Theater Shutdown is Only an Intermission for Young Professionals

Edited and Packaged by Samantha King

Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered Broadway theaters to close on March 12, and many will remain dark for the foreseeable future. Originally the closure lasted only one month, but it has since been extended multiple times. On Oct. 9 the Broadway League announced that Broadway will remain dark through May 30, 2021, over a year after the final curtain dropped. 

The pandemic will continue impacting theater productions for months, if not years, to come. Many theater professionals and students feel the need to be ready for the changes that the coronavirus will bring to the industry. CDC guidelines recommend individuals maintain a distance of 6 feet from people who live outside of their households and to wear masks in order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. These guidelines deeply affect the theater world and are making actors uneasy about their future on stage. 

Actress Karina Gallagher and many other theater professionals are filled with uncertainty right now since the coronavirus pandemic shut down theaters, and with it their livelihoods. “I remember my last bow in front of an audience with the lights and everything and thinking, oh God, when am I going to do this again? When am I going to bow in front of people again?” said Gallagher.

Karina Gallagher in her costume this October for her performance in “The Wildness.” Photo by Lisa Schindlar.

The shutdown’s impact on current and future productions is already significant. Other theater companies also decided to cancel their upcoming seasons. On Sept. 23 the Metropolitan Opera announced its decision to cancel its entire 2020-21 season. As of Nov.16 the 2021-22 season is set to open on Sept. 27, 2021.

According to a Playbill article, “Broadway’s ‘Frozen’ Will Not Reopen Post-Pandemic,” Disney Theatrical Productions announced on May 14 that “Frozen” will not reopen when the shutdown ends, making the show’s performance on March 11 its last. Several productions set to open this year pushed their opening dates back by several months, if not more. The highly anticipated production of “The Music Man” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster was originally slated to begin performances on Sept. 9. Following the latest extension of the shutdown, the production will begin previews on Dec. 20, 2021, and open on Feb. 10, 2022. 

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The uncertainty surrounding the reopening of several shows forced many recent theater graduates to change their plans.

“I never in my life thought I would graduate and theater wouldn’t be happening,” said SUNY New Paltz alumna Madison Coffey.

She graduated this past May, with the intent of becoming a stage manager. She was accepted into the fall 2020 Disney College Program, but it was canceled due to the coronavirus. Instead, she moved back home to Ronkonkoma, New York and is working two jobs at a restaurant and as a florist. “I’m hopeful that theater will come back, but I feel like it’s going to be a very long road to recovery,” Coffey said.

Jackie Evans, a 2019 graduate of SUNY New Paltz, also changed her plans because of the pandemic. She was performing aboard a cruise ship on Holland America Cruise Lines in Aruba when she found out that she would have to return to the United States after only being on the boat for about 10 days. “I was definitely a little bit scared because I had just graduated and I really felt like things were just starting to get rolling. Once they sent us back I was like, okay. We have to regroup. We got to think about what’s next,” Evans said. 

Evans moved back in with her parents to her hometown of New Windsor, New York and participated in online performances with Seacrest Repertory Theater, a company she worked with before the pandemic. When the performances ended, she decided to start teaching. Evans started giving voice lessons on Zoom. “I never knew that teaching was something that I enjoyed or wanted to do, but specifically teaching voice has just been so awesome. It’s really helping me grow in my technique through helping other people grow in their technique,” said Evans.

Over the summer Evans performed in what she called a socially distanced country-folk trio at Cedar Point amusement park in Sandusky, Ohio. Following her performances, she relocated to Wilmington, North Carolina. “It’s a lot cheaper to live here, so I made a very spontaneous decision to move here. That’s where I’m at, and I’m just teaching lessons and nannying and doing some shows on the weekends,” Evans said.

Jackie Evans performing at Cedar Point Amusement Park this summer in a socially distanced country-folk trio. Photo by Mike Windish.

Recent graduates are not the only ones impacted by the lack of jobs. According to research conducted by the Broadway League, the Broadway industry supplied 96,900 jobs and contributed $14.7 billion to New York City’s economy during the 2018-19 season. New York also has the second highest employment level of actors in the country; 7,440 actors were employed in the state as of May 2019, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics.  

The industry is already competitive, and there are concerns that limited opportunities will only increase difficulties in finding work. “It’s going to be extremely competitive once jobs start opening up, because it’s going to be my graduating class competing for jobs, the next graduating class competing for jobs, and all the people who lost their jobs,” said Coffey, a 2019 SUNY New Paltz graduate. 

Current theater students may not be entering the job market yet, but they are finding ways to adjust. Some college theater programs are operating entirely remotely, conducting both classes and performances online. 

Abby Malczon is a freshman majoring in acting with a concentration in musical theater at Slippery Rock University in Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania. Her program is entirely remote for the fall semester, which made her uneasy.

