first play in more than two months, Marie Reslova, a prominent Czech theater critic, drove into Prague, headed to a large vegetable market, parked next to a convertible sports car and switched off her engine.

Soon, actors from the Czech National Theater strode onto a platform a few yards from Ms. Reslova’s windshield.

The play had begun. And she hadn’t even left her car.

The Czech Republic enforced tighter restrictions than most European countries to combat the coronavirus pandemic. For several weeks, Czechs were barred even from jogging without a mask. Even after the government eased that restriction, masks were still mandatory in most other public contexts.

But the country also loosened the lockdown earlier than most — and that has made it a laboratory for how arts and culture can adapt to a context in which some restrictions on social life have been lifted, while others remain in place.

The drive-in theater at Prague’s vegetable market was an ambitious example. To circumvent restrictions on public gatherings, audience members watched plays, concerts and comedy from behind their steering wheels — in a monthlong program that ended with a variety act by the National Theater last Sunday evening, attended by Ms. Reslova.

Across Europe, drive-ins have become a familiar means of circumventing pandemic restrictions. By default, cars keep their occupants socially distanced, leading even nightclub owners and priests to set up drive-in discos and churches.

Though considered a gimmick at first, their proliferation suggests they could become a common feature of society at least until the development of vaccines and treatments for the coronavirus.

But that will probably have ramifications for both the environment and the quality of cultural events. At times, the drive-in theater felt more like a traffic jam than a work of drama.

When the audience members wanted to applaud, they honked their horns.

When it started to drizzle, they flicked on their windshield wipers.

And to hear the actors, they hooked their car speakers to a portable radio provided by the organizers.

It was theater, but not quite as Ms. Reslova remembered it. Not that she minded — initially, at least. Before the lockdown, she watched three or four plays in person a week. During the lockdown, she had seen theater only on the internet.

“I don’t have to watch this online!” she said cheerily through her car window, before the show started.

The couple in the convertible beside her, a pair of marketing executives, were equally excited. But standing at the back, having sneaked in on foot, a Czech photographer was more circumspect.

Delighted as he was that there was at least something to watch, David Konecny wondered how the performers would foster that sense of shared experience and connection that he feels is so central to live theater.

Otherwise, Mr. Konecny feared, “it’s just people in their cars, sitting in their bubbles.”

For the actors, the experience was a strange mix of exhilaration at performing again after a long pause — and eeriness.

Peter Vancura, one of the performers that night, at first felt nervous stepping onstage, confronted not by faces and frowns, but the hoods of 30 cars. But then he noticed he could make out some people’s expressions through the windshield, and even see their smiles.

“It’s not so bad!” he said backstage. “Not so unconnected.”

The project was dreamed up in late March by Karel Kratochvil, an actor with a children’s theater company who couldn’t stand how the lockdown had laid waste to all forms of cultural life, including his own productions. Just as doctors care for people’s medical health, he felt a duty to care for people’s emotional well-being.

“To me, an actor is not a job, it’s something higher,” Mr. Kratochvil said. “It means taking some responsibility for society.”

To that end, Mr. Kratochvil initially put on his own one-man show, declaiming literary excerpts from a small boat moored under a famous medieval footbridge in central Prague.

But only one person showed up, sending Mr. Kratochvil back to the drawing board.

A few days later, he woke up with a brand-new idea. What if people could attend a drive-in play, just as they might see a film at a drive-in cinema?

Mr. Kratochvil can’t actually drive, but that was just a detail.

Within days he had founded “Art Parking,” a festival that ended up including both the drive-in theater and a drive-in cinema a few miles across town. Mr. Kratochvil invited several theaters to participate, from small independent outfits to the state-funded National Theater last Sunday night.

There were also folk singers and classical violinists, rock guitarists and chanson singers. By the end of the month, 11,000 people had attended 28 performances.

At first it was unclear whether the artists would need to speak or sing through masks, since they were working in public and the law technically required them to cover their mouths and noses.

But at the first performance, the singer decided at the last minute to go without. The police did not intervene, and a precedent was set.

For Tomas Dianiska, a comic playwright who performed his own play earlier in the festival, his show had been an important human experience, but not one he hopes will need to be repeated any time soon.

“We came to the stage, and said ‘hello’ to these cars,” Mr. Dianiska remembered. “You can’t see the people — they’re using klaxons instead of laughing.”

“Better than nothing,” he summarized. “A good experience to tell people about in the pub, but not for theater.”

The artistic quality was varied, Mr. Kratochvil happily acknowledged.

But that was beside the point, he said. The goal was to keep the cultural world ticking along and to maintain at least some form of human interaction, rather than to aim for virtuosity.

“My thought was: We have to show how living art will never die,” he said.

And since the lockdown eased significantly the morning after the festival ended — Czechs need no longer wear masks outdoors — the process had now served its purpose.

“There’s no more need for this,” Mr. Kratochvil said. “And I’m glad about that.”

And so it seemed was Ms. Reslova, who drove off disappointed. “Terrible,” said her companion, shouting through the car window as they left the car park following the performance. “That’s all we have to say.”

Ms. Reslova later emailed to clarify that she had appreciated the concept of the festival itself, but not the National Theater’s variety show.

While smaller theater groups had opted to perform entire plays, the National Theater’s submission was a messy collection of excerpts from various different plays — from Faust to Oedipus — and it didn’t really hang together, Ms. Reslova reckoned.

But the couple in the convertible had a very different reaction, ecstatic to be back among other people at a cultural event.

“It was a great pleasure,” said Jan Bezpalec, a marketing consultant. “Something that you just can’t get through the internet.”

There was just one problem, he said. All the honking had taken its toll.

His car battery was out of juice.

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