After Rachel Schur graduated from James Madison University with a major in musical theater, she moved to New York City in 2010 with no agent and little professional experience except a tour in China. “I was really kind of moved on a hope and a prayer,” she says.
Like thousands of other musical theater graduates across the nation, New York City beckoned Schur. Broadway was a shining lighthouse beaming down inspirational light. Hope of booking a tour, hope of building a reputation, hope of being found — hope was her fuel.
Hope was what pushed performers through the daily grind. The life of a starting theatrical artist was not glamorous. Open auditions were ultra competitive with hundreds competing for the same spot. Performers struggled to get their names recognized by meeting casting directors, searching out agents, and socializing in the theater world. Rejections were par for the course.
Then there was the tenuous finances of living in one of the most expensive cities in the world. Side jobs waiting tables, bartending, and being nannies were necessary to make ends meet. The maintenance of their craft required voice and dance lessons and training — all of which cost money. Hope made it worth the cost.
Schur confesses that she was naive. She went to New York without knowing what the theatrical actors union, Actors Equity, was like. She had to learn the business. “I dedicated a year just to learning the ropes and getting rejected and waking up at four a.m. to get in line for The Wizard of Oz,” she explained. A lot of hard work went into the pursuit in the hope of becoming part of the ensemble of a show. “You’re constantly dedicating yourself to the work and the craft of it all, because of that one chance at one moment that you could get a Broadway show. There’s no other job like that.”
Rachel Schur eventually got the call for Jersey Boys. Before the pandemic hit, Schur was performing in Chicago. “I think most musical theater performers move to New York to be on Broadway,” says Schur, “That’s the goal, and not a lot of people are lucky enough to get there. I think to be on Broadway and to be in a long running show like Chicago or Wicked or Book of Mormon — it’s truly like winning the lottery because you kind of know those shows aren’t going anywhere.”
For those who are lucky enough to become cast members, their dreams are fulfilled. Their love of the theatrical arts becomes a career. But it’s not only about booking a Broadway show, Schur explains, performers also get benefits, health insurance, and a weekly paycheck. They’re taken care of. In the pursuit of this artistic endeavor; performers finally get stability.
On March 12, 2020 Broadway closed down. Schur’s career has been put on hold indefinitely. In March, Broadway said they would open in April. Then the reopening date was pushed to Labor Day. After that it got further delayed to January of 2021, and now they are saying May of 2021. In reality, it could be years.
The day after Broadway closed, Schur returned to her home state of Florida. It is heartbreaking. Without the city and the energy, it is so easy to lose momentum. And for the many people who had not yet landed their first show, Schur feels it must even be worse.
“There are the people that have been there for years and have been so close to getting a Broadway show. My heart almost breaks for them more because I know how hard they work and it has nothing to do with talent. It’s just luck, and there are so many people I know that have just been so close. Then this whole thing with the shutdown and the precariousness in the industry, I know a lot of people that just said, you know what? I gave it the good old college try. But now I got a look at the reality of the world in my life right now. I couldn’t keep pursuing something that may not even be, may not even open its doors to me ever. So my heart really breaks for everybody that isn’t even in a show right now.”
On the other coast Victor Chan is an aspiring musical theatrical performer who was on the verge of making it to Broadway. For years he had been working towards this point, building his momentum. He added to his resume the show 1776 in Miranda Theatre, Rule My World at Long Beach, and then Rock of Ages at Signal Theatre in San Diego. He had done his time going from audition to audition, building his reputation. Finally, he had his big break when he landed an acting role in the Peter Pan inspired musical, Fly, at the La Jolla Playhouse.
The show was destined for Hollywood. Jeffrey Seller, the producer of the highly acclaimed shows Hamilton and Rent, had stepped into the director’s shoes, and Seller had brought along a lot his creatives from his past shows like Andy Blankenbeuhler and Stephane Klemons. They had the award-winning BIll Sherman doing music. They had the stars and beautiful flight sequences. “Everything was lined up,” Chan says. “If anything had the legs to walk over to Broadway, it would have been that.”
They rehearsed for six weeks, did two straight weeks of grueling twelve-hour days of tech, and four weeks of previews. They learned new songs, had new choreography, learned new blocking, and then they officially opened. They had three great shows and then Covid shut them down.
“That was so heartbreaking,” Chan explains, “because there was all this momentum in my career that just literally stopped. And when we come back, when the restrictions lift, you just have to start steamrolling and start trying to prepare and get that momentum going again. It’s one of the hardest things to do in our business just because it is so competitive.” He feels like the pandemic has sent him back to square one.
Performers are scared, Chan says. They thought they’d be back working by now, but the reopening date just got pushed back again to May. They want to work, but they are not being allowed to do what they have been trained to do.
The effects on the industry may be felt for years. “We’re decimated. There’s no end in sight,” David O’Brien says. O’Brien has been working as a stage manager for almost 40 years, in dinner theaters, in regional theaters, touring, and on Broadway. When Covid hit, he was working as a stage manager on the Wicked Munchkinland Tour. He feels the pandemic will be very discouraging for people new to the business.
