When the virus forced New York theater to go dark, it upended thousands of lives, from actors to ticket takers. An anatomy of one production.
Credit…Chang W. Lee/The New York Times
By John Leland
Seven months ago, on a brisk Thursday in March, New York’s theater world came to a sudden halt. Lives were upended, fortunes evaporated, dreams put on hold. Why do people come to New York, if not for some version of the dream embodied by theater: to experience the new, the fantastic, the tragic — some to witness, some to participate in its creation?
No other city has theater quite like New York, or depends on theater for both its economy and its soul.
In September, The New York Times looked in on one production — “Selling Kabul,” which was in rehearsals at Playwrights Horizons when the coronavirus outbreak closed everything down — to see how everyone involved had been affected, from the four actors to the costume assistant to the theater receptionist.
Their stories, which start with their rushed goodbyes on March 12, when they expected to be back in a month, form a New York drama in four acts: the initial shock; the struggle to survive; rethinking life without theater; and making plans for coming back.
Act One: Going Dark
‘Everything Became Really Real, Really Quickly’
In the second week of March, Playwrights Horizons, a nonprofit theater on far West 42nd Street, was buzzing. On its main stage, a new musical called “Unknown Soldier” had just opened, with a full house and a packed opening-night party. Upstairs, actors and stage hands were putting the final touches on “Selling Kabul.” Workers started installing the set; wardrobe designers were customizing a burqa for a male character. Lights were rented from a company in New Jersey. In the offices, the administrative staff was going full speed on the theater’s spring fund-raising gala, just two months away.
Much was riding on the next few weeks. The stages at Playwrights can jump-start careers and solidify established ones. Last year, the theater’s production of the audacious musical “A Strange Loop,” by Michael R. Jackson, won the Pulitzer Prize for drama, and another play, “Heroes of the Fourth Turning,” was a runner-up. “Selling Kabul” would bring everyone a lot of attention.
The novel coronavirus threatened all of that. New York State recorded its first confirmed Covid-19 case on March 1, signaling that the pandemic, once a far-off concern affecting China, then Washington State, had arrived here.
On March 7, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared a state of emergency. Four days later, on Wednesday, March 11, the N.B.A. suspended its season.
That night Adam Greenfield, the theater’s artistic director, attended a play at Lincoln Center. It was a risk, he knew. His counterpart at the Public Theater downtown, Oskar Eustis, had just gone into the hospital with Covid-19.
“Somehow, in that 30-minute walk from Playwrights to Lincoln Center, everything became really real, really quickly,” he recalled. “The entire mood of the city around me felt different. There was an aura of panic all around.”
The following day, New York State had 328 confirmed Covid-19 cases, 95 of them in the city. Mr. Greenfield and Carol Fishman, the general manager, gathered the cast and crew of “Selling Kabul” to announce that they were going on a temporary hiatus until things returned to normal. All of Broadway had gone dark by that evening.
The shutdown, Mr. Greenfield remembered telling the group, would be just for a few weeks. Everyone would still be paid; rehearsals could continue on Zoom.
“We told the cast they were going to go home for two weeks,” he said. “They were going to come back in and we were going to rehearse and go onto the set, have a truncated tech process and open the show a few weeks late. That’s what we believed. But even that felt unthinkable at the time. It was unthinkably sad to us.”
Act Two: The Struggle to Survive
‘Theater Is Like a Cockroach’
Is there anything more New York than theater? It is both an economic driver and an essential part of the city’s identity. The 41 theaters on Broadway generate more than $16 billion a year in revenue, and they support nearly 100,000 jobs. They bring visitors, fill hotels and restaurants and define the city for people living continents away. Last season, visitors bought 8.5 million Broadway tickets, matching the attendance for the Yankees, Mets, Knicks, Nets, Giants and Jets combined.
But while museums and restaurants have reopened in some capacity, and musicians found ways to stream concerts from their living rooms, theater has remained almost entirely dark.
For the cast and crew of “Selling Kabul” — as well as the ticket takers and maintenance staff