“We never believed for a minute that theater would shut down. We were like, ‘That’ll never happen. The show must go on.’"
“I was in a show that was slated to close on March 5th. The week before there were rumors flying about COVID, about Broadway producers taking steps to possibly shut down briefly. We were like, ‘That’ll never happen. The show must go on.’ We never believed for a minute that theater would shut down. We closed on the 5th and the following Thursday, everything shut down. It all happened that fast. In fact, the night before, on March 11th, my mother, my sister, and I went to see To Kill a Mockingbird on Broadway. Things were getting scary, but we said to our mother, who was 82, are you okay? And she said, ‘I wouldn’t miss this for the world.’ We went to MoMA in the afternoon, we went out to dinner, and we went to the theater. And had the time of our lives. The next day, everything shut down and it seemed so impossible. We could not possibly have foreseen how long this would last. We thought maybe a couple of weeks.
I spent the first two months of COVID working with my husband on building a sound studio in our one-bedroom apartment so we can record audiobooks. It can be assembled and disassembled when need be, because there's not enough room to leave it up all the time. So we have a sound studio and I do a lot of audiobook recording. Lots of people have home studios, but one of the things I like about recording audiobooks is you go to a studio, you work with an engineer, and it's a communal experience, it's not just you in a box, you know, talking to yourself.
I live in Hell's Kitchen, in the West 50s Midtown New York, so right near the theater district. This area is made up of all kinds of people, but a lot of them are people who work in the theater. And what’s been so devastating is the wide-ranging effects of the theater shutdown. Yes, actors, but also everyone who works in the theater, the designers, (costumes, sets, lights, sound), the box office, the crew. And everyone else who works to support the theater, the printers who do the programs, the restaurants who feed the audience, all the workers who work in the restaurants, and all the people who are involved in so many aspects of it, the button makers, the wig makers, and it just goes on and on and on. It is a vast network of people. And it's all shut down.
The Arts industry is huge, yet most people don’t realize how significant it is. Arts and cultural production accounts for $877 billion, or 4.5%, of the U.S. economy. And it employs 5.1 million people. In fact, arts and culture adds five times more value to the GDP than agriculture and $87 billion more than construction. I am involved in a campaign called ‘Be An Arts Hero.’ This is a grassroots effort to get Congress to pass COVID relief for arts workers.
Congress still has not passed any additional funding beyond August, when everything ran out. They still can't agree on pandemic relief, and it blows one's mind. It’s not like people in the theater industry are not going back to work because they have unemployment benefits. There is no work to go back to because theaters are shut down. It is devastating at so many levels. People's livelihoods have evaporated. All we want to do is work, but the work does not exist. Actors are used to uncertainty. We don't know what the next job will be. We don't know how long the show's going to run. We don't know if the TV series is going to get picked up. We don't know if we’re going to end up on the cutting room floor of a film we shot. At every step we don’t know. We're used to uncertainty, we're used to not being able to plan, but this is taking it to a whole new level. So that's where I'm at right now.
Here we are in November and things are starting again in terms of film and television. I've got some friends who are regulars on TV shows, and some of those are starting up with, you know, extreme protocols and testing every other day. And so far, so good. But theater cannot begin until we have a vaccine. We have to have an audience and, let’s be honest, the median age for most theater going audiences is 65 and above. They are the group of people who are most at risk from the virus.
There has been all sorts of innovation in terms of Zoom and readings and workshops and I've done all of them. But it's a very poor substitute. What you do in the theater is a communal effort and it doesn't exist without the contribution of the audience. They’re breathing, they're laughing, they're clapping, they're crying. It is a communal experience, and that can't happen right now. And, you know, it keeps getting pushed, January, March, May, now it's June 2021. That's the reality.
One of the things I love about being an actor is that you get to make sense of the world through storytelling. The circumstances may be based on a real story or they may be completely made up, but no matter what, you're telling a story that relates to other people's humanity. It's a way of communicating through storytelling. I miss the gentleness of storytelling and I don't mean that every play I do is a gentle story. Ideally a play touches a place in people where they can respond. They can recognize themselves, something about themselves. It’s through the storytelling that they have an ‘aha!’ moment, or a moment of recognition, or ‘I never thought about that before’, or ‘that's me’, or ‘I feel that way’, or ‘I saw that in my sister.’ It's an incredible way to make and build community.
So how is theatre going to start again? It's really reliant on the vaccine. And no one knows how it’s going to be distributed. There are a lot of things we don’t know. It all comes back to the audience. The audience has to feel safe for us to put on a show. A Broadway show usually is about two months of rehearsal and there's a lot of work that has to happen before that, so people would be gearing up in April if they were trying to start previews in June.
I was supposed to do a show in Provincetown this summer and the theater is talking about doing it this coming summer, 2021, but only if they can find a good outdoor space. They will only do it outside, if they do it at all. It's magical thinking to expect that people are going to feel comfortable going into dark spaces together in six months.
I feel like the whole business is going to change, and I don't know what it's going to mean to be an actor in the theater. Everything is shifting. You adapt to one new set of circumstances. Then you have to get used to the next thing and then the next. Because it's not what any of us expected, and we certainly didn't expect it to go on this long.
I think we just have to adapt. We have to adapt.” - Jennifer #NewYork