“For people that have just started their career, I would imagine this is incredibly discouraging. This will actually have a lot of people go, I can’t do that. I have to have more security than this because everyone that comes out of college or even comes out of high school going into theater struggles with the security of it.”
Joe Komara echoes this sentiment. Komara is a theatrical performer who was in the Grease production on Broadway. He sees the pandemic has done much more than just impact the performers on Broadway who were working and at the pinnacle of the career. It is impacting the arts all the way to education.
“Thousands and thousands of performers who were deep in ‘I need to get a job and audition’ mode — those people weren’t making money, but many of them had already booked jobs for the summer, and they were basically paycheck to paycheck… Now all those folks who didn’t even have jobs yet, who needed that money to get them through the summers, are just really like, maybe I should rethink my career.”
The future of theater will be affected, according to Christoher Sergeeff. Sergeeff is currently a theatrical arts teacher in Colorado and a local performer. He has done Broadway national tours in the past. “Sometimes you’re the right age at the right time in the right place,” he says. “I would say if I didn’t have some of the experiences I had, both in college and in some of my earlier years of professional theater where I was trying to get my union card and trying to get to that next level or being seen by casting directors. If I didn’t have those little bits, it would have changed my career completely.”
The pandemic is disrupting the continuum of theatrical careers and education. Sergeef worries that kids are missing out on opportunities because shows aren’t being written right now. Once they are, potential performers might be past their prime. He says that the more people experience life, the more they can interject into the subtext of their lines, which is how they can create character. People learn from interacting with different types of people. Once performers are challenged with certain characters, they can draw from others that have experienced theater and put those in too. However, Sergeef explains, with the pandemic kids are missing a whole year or year and a half of those experiences.
The pandemic has filled the future with uncertainty. A lot of performers are pondering whether they should pivot from their dreams.
“It’s hard to know how to move forward as a performer and as a creator,” said Charlie Williams, who was working as an associate choreographer for the Frozen production on Broadway when Covid hit. “Even as someone who gets to direct, I don’t know what the industry is going to look like when it comes back. Are there going to be shows that have 40 people in them? Are they all going to be like one man shows from now on?”
He adds, “If you take Broadway as the pinnacle of the whole theater industry, and somehow we’re going to now raise the floodwaters to get up to Broadway, instead of Broadway being the shining lighthouse and then paving the way for other theaters, we’re now going to have to watch all these other regional theaters, smaller houses off Broadway, off off Broadway. Those will open up way before these big Broadway shows.”
The regional theaters could open a year before Broadway opens again, Williams explains. The people who had worked really hard to reach Broadway might now be hindered by their success, and this might cause people from Broadway to move to the regional jobs. For professional performers who were on Broadway, though, Williams likens it to playing Yahtzee. It is a gamble.
Williams suggests that the pandemic may push theater into a different medium, perhaps into virtual realms. His friend, Michael Arden, is experimenting with doing small socially distanced scenes outside where the audience comes around in cars. “Maybe it [will] kind of squeeze the creative juices of New York and send them down the veins of America in a cool way.”
And smaller productions and outdoor productions are already opening up, like the two theaters. Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, MA, which opened a one-person show, “Harry Clarke,” and the Berkshire Theatre Group in Stockbridge, MA, which opened an outdoor musical with a cast of 10.
The productions that are up, though, are smaller. In order to open, theaters are going to have smaller casts and fewer backstage. The demand for jobs will certainly far outpace the supply, which could further push people off the theatrical arts path.
Many performers have tried out virtual performances. Joe Komara says that he has worked with shot scenes over Skype with a writer and sung different parts and had them made into a mix. It’s been fun but it takes a long time to finish. Performers like him are trying to figure out monetization and branding, but it’s a lot of work for very little money.
“We’re sort of back to experimental work and it’s not really funded,” he says. “People are using their time as currency because people have time and not a lot else to do. It’s miniscule amounts of money… not even close to covering any kind of expense.”
The next year or two look to be very tough for theatrical artists. Many incredibly talented individuals will pivot to other careers because there will be too little money to go around. Many will have to put their aspirations on the side as the reality of the economic situation hits against their dreams. The future of theatrical arts may need to be imagined without the extravagant glamor of Broadway.
Victor Chan talks about a common saying in the theatrical world that describes the plight of theatrical performers well.
“There’s a saying that people in our industry kind of tell people who are interested in becoming musical theater actors or at least live stage actors… if there’s anything else in your life that brings you happiness, do that instead. We don’t do this because it’s easy. We don’t do this because we could get rich. We don’t do this because we’ll be famous because some of the most working actors that I know aren’t very well known. We do this because if we don’t, we will die inside.”
Chan says he has never gotten rich, and he has only been moderately known from people who frequent certain Disney parks. But he has continued his craft, and he does not plan to stop.
“This is what we’re trained to do. This is what we do because this is what brings us life. Sure, we can go into a survival mode, but that will slowly eat away at us in our hearts, and it’s literally our hearts that we provide to you as a performing artist. You’re asking us to destroy the product that makes us valuable.”
Performers still have hope, but the hope is not for tomorrow but for a day in the uncertain future and that has placed them in survival mode. The pandemic is eating away at their hearts. What will theater look like when it returns?
read more about the Broadway Blues and how theaters may not reopen for a year.