View Source

For West End’s Return, Cleansing Spirits and an Aching for Change

LONDON — At 7:30 p.m. on Monday, Maureen Lyon will be murdered at St. Martin’s Theater in London, her screams piercing the air.

Her death is a moment many in London’s theater industry will welcome for one simple reason: It’s the opening of “The Mousetrap,” Agatha Christie’s long-running whodunit, and it will signal that the West End is finally back.

For the last 427 days, the coronavirus pandemic has effectively shut London’s theaters. Some tried to reopen in the fall, only for England to plunge into a new lockdown before they even got to rehearsals.

They tried again in December, and several musicals, including “Six,” about the wives of Henry VIII, reopened to ecstatic audiences. But just days later, the shows were forced closed once more.

said theaters can reopen with social distancing on Monday and without it on June 21, provided coronavirus cases stay low, thanks to the country’s rapid vaccination drive. Vaccine passports might be required by then — a measure many major theater owners back.

A host of shows are scheduled to reopen this month, with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new “Cinderella” musical coming June 25 and a deluge of others soon after. “Hamilton” reopens in August. What happens to these shows will likely be a bellwether for Broadway’s reopening in September.

But what’s it actually like for the theatermakers who are starting work again after 15 months? Has the pandemic shaped the way they think about theater? We visited four to find out.

“Work that engages with who we are now.”

palo santo — a wood shamans use to cleanse evil spirits — and burned it in front of his cast. He’d only performed a ritual like that once before, he said, as he’d been afraid of “feeling like an idiot.”

But the actors also wanted to mark the occasion. “Every day now they’re saying, ‘Can we burn some more?’” Rickson said.

One of Britain’s most in-demand directors, Rickson’s Broadway triumphs include “Jerusalem” and the 2008 revival of “The Seagull.” (“The finest and most fully involving production of Chekhov that I have ever known,” wrote Ben Brantley in The New York Times.)

The night the shutdown hit, he was in a dress rehearsal for the play “All of Us” at the National Theater, while his revival of “Uncle Vanya” was attracting sellout crowds in the West End. Suddenly, he was without work or a sense of purpose. During lockdown last spring, he walked round the West End and cried while looking at all the shut theaters.

He kept himself busy by filming “Uncle Vanya,” but said he spent most of the time reflecting on what he wanted theater to be when it returned. His answer: “New work, work that engages with who we are now, courageous work.”

“Walden,” by the largely unknown American playwright Amy Berryman, is the first example of that. He came across the play — about two sisters with contrasting views on how humanity should deal with climate change — last summer, while searching for scripts with the producer Sonia Friedman.

“It’s kind of dazzling in its imaginative scope,” Rickson said. “It’s like a play by a writer who’s written 20 plays, not a debut.”

Britain’s vaccine rollout was “fast by any measure,” she said. “Of course, “if we weren’t selling any tickets, I wouldn’t feel so jolly.”

Burns, the chief executive of Nimax Theaters, is one of the unsung heroes of the West End’s comeback. Over the past year, many figures in Britain’s theaterland have grabbed headlines for trying to support workers during the pandemic.

Lloyd Webber continually harangued the British government to let theaters reopen, even hosting a government-sanctioned experiment in July to prove it could happen safely. The “Fleabag” star Phoebe Waller-Bridge set up a fund to support freelance theatermakers, as did the director Sam Mendes.

But Burns did something else: She tried, repeatedly, to open her six theaters with social distancing and mask mandates.

In October, she managed to open the Apollo for 14 performances by Adam Kay, a comedian and former doctor, before England went into a second lockdown. In December, she opened several more for just over a weekend, before England went into lockdown again.

said when naming her its producer of the year. “In the face of overwhelming odds this year, she has consistently tried to make it happen, when some other established commercial producers didn’t.”

