Broadway Can Learn from South Korea’s Theatre Market During COVID-19

Broadway Can Learn from South Korea’s Theatre Market During COVID-19

  • Natalie Rine

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect countries and leading economies around the world, more than 40 countries so far have asked Korea to share its relatively successful (so-called) “K-quarantine model,” which seems the closest thing we have in these dark days to a paradigm of hope. From a “code red” escalation of cases in late February and March (at its peak identifying 909 new cases in a single day, Feb. 29), Korea now boasts daily new coronavirus cases hovering below 30 for multiple weeks. And on Sunday, April 19, the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported only eight new cases — the first single-digit increase in two months.

While much is being written on how Asia’s fourth-largest economy got to this point, and how they are handling mounting uncertainties on the road to a renewal of “normal” now amid a drastically contracted global trade network, nose-diving oil prices, and dwindling foreign direct investment (oh my), there remain lessons to be gleaned from South Korea’s theatre market in the wake of and (perhaps more crucial to Broadway insiders) emergence out of this pandemic.

Instead of shutting down virtually all aspects of life like the United States, while Korea aggressively identified, tracked, and tested carriers, the government only ordered schools to shut down; other businesses such as theaters either followed suit and closed—or adapted. According to the Korea Performing Arts Box Office Information System, managed by the Korea Arts Management Service affiliated with the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism, roughly 70 productions opened in March, as opposed to the around 380 shows in February. The data shows performing arts ticket sales in March around 6.3 billion won ($5.06 million), down from February’s 21 billion won. While most productions big and small across the country did cancel or postpone, unlike Broadway or the West End’s ominous shuttering, a few productions in Korea have remained open, with individual productions and theaters following government guidelines yet soldiering through the pandemic—a feat seemingly unfathomable and enviable from where Broadway currently sits. Korea’s approach as outlined below elucidates hints of what the Broadway community should expect, or perhaps demand, from theater owners, audiences, producers, and marketing in order to move forward together.

Lesson 1:  Invest in Audience and Employee Safety

As early as the beginning of February, theater owners were taking preventative measures in the disinfection of their venues as awareness of the looming threat spread. One such multi-stage venue in an area akin to off-Broadway, Arko Daehangno Arts Theater operated by the Arts Council Korea, had staff wearing protective gear and spraying disinfectant in the auditoriums, stages, and dressing rooms at least twice a day (before and after performances). Disposable masks and automatic hand sanitizer stations were free for the audience upon entrance, where they also had to walk past a small thermal camera monitoring body temperature.

After the crisis alert was raised, most theaters began canceling or moving offerings online, but venues that had been swift to act on putting preventative procedures in place were also able to continue their programming in-person to limited audiences. They picked up on a limited schedule (implementing a “special quarantine” every Monday as a dark day to thoroughly disinfect, as well as moving select performances to a live broadcast) and re-assigned seats along empty aisles and vacated on both sides of a person for social distancing.

Having these procedures in place allowed them to continue working and minimize the aftershocks once the government tightened social distancing and officially recommended later that daily multi-use facilities (schools, companies, performance halls, churches…) should be sterilized. Local government circulated disinfection methods and procedures, then worked with local law enforcement to perform joint inspections of these communal gathering places so they could keep up the limited but not shuttered operations.

Moreover, theater owners led the way with staff and employee health procedures, understanding no operations or audience would be possible without their safety first. Front of house and any audience-facing employees had immediate mask and glove requirements put in place, and everyone undergoes thermometer self-checks twice a day (with their logs always recorded), on top of the daily disinfection of office, rehearsal, and backstage spaces. While the collection and tracking of personal data are trickier to navigate in the U.S., creating a safe and encouraging environment for comparable employee procedures, with free resources like masks, gloves, and sanitizer provided, will normalize health incorporation into your next “thank you five.”

Other venue tips for reopening are arising out of Asia’s attractions industry, where they’re instituting capacity limits for particular floors and limiting the number of time guests can spend in-venue (dwell time). While a show has a concrete start and end time, one way to curtail audience crowding, mingling, and queuing is by beginning a time slot ticket entrance system letting patrons inside in certain intervals like a Sleep No More model. If someone shows up early, they can make the ticket valid for a period prior to their reserved time and admit them, as long as the venue isn’t at capacity (this would avoid having to consistently refund people).

