Charlie Williams was a performer and an associate choreographer on the Frozen production on Broadway before Covid-19 shut it all down. Now he’s stuck in his 300-square-foot studio apartment, which is the size of a prison cell, in the heart of Hell’s Kitchen, trying to wait the pandemic out. A lot of people in theater are not. “Practically none of us are actually from New York City,” he said. “So everybody’s kind of going home to mom and dad and taking the time there, which I understand. I don’t really have that option.”
Broadway’s closure has been emptying out the pocketbooks of those in the theater industry. Nearly everybody in the industry has lost their jobs. Those who have stayed in the city are finding a struggle. Living costs in Manhattan are some of the most expensive in the world. Even just for a studio, the median cost of a rental was $2456 per month according to The Elliman Report for September 2020. That price is actually down 11% from a year ago.
Back in the time when Williams had a Broadway salary, even during those good times, he found it hard to live in New York City. It’s becoming almost impossible now, he said. When the unemployment bonus was $600 a week, his weekly income still didn’t cut it. With the bonus being cut to only $300 a week, he can’t afford New York. “It’s truly devastating to our industry beyond anything I can say,” he explained about the pandemic. “It’s as if a volcano exploded in the middle of Manhattan and just burned an entire industry down.”
With the whole industry out of work, many are relying on unemployment. It’s not enough. The maximum unemployment benefit that a New Yorker can get is $504 per week. With the current $300 a week unemployment bonus added on, residents could expect a maximum of $3480 dollars per month. After paying the median price of studios of $2456 and $150 of utilities, the most unemployed theater professionals could expect would be $880 a month to cover everything else: medical insurance, car payments, food, and daily living expenses. Williams is right. You can’t live on that.
Most in the industry won’t even be eligible for the maximum unemployment. Hannah Laird is a performer who just returned to New York right before the pandemic. She explained what it was like while she worked on Broadway. “Sometimes we get paid and it’s not even a living wage. So we’re like, I guess I’ll try to get as many gigs as I can or I’ll do my hosting job in the afternoon. When I was in college, I worked at McDonald’s. So I would work at McDonald’s from like six o’clock in the morning till 1:00 or 2:00 in the afternoon so that I could go do rehearsals from six o’clock at night till midnight.” However, doing part-time jobs and running from gig to gig doesn’t bring the maximum unemployment benefits.
With performers and others in the theater industry out of work and just waiting for an industry to restart, there’s a lot of talk about pivoting and finding other jobs to make up for the difference. However, New York City’s economy is still hurting. The unemployment rate was 14.1% in September. Everybody is competing to get the same jobs, and whereas bartending and restaurant work was a common side job for those working in the theater, the restaurant industry has not rebounded. According to the Office of New York Comptroller, employment in the restaurant industry in August 2020 was still only 55 percent of its level in February, before the pandemic hit.There are just fewer jobs to go around.
Those in the theater industry are finding it harder and harder to wait for a Broadway opening date that continues to be pushed further and further back. And this is fueling an exodus out of New York City. Manhattan’s apartment vacancy rate just reached a new record in September 2020 of 5.75%, which was nearly double the 1.96% of the previous year.
The size of this problem is much greater than most imagine. When people think of Broadway and theater, they imagine the singers, dancers and actors — the glitz and glamor. However, there are so many people working together to put the performance on the stage. During 2018-19, an estimated 96,900 jobs were directly connected to Broadway. Nearly all of those jobs are now gone.
Janine DiVita, a Broadway performer, described the positions:
“There are people behind the producers, the people who market the show, the advertising agencies. There are the press agents. There’s the casting directors who put together the entire cast to work with the producers and the director. There are the stagehands. There’s the costume designers and the wardrobe crew that actually keep the clothing and the costumes clean and looking amazing, all the maintenance that happens with those costumes. There are all the people in the theaters that keep the theaters clean and the ushers. There are thousands and thousands of people who keep this industry running. It’s not just the actors.
She continued, “So when a show isn’t running, it’s this trickle down effect of everybody it impacts. And then beyond that, it impacts all of the people who depend on the audience members to come see the shows. So theater is a great way to bolster a community and help the financial aspects of the community because it brings in these audiences. So all of the restaurants, the little shops, all of the local stores benefit from having the influx of the audience members. It is a huge web and we’re all intertwined when it comes to theater.”
Now, that whole intertwined web of people and businesses is being devastated. Everyone is fighting to survive in one of the most expensive cities in the world. And that loss of money that was destined for New York is hitting everyone’s pocketbooks.
In the 2018-2019 Broadway season, there was an estimated 14.8 million theater admissions. 65% of the theater goers came in from outside of New York with 2.8 million being international visitors. It brought in $1.8 billion dollars of direct revenue. With the shutdown the flow of money has stopped.
However, the loss when secondary income included is even greater. Broadway brought New York an estimated 14.7 billion dollars. Broadway visitors who came for the purpose of watching Broadway paid almost $150 per ticket, but they also went shopping, ate NYC restaurants and stayed at hotels. However, the travelers have stopped coming. Without travelers, New York City’s restaurant and hospitality industry has been devastated. 40% of New York City’s restaurant jobs are supplied in MIdtown and Lower Manhattan in close proximity to the theaters, a testament to the drawing power of the theaters, but they are hurting. NYC Hospitality Alliance reported that 87% of New York City’s restaurants would not be able to pay all or part of their August rent.
But it’s not just Broadway that has been hit. The theater industry has been decimated across the nation, Rachel Schur explained. Schur was a performer in the Chicago production on Broadway before the shutdown.
“Every state has tons and tons and tons of theaters and dinner theaters. Some are with the union and some are not. But it employs a lot of actors, a lot of directors, choreographers, crew, lighting, costumes, absolutely everything. And that’s just one state. Then you add, you know, the entire country and you’re adding thousands and thousands and thousands of actors and lighting and crew and everything I just explained. Once you realize that none of that is there, everyone’s now scrambling to figure out like, ‘oh, what else can I do to survive to make money? I was singing and dancing for my kid, but I can’t sing and dance for my food. What am I supposed to do?’”
The whole theater industry and all those secondary businesses connected to the theater industry are all wondering as well, “What am I supposed to do now?”
What to know what actors are up to since Broadway closed, read this story about a Broadway performor who was chasing his dream but found his family.