LONDON — One afternoon in September, nine cast members of “The Great Gatsby,” an immersive theater show staged like a party at Jay Gatsby’s mansion, were sweatily dancing the Charleston in a London venue.
There should have been 10 of them in the rehearsal, but one actor, M.J. Lee, was serving as the show’s impromptu choreographer. The dancer who usually does that was stuck at home, waiting for the result of a coronavirus test.
Lee did not seem bothered by the responsibility. “That’s great!” she kept shouting at James Lawrence, an actor playing Nick Carraway, the show’s narrator, as he struggled with the steps.
Before lockdown, the show was often described as being as much a party as a play. Audience members came dressed in suits or flapper dresses, and stood drinking in a grand room of a London townhouse, decorated in the style of a 1920s bar. During the show, the actors roamed among the audience, often talking directly with attendees to bring them into the action.
The cast would also take a handful of lucky audience members off to other rooms in the townhouse — Gatsby’s boudoir, for instance — to take part in short, interactive scenes. (Sometimes audience members got a bit too close. In 2018, the police were called after actors complained of being sexually assaulted by audience members.)
The whole basis of the show had to change because of coronavirus, said Katy Eynon, its general manager, as she watched the rehearsal. “It’s a shame,” she said. “The freedom to move among the audience was something we used to play with and now we’re slightly restricted to a more traditional theater setup,” she added.
Before lockdown, she said, the Charleston had been staged as a dance lesson for the 250-strong audience, with everyone encouraged to join in. Now, it would simply involve the actors dancing, and there would only be 70 spectators, all wearing masks and sitting in chairs, spaced out to maintain social distancing.
Some audience members would still be taken off to other rooms, Eynon added, but their experiences would be different. In the boudoir, for instance, Gatsby used to throw the contents of his wardrobe over attendees as he searched for the perfect party outfit. But so many people touching the same items now carried a risk, she added. Gatsby would now fire questions at audience members about which outfit they liked.
“It’s still immersive theater,” Eynon said, “just less interactive.”
At the rehearsal, on Sep. 22, all the creative changes for the show’s comeback had been agreed. But Eynon said she was still feeling “a little stressed” because of another issue: the British government’s coronavirus rules, which have been changing regularly, at short notice. Moments before that day’s rehearsal, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that hospitality venues would have to shut at 10 p.m.
That wasn’t great for “Gatsby,” Eynon said, as it made a profit by keeping its bar open after the show finished.
“We’ll see what changes tomorrow!” she added.
By early October, a few weeks after the rehearsal, “The Great Gatsby” had reopened. Around 7 p.m. the first of the night’s 70-odd guests arrived at the townhouse in the Mayfair district, some in glittering dresses accessorized with blue surgical masks.
Eynon, standing outside, said she was relieved the show was finally up and running. The new safety measures were all in place, Eynon added. As well as temperature checks at the door, there was an air filtration system whirring away inside, cleaning the air every six minutes, she explained, and each room would be treated with ultraviolet light to kill germs between performances.
In interviews with eight audience members as they arrived, only one spoke of concerns about the coronavirus. “I am worried about being inside,” said Michael Jing, a 24-year-old student, attending with his girlfriend. “But I think I’ll have no more chance to go to the theater in future, so I want to try.”
Inside the glamorous main room, which featured a fountain bubbling away and lots of gold Art Deco decoration, audience members were guided to their tables where they ordered drinks from masked waiters.
At first, thoughts of the pandemic were hard to escape. Rosy Rosenthal (Hugh Stubbins) kicked off the show by standing on the bar and declaring a very un-Gatsby set of rules, chief among them that attendees must never leave their seats unless a cast member invited them to.
“Get those masks on, let’s get this party swinging,” he said to finish.
But once that was out of the way, the changes to the show were unobtrusive. When audience members were taken away to watch the immersive scenes, the characters gave them subtle reminders to sanitize their hands. “Let’s freshen up,” said Nick Carraway. “It’s New York City, you never know who’s touched what,” he added.
Ruth Turner, 30, a civil servant, said she felt jealous watching people leave the main room to go off to the secret locations. “Normally in immersive theater, you walk around where you want,” she said. Being made to sit in one place felt like “watching a play in a bar,” she added.
Maia Honan, 52, was more enthusiastic. “The whole experience is just so special,” she said, adding that she’d been invited to take part in the action by playing one of Gatsby’s maids and setting up a tea service for him. “We’ve all been in lockdown so long, everything’s so heightened.”
She worried the play might have to close again, she added, given the government looked likely to announce new restrictions, but hoped that wouldn’t happen. The whole of England is currently subject to a 10 p.m. hospitality curfew, and, on Saturday, a ban on households mixing indoors came in for London, though theaters can remain open.
At 9:55 p.m., a few minutes before the curfew, “The Great Gatsby” finished to cheers. Nick Carraway stood on the bar and briefly dropped out of character to address everyone. “A big welcome back to just getting together and doing things again,” he said.
“This is normally the time we say we’ll get out of costume and join you for a drink,” he added. “But that’s illegal. So have a beautiful, beautiful evening.”