Now, she’s planning to open them all once more. “Six,” the musical about the wives of Henry VIII, will play at the Lyric. “Everybody’s Talking About Jamie,” a musical about a boy dreaming of being a drag queen, will be right next door at the Apollo.

announced a Rising Stars festival, letting 23 young producers host shows in her venues this summer. The shows include “Cruise,” a one-man tale of gay life in London, as well as an evening of magic acts.

be built down the road from the Palace.

It doesn’t have a name yet, she said. How about the Burns Theater? “No, no, no, no, no,” she replied. She’s naming a bar inside after herself. “That’s enough,” she said.

“I’ve learned that I don’t need to change to please anyone”

a hit musical about a gay teenager who dreams of becoming a drag queen.

His dressing room was adorned with art from fans, and months after dropping out of drama school to take the role, he had become used to seeing his face plastered on London’s buses. Then the pandemic forced his theater shut, and he found himself at home with his mum, dad and sister.

tweeted a picture of a full airplane, alongside one of an empty theater. “It just made me think, ‘Why’s that one OK, and the other isn’t?’” he said. “Every other industry was talking about getting back to work, and we were all sitting at home.”

During lockdown, he read a host of scripts and learned to cook pasta dishes and curries (“I’m going to be the meal-prep queen when we go back”). And he spent a lot of time reflecting on who he wanted to be as an actor.

“I see the world through a different gaze now,” he said. “I’ve learned that I don’t need to change to please anyone.”

Thomas said he thought that attitude would help when the musical returns May 20. Jamie “is so unapologetically himself, and he’s calling for the world to adapt to him and his fabulousness and his queerness,” Thomas said. “He’s not changing.”

The show, which has a cast of 26 and a nine-person band, is the largest to reopen next month, thanks to a government grant. Thomas said he knows what to expect in terms of coronavirus precautions, as his show was one of the few to briefly reopen in December.

“It was weird,” he said, “but the rules and the mitigations and masks are such a small sacrifice in order to be able to do our jobs.”

The Mousetrap,” was trying to do a costume fitting for the actor Sarah Moss — without touching her.

It started well. Inside a cramped room at the St. Martin’s Theater, Hudson-Holt handed Moss a heavy black wool coat, then stood back to admire the fit. But within seconds, she had leapt forward, grabbed the rumpled collar and adjusted it.

“Sorry!” she said, realizing she’d broken the rules. “It’s just instinct.”

“The Mousetrap,” which has been running in the West End since 1952 is scheduled to reopen on May 17, the first play here to do so.

“We’ve been going so long,” Hudson-Holt said. “If we can survive this, others can,” she added.

Hudson-Holt, who’s been with the show for almost 20 years, had spent most of the past year at home. “We were lucky, as the very good management kept us furloughed,” she said, meaning the government paid a chunk of her salary. “But for a lot of freelancers — costume makers, propmakers, actors — it’s been just devastating.”

To lessen coronavirus risks, two casts will now alternate in the eight roles. The show’s website makes that move sound like a canny piece of marketing, encouraging audiences to see both sets of actors. In reality, it’s in case illness strikes; if one cast has to isolate, the other can step in.

all its stores have closed.

Her daily routine changed in other ways. Rather than taking measurements in person, she called the actors, politely inquiring if they’d gained weight or muscle in lockdown and would be needing a bigger size.

“I was having to ask people, ‘Oh, have you been doing any sport lately? Or maybe some baking?’” she said.

Despite the no-touching rule, the fittings went according to plan. Hudson-Holt had found a hat for Moss, new to the role of Miss Casewell, one of many potential murderers stuck in an English guesthouse after a snowstorm.

Only a lime green silk scarf caused problems. Hudson-Holt tried showing Moss how to fold, then tie it, but Moss was flummoxed. “Can you slow down a bit and show me again?” she said.

“Today’s a fun test for everyone,” Hudson-Holt said.

Once the fitting was over, Hudson-Holt put Moss’s outfit aside. It would be steamed later to kill any potential viruses. “I know it seems hyper vigilant,” she said, “but who wants to be the one that mucks this up?”