Thinking and acting swiftly to benefit the public good and not operate in a case-by-case crisis management mode is ironically difficult for a Broadway industry deluged with unions. In the wake of American mass gun anxiety, Broadway has barely managed a reluctant and reactive installation of a few full body metal detectors, choosing instead (unsurprisingly, cost-effectively) repeatedly to think the subject matter of feel-good shows will placate audiences more than installing safety measures. Even the protection of individual actors despite public discomfort and outcry prevails in our individualist society, which simply cannot be the case if any Broadway employee breaks health guidelines—like the Korean National Ballet dancer swiftly fired for traveling during mandated quarantine. As Actor’s Equity puts together safety expectations for returning to work, I urge workplace standards to mirror Korea’s efficient, non-invasive methods for audience and employees. If you want audiences (and their money) as return, you must invest in their wellbeing.


Lesson 2: Overcommunicate With Audiences

While the shortcomings of ticket sites and systems to handle mass cancellations and refunds has come under recent scrutiny, getting new tickets and systems back in operation for a return of “regular” consumer behavior will require an equally hefty amount of coordination to convince patrons of a safe environment to return to. The Korean ticket buying site Interpark offers a standard worth replicating.

Individual show pages, before the usual synopsis and casting details, outline each production/venue’s individual contingency plan right alongside the ticket buying button. While these notices have been updated occasionally to reflect new ticket blocks or schedule shifts over the last few months to align with government recommendations, the core procedures for every show that has stayed open (big or small) are almost identical, remaining consistent and clear in a non-imposing graphic that more or less lists the following:

1.       All audience members must wear masks the whole time, or they will not be permitted entrance.

2.       Body temperatures will be taken at entrances via thermal imaging cameras (with locations of these cameras listed).

3.       After “The Phantom of the Opera” reopened this week after a three-week halt (extended past the recommended 15 days) of performances due to actors testing positive, larger shows are now requiring audience members to submit a COVID questionnaire provided and examined upon entrance (see below).

4.       Venue disinfection methods, frequency, and locations in the building, along with staff protection requirements (see Lesson #1) are outlined.

5.       Outside food and gifts are not permitted inside the venue (most often fan stagedoor gifts, which culturally go way harder than Broadway… think: food trucks dedicated for one actor).



Listed notices like this should be not just on ticket buying sites, but also on venue/show websites, venue/show blogs, and social pages, and posted publicly on-site for front of house and backstage viewing.

The Korean government inundates citizens with information and resources on the virus, and while public collection of virus data tracking let alone risk alert app notifications are out of reach for a country like ours prone to government skepticism and partisanship, theaters should anticipate needing to overly communicate what measures are in place for audience safety. As the case of “The Phantom of the Opera” shows, addressing an individual show/venue’s situation is possible with calm and poise, informing past attendees to self-quarantine once cases were confirmed, and listing the steps being taken to move forward on their ticket site. Finding out second-hand from a performer’s Instagram about infections, for example, won’t instill calm or safety in a post-virus market; clear, concise, controllable, and comforting communication directly from the official venue/production is imperative for an audience to return safely.

Lesson #3: Brands Will Survive, But Not in the Way You Think

The infrastructure of the Korean performance market consists of an interconnected ecosystem of “public theaters” and private theater style (around 80% musical-only) producing companies, wherein productions are made in the private sector and then distributed in public theaters. Whereas the term “public theater” in the U.S. may evoke grand conceptual notions of Joe Papp and American socialist idealism, in its Korean context “theater” is limited to indicating a venue; key characteristics of these venues align more with presenting houses (rather than say, regional or LORT companies that do a season at their own venue). These theaters are often started as foundations, being named as a regional arts center for example, and hold multiple performance spaces stacked within them, whether they boast a 2500 seating of Seoul’s larger stages or neighborhood Daehangno’s off-Broadway vibe of a few hundred.

This is essential to understanding how shows remained open and continue running to this day through the pandemic. Many venues acting as presenters would not want to deal with the hassle of rescheduling the shows, as venues book with a lead time of a year or more. Unlike sit-down Broadway productions that could potentially run open-ended, most production companies cycle through a repertory, bringing back hit musicals every few years for bookings in these venues for a few months at a time before often embarking on a small cross-country tour. The logistics for a complete shutdown in some cases didn’t outweigh the power that these fan-favorites held for a venue’s guarantee. For example, according to producer EMK Musical Company, even in January and February when COVID-19 hit Korea, 98 percent of the 1,255 available seats were occupied for the Viennese musical “Rebecca” starring musical theatre and former K-pop powerhouse Ock Joo-hyun. Similarly, Frank Wildhorn’s popular “Dracula” by OD Company and starring famous singer Kim Jun-su has been running recording an average capacity of 95 percent, at least before their recent 20-day suspension as part of precautions against the outbreak. These stars create this demand every time they step on a stage, apparently regardless of a pandemic.

While the ethics of continuing to run at the beginning of the pandemic may have been debated, more and more shows are now playing or are poised to open in the upcoming summer months—and they don’t need the star casting to do it. The shows that have resurged show an eclectic mix from the aforementioned mega-examples to smaller productions of Yasmina Reza’s “Art” or Freudian psycho-thriller musical “Shining.” One trend seems clear to me: companies and venues are slashing any room for mediocrity, leaning instead on their keen understanding of their niche target markets.

A potential model emerges out of this where attempting to create a blanket (eventually) “for everyone” show for longevity’s sake may not be the Broadway formula anymore when theaters will have to fight to get anyone back at first. Rather, the creation of targeted, specific limited runs with intention should be promoted, with the potential for a cycle of re-engagement (different from our notions of revivals) like Korean producers stage from year to year. This specificity could mean a resurgence of star casting, or use of niche source material like the successful “Lightning Thief” for example to attract deliberate fans and buzz.

Shows that succeed in a post-COVID market will be those with a stronghold on their brand. More than meaning a jukebox or movie musical, a show’s understanding of their individual DNA, appeal/audience, and communication language has never been more vital to its success. Shows like “Six” and “Beetlejuice” master this, spawning an organic brand bubble consisting of an approachable tone and colloquial presence online and in the minds of fans across the country willing to sing and support their spunk wholeheartedly (important to differentiate that “Beetlejuice” has succeeded in diverging a complimentary identity from its movie source material unlike, say, “Frozen”). The huge benefits of IP branding and bubble-building are that you can fuel trust and growth in a brand while encouraging engagement that extends beyond the two hours in a physical venue. Productions in Korea operate with roles double or triple cast, but it is the material and brand bubbles that keep visitors returning again and again (and buying licensed merch and blogging and posting and singing...).

Singer Kim Jun-su is Count Dracula in “Dracula: The Musical.” (OD Company)

Lesson #4: Take Care of Our Own Backyard First

Of course, the war over streaming Broadway shows is far from over. And for the Korean market free from our complex web of restrictions, a jump to online offerings was a no-brainer, especially when given the chance to promote culture to all audiences, including those with otherwise inhibitable disabilities. Venues and productions were swift to offer YouTube series, music videos, and even a drive-in movie theater comeback. Some shows offered recorded clips like original musical “Marie Curie,” which drew more than 210,000 views on Naver TV then reported a sudden increase in ticket sales after the live-streamed event.

All of these techniques help keep shows top of mind for consumers, but what about turning that into tangible ticket-buying action when the doors reopen? As the attractions industry analyzed recently, with some level of concern surrounding COVID-19 remaining, consumers may choose to minimize risk by staying within their own countries and states. But as the hundreds of thousands who tuned into the recent Broadway-related online concerts can attest to, theatergoers are likely to have a strong appetite to get some semblance of performance back in their lives following the lockdown period. Coupled with the staycation effect, the period between Broadway reopening and international travel returning to its pre-crisis level could see a domestic boom that requires reconfiguring existing Broadway marketing and sales techniques.

Despite covering only about 12% of the country's area, Seoul has 48.2% of the national population, so their theaters know about drawing a local audience. Common rewards and discounts that are prominently displayed on Korean ticket pages could easily transfer to regaining an essential tri-state audience back. Examples include discounts for ticket holders from past years; discounts on select dates; discounts for residents of select regions, students, disabled, or national merit holders; and group discounts. In addition, tickets could be subsidized or donated to volunteers and workers related to the crisis, like EMK Musical Company donating 3,000 tickets to their upcoming shows for the second half of 2020. The effects of this virus on our landscape, industry, and psyches will be long-lasting, but taking care of our own neighbors will instill goodwill and perseverance we can all benefit from.

Is the Korean Model Transferable?

The virus hasn’t left any country or arts market untouched. Data from the Federation of Artistic and Cultural Organization of Korea shows that 2,511 shows and performances have been canceled over the January-April period, causing an estimated 52.3 billion won in damage. And while crucial differences will abound in the levels of government involvement and “support programs” to help the performing arts in our different countries, it is my belief that these four lessons from Korea’s passionate and resilient theatre scene will not only translate, but flourish in our new, healthier Broadway.




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