BROOKLYN, NY— On Sunday, March 22, all non essential businesses were closed in the state of New York. This meant not just restaurants, shopping centers, and sports-related businesses, but theaters too. This not only includes actors, but stagehands, costume designers, hair and makeup people, ushers, directors, playwrights, and concessions. For many, this is their primary source of income, and although many are being creative in finding ways to continue doing their work online, it isn’t easy. John Jellison, a New York City actor on Broadway’s Come From Away says, “from all the people who I know, who love what they do for a living, we can’t see how it goes forward yet.
That’s how it impacted me. I don’t know when I’ll work again.” Jellison is not alone. Raven Snook, the editor of creative content at TDF says that “financially it’s been a huge blow to everybody, even someone like me who still has a job. I’ve taken a big pay cut because my company depended on selling tickets to shows to make money.” For those who rely on theater to make a living, the stress can be incredibly emotionally taxing. People around the world involved in the theater business are struggling. Although many are using online conferencing platforms such as Zoom to stay connected, it can be upsetting. Jellison says that, “…it gave me a reminder of what we’re missing.” The usual bustle of Times Square is now eerily absent. “Part of the fun of going to that area [Times Square] has to do with the crowdedness and the lights and the business and there seems to be a certain energy that is created in the theater district in New York,” says Jellison, who lives near the NYC theater district. The absence of the beautiful energy created when a crowd is watching a show is also felt greatly, especially in the theater realm. Snook says that although she has been social distancing and avoiding being outside when possible, “the minute they tell me I can go back to a theater, I’m going back to a theater. It was my whole life….” Jellison adds that on his last day on stage, “I could almost feel it in the audience, and there was this collective moment where we all sort of knew that there was something lurking out there that was unforeseen….”
Being in a space with such a vast amount of people feeling the same emotions is a very powerful experience that is definitely missing. However, New York based playwright Gama Valle and Jellison agree that people likely won’t be coming to the theater any time soon, and when they do, it’s unlikely that they’ll want to watch a play about the quarantine. “…is it really the right time to write about this? Do people really want to act in plays or screenplays about the pandemic?” Valle asked. When this is all over, are people going to want to hear more about it? Jellison adds that even when most social distancing stops, people likely won’t want to sit in a room with sometimes over a thousand other people anytime soon. The data and numbers can be scary, but Valle says that “As a writer, I think it affects me in a different way than most people. Even news, numbers, social media posts, they all sort of become stories in your head, your mind goes straight to the human side of everything. Asking, ‘Is there a story there?’ ‘Can I use this in future?’”
However none of this makes up for the hardships caused for folks involved in theater during this time. But although it’s important to remember that this loss is very present in the lives of people involved in the world of theater, things will get better, and good things can come from this time. “After this is done and over, [I think] people will understand, or at least have a more global vision of possibilities, and I think we’ll understand that we don’t need to be in the same room to be able to create theater,” says Valle.