View Source

Diet Companies See Gains as Americans Try to Drop Pandemic Pounds

Maybe it was the frozen pizza. Or the cheesy snack crackers she mindlessly nibbled on as she worked from home over the past year. Or those darn cookies.

Whatever the cause, Jessica Short stepped onto the scale this spring and found she was 25 pounds heavier than before the pandemic.

“I had to leave the house for several days in a row and realized then that none of my pants fit,” said Ms. Short, a 39-year-old conservation program assistant in Lansing, Mich. Determined not to buy a whole new wardrobe, Ms. Short signed up for her first weight-loss program in early April. In three weeks, she was down five pounds using the Noom app. “My goal is to lose the whole 25 pounds,” she added.

While some spent the year of the pandemic creating healthy meals or riding their Pelotons for hours, many others managed their anxiety and boredom through less healthy means. They spent the pandemic sitting on their couches, wearing baggy sweatsuits, drinking chardonnay and munching on Cheetos.

according to the analysis firm Research and Markets.

Many of these companies shy away from using the dreaded four letter word — diet — to describe what they sell, instead leaning into updated phrases like “health” and “wellness” to promote their programs.

“We see Covid as accelerating trends around health and wellness that already existed and will persist long after, and we believe that the desire to live a healthier lifestyle and placing a prioritization on one’s health is permanent,” a spokeswoman for Noom said in a statement.

It is clear that numerous people put on weight during the pandemic. A small study of individuals under shelter-in-place orders found that they gained more than a half a pound every 10 days. If they continued to live as if they were in lockdown conditions, they could have put on 20 pounds over the year, concluded the authors of the study, which was published in March in the peer-reviewed JAMA Network Open.

Still, critics of many of the popular weight-loss programs note that while people are likely to lose weight if they follow the strict guidelines of meal-replacement plans, for many that weight will eventually come back.

“If you have a wedding to go to in two weeks, a meal-replacement program, for instance, can be helpful,” said Dr. Susan Roberts, a professor of nutrition at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University and a professor of psychiatry at the university’s School of Medicine. “The problem is, it doesn’t train people how to eat when the program ends, so weight regain is pretty common.”

Dr. Roberts developed her own weight loss diet, called the Instinct diet, that aims to retrain people’s brains around food. She claims participants on her plan achieve weight loss by reducing hunger and unhealthy cravings.

Despite the criticism, many people coming out of the pandemic and preparing to re-enter the world are turning to the diet industry for help.

After spending much of the past year holed up in her apartment in Austin, Texas, studying for her Ph.D. in nursing from the University of Oklahoma, Brenda Olmos, 31, realized the steady stream of takeout food and snacks she’d been eating had resulted in an additional 15 pounds. In early April, she signed up for the Optavia plan and quickly lost 4.5 pounds.

“I had tried intermittent fasting, and I couldn’t stop thinking about food because I couldn’t have it,” Ms. Olmos said. “I tried keto, but I couldn’t stop thinking about carbs. I’m giving myself six months to lose 30 pounds.”

Likewise, Stacey Moskowitz, a 57-year-old retired elementary schoolteacher from New City, N.Y., said she had tried many other diets over the years.

“I would lose the weight, and then it would inch back,” she said. “I exercised a lot and lost some weight, but not as much for the amount of effort I was putting in.”

She became concerned about her overall health after she contracted Covid-19 in late February 2020. When she began seeing her weight creep back up last fall, Ms. Moskowitz decided to try Optavia. She has since lost 37 pounds and hopes to drop an additional 20 to 25 pounds.

“This is not about me looking a certain way or wearing a certain outfit,” she said. “I’m not going to put on a bikini. It’s about my health.”

Ms. Moskowitz said there was one problem with the Optavia program: It has gotten so popular the company has struggled to fulfill orders.