“I definitely was nervous. I couldn’t tell you what theater was supposed to look like online,” Slippery Rock University student Abby Malczon said. 

Abby Malczon performing in Mercy High School’s production of “Mamma Mia!,” her final live performance before the pandemic began. Photos by Light Thief Photography.

Malczon felt that learning online has been an overall positive experience, except for being apart from her classmates. “It’s really the camaraderie we’re missing because we don’t really know each other that well still,” she said.

For other students, adjusting to online learning has not been easy. Karina Gallagher, a sophomore studying musical theater at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee College of Music, spoke about her struggles with online learning. She said that the lack of in-person learning has left her uninspired.  “Freshman year was so eye-opening for me and performing in front of other people, it really showed me where my insecurities were. I was really looking forward to tackling that this year, but now it’s just a lot easier to not feel free, because . . . I’m limited to this,” Gallagher explained as she gestured to her room, where she takes most of her classes. 

Gallagher got a taste of acting again this past summer when she performed in an outdoor production of “The Wildness,” written by Kyle Jarrow and Lauren Worsham. Described as a “rock-theater hybrid piece” on Jarrow’s website, the show chronicles a performance of the band Sky-Pony’s yearly concert. It took place under a tent outside of Pride Performing Arts Center in Smithtown, New York. The production played to a socially distanced audience for the first two weekends in October. 

Karina Gallagher (on the right) performing in “The Wildness” this October to a socially distanced audience. Photo by Arya Sementilli.

Gallagher explained that she and her eight cast mates rehearsed with masks for several weeks and were only allowed to remove them for the final few rehearsal weeks and performances. “It definitely was weird at first having masks on because it does take away a very important connection. The mask . . . protects you from being as vulnerable as you can be, or as vulnerable as I can be. So when I took it off it was a lot more exposing,” said Gallagher. 

Gallagher said that being a part of an in-person production again brought her some familiarity in a time when her education changed drastically. “Even before we took our masks off, it was just nice to be in a space with other human beings even though we had our masks on,” she said. After attending classes on video calls, she said that it was rewarding to rehearse in-person with other actors.

Malczon’s classes also take place in her dorm room. The bedroom turned classroom recently changed roles again to become a stage, though it looks more like a film studio. She is using the space to film her part in a new musical, the name and details of which she would not share. The show’s debut is at Slippery Rock University, and it will be entirely filmed and shared online. 

A green screen and ring lights take over half of the actress’s dorm room, where she films scenes from the show on her phone. She acts with her castmates over video conferences, using headphones to hear their lines. When filming ends, the actors will be edited onto the same screen and the scenes are threaded together into one film. Most of production has been done online, except for costume fittings, costume pickups, and recording the music in an on-campus recording studio.

“It’s definitely been interesting and sometimes things are (filmed) out of order. We’ve already done the finale, and that’s very different for me. Usually, when you’re doing a show you get to the end, then you run the show a whole bunch of times and then you perform it,” Malczon said. She said that filming gives the actors the freedom to film scenes out of order and experiment with them.

While the process is certainly unconventional, Malczon is glad to be doing what she loves again. “Another thing that I have been focusing on during this time is just finding the stuff to be creative at this point,” said Malczon. She has not been on a stage since March, and said that the opportunity to get to work on a production again pushed her to work harder. 

“This has changed the way that I look into TV and film more now than I ever used to. I would like to look into creating, turning myself into a songwriter and having music out there as well,” Gallagher said. The pandemic showed Gallagher how fast her plans could be altered and made her want to expand her options.

Malczon echoed this idea.“The arts will survive. That’s just kind of how I’ve been going through a lot of this. We find a way to do it, no matter what. That’s what we’re doing, we’re just doing it in a different way,” she said. Malczon believes the most important thing is that they are adapting and finding ways for people to consume art in a safe way.

People involved with theater are anticipating its return after its absence. It inspires them to work harder than before the pandemic. 

“I think this time has really given me an opportunity to explore who I am and what I enjoy outside of theater. It’s definitely put a fire under me a little bit as well,” said Evans. She’s been using her time to practice more and work even harder. 

“When you’re missing something for so long, it just pushes you to focus on that and work even harder,” Malczon echoed Evans’ sentiments. 

Coffey also expressed her ambition to return to stage managing. “I know when it does open back up I’m going to work as hard as I can to get a job and put my degree towards my career,” she said. Her current focus is surviving and doing what she has to do to make money.

Despite an uncertain return, these young professionals are confident that they will take a bow on the stage again, no matter how long it takes for the curtains to rise. 

“I know that it will be back someday, and I will be doing it,” said Evans. 

Kerri Kolensky

Kerri Kolensky is a senior at SUNY New Paltz majoring in journalism and minoring in creative writing. She is the social media manager for the campus’s literary magazine The Teller and a writing tutor at the Center for Student Success. Outside of school and work, she enjoys baking, reading and exploring the Hudson Valley.

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