The world looked different when I started rehearsals for the world tour of The Phantom of the Opera. It was January 2019, and my only concerns were to put on the best show possible and to enjoy my time on tour. That December, we settled down in the city of Busan to begin our nine-month run in South Korea. Who could have imagined that in a few months we would be "perhaps the only major show running" in the world?
In February, I started to hear about coronavirus, and I initially thought it would disappear soon. Not many people knew anything about it. But small changes and worries infiltrated our tour. Company management advised us to wear a mask when in public, and we saw most of the audience members and people on public transportation wearing masks.
After the Busan season, we all returned home for three weeks to spend time with our family and friends as planned before flying into Seoul to start our run in the Blue Square theater. While I was in New York City, which had only a few confirmed cases at the time, I watched the numbers in South Korea rise every day. Cast members were texting each other: "Are we safe to go back there?" The producers, general management and company management attempted to calm our fears and prepared us with the safety protocols and guidelines we'd need to follow.
On March 11, the day I arrived back in South Korea to start our Seoul run, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. I remember thinking, "It's serious. Are we really going to open the show?" Little did I know, we would not only open the show but would have 146 performances from March 14 to August 8.
How did we "survive" the pandemic?
Performers, crew members, venue staff and audience members were all given instructions on how to adapt their behavior to minimize the risk of transmission. The company was given a number of day-to-day guidelines: Temperature checks before entering the theater were mandated; everyone was required to wear masks backstage; and performers were only allowed to take them off starting at our one-hour call. Company members were required to file a track-and-trace form when they got to the theater, recording which areas we'd visited during the day so that in the event that a COVID cluster arose, company management would be able to support us to act swiftly.
Hand sanitizer was available everywhere in the theater, and everyone was washing their hands carefully. In addition to regular cleaning, all our costumes and props were sanitized daily by our hard-working crew. I felt safe (considering the world's situation) because everyone was following the rules. South Korea seemed to have a solid hold of this virus. The daily case numbers have steadily and significantly lowered since March. Despite some spikes, they remain relatively low.
Author Ayaka Kamei
Bohyun Yoon, Courtesy Kamei
When one of the performers tested positive on April 1, every single company member and all venue staff underwent tests for active COVID-19 and for antibodies. Given that we spend so much time close together, I was certain that others would have the virus too. To my surprise, only one other person tested positive. The Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention did forensic tracing and determined that the transmission didn't take place in the theater. As a precaution, we all had to quarantine, and after three weeks, everyone was tested again to ensure nothing was missed.
Most of us sheltered in place in our hotel rooms, where we would wave at each other from our windows. We had meetings, ballet classes and quiz nights on Zoom. I took virtual dance classes from all over the world—with my old teachers from the Metropolitan Opera, plus New Adventures, Hofesh Shechter Company, learning Gaga and Cunningham techniques and more.
We resumed our performances on April 23. To my surprise, the audience returned with their masks, and we played almost consistently to a full house. All of my worries disappeared while performing. I was overwhelmed by gratitude that people still wanted to see us, and that the producers and company managers had kept us safe.
Still, I did have moments of doubt. With the slightest headache, I would become worried. "Do I have COVID-19? Is the show going to close because of me?" I was scared to go outside, so for a while, I only went to the theater and straight back to the hotel. We all had to be responsible and deal with the pressures of being possibly the only performing company in the world.
But we did it. We finished our five-month run in Seoul through the pandemic. Yes, there were stress and sobs thinking of people back home, but I also had happy tears and felt pride. Words cannot express how thankful I was to see the audience at the curtain call every show.
On August 18 we opened in Daegu, our third and final city in South Korea. Unfortunately, following a recent spike in coronavirus cases across South Korea, the Daegu season closed three weeks earlier than scheduled. Another reminder that we have to handle this virus day by day, taking no performance for granted. Now I'm going back to New York City before departing for Taiwan, where we'll resume the tour in November.
Throughout all this, I've learned that it takes both a personal and a community effort to stay safe and healthy. I have hope for the future based on our successes in Seoul. I'm confident that over time, with the resilience and creativity of the performing arts world, things will come back stronger than ever.