“I had a particular shake, the Tropical Fruit Smoothie, that I liked. I had it for a month, and now it’s gone,” Ms. Moskowitz said, noting that she has become dependent on the program, which costs $400 a month and provides five of her daily six meals. “You order every month, and it’s taking them two weeks to get the order to you. And I know some people are ordering extra food and hoarding because they’re worried they won’t get their next order in time.”

Last week, executives at Medifast told Wall Street analysts that they hoped to have expanded manufacturing by the end of the second quarter and distribution by the end of the third to meet demand.

“I’m very happy with the program,” Ms. Moskowitz said. “But I’m very nervous about whether I’ll get my next order in time.”

View Source

Covid in Hamburg: How Small Businesses Are Coping

Shops in Hamburg, Germany, have been pushed to the brink by lockdowns and curfews in the pandemic and the uncertainty of when a return to something like normal may happen.

Jack Ewing and

Germany is known for luxury cars, machine tools and other goods that have protected the overall economy from the worst effects of the pandemic. But Germany is also a nation of shopkeepers, small operations whose employees are often from the same family.

These businesses have been pushed to the brink of existence by lockdowns, quarantines and other restrictions that often change from day to day. Vaccines are in short supply and intensive care units are filling up, prompting Chancellor Angela Merkel’s government to impose a nationwide curfew last month in areas with high infection rates.

In the port city of Hamburg, retailers are improvising to try to survive.

Théodora Vezo, the owner of a boutique that bears her name, took customers by appointment and changed her window displays of clothing and accessories much more often.

German Retail Association said they feared bankruptcy.

More than two-thirds of Ms. Bouquet’s hat sales used to come from theater productions, which are at a standstill. “That was the last straw,” Ms. Bouquet said. Her revenue fell by about half last year. While she will continue to make hats to order for theater customers in her atelier, she said, she closed the storefront permanently in February.

Paula Haase contributed reporting.

View Source

We Have All Hit a Wall

“So many things seem like so much more work than my brain can possibly manage,” she said: sending routine emails, brushing her teeth after every meal, reading a novel. She has started drinking coffee from a mug that says, “Apathy Is the Best Whatever.”

“It feels like the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, bouncing around you in a sort of circle. I feel like I’ve done all of them at least twice,” she said. At least she loves her job, she added. “And I’m fine — I’m not dead.”

Natasha Rajah, a professor of psychiatry at McGill University who specializes in memory and the brain, said the longevity of the pandemic — endless monotony laced with acute anxiety — had contributed to a sense that time was moving differently, as if this past year were a long, hazy, exhausting experience lasting forever and no time at all. The stress and tedium, she said, have dulled our ability to form meaningful new memories.

“There’s definitely a change in how people are reporting memories and cognitive experiences,” Professor Rajah said. “They have fewer rich details about their personal memories, and more negative content to their memories.” This means, she said, that people may be having a harder time forming working memories and paying attention, with “a reduced ability to hold things in their minds, manipulate thoughts and plan for the future.”

Add to that a general loneliness, social isolation, anxiety and depression, she said, and it is not surprising that they are having trouble focusing on their work.

“Honestly, weirdly, sometimes when I’m writing I just stop and stare at the wall,” said Valerie M., a doctoral candidate in clinical psychology in Michigan who asked that her full name not be used because she did not want her employers to hear how her workdays are going. “The staring at the wall contributes to the time warp. I’m like, ‘I spent the whole day, and I really didn’t do anything.’ Not that I did anything fun, either. It’s like, ‘Wow, I don’t even know what I did.’”

Prolonged stress will do that to you, said Mike Yassa, professor of neuroscience and the director of the UCI Brain Initiative at the University of California, Irvine. “Stress is OK in small amounts, but when it extends over time it’s very dangerous,” he said. “It disrupts our cycles of sleep and our regular routines in things like exercise and physical activity — all these things make it very difficult for the body to be resilient.”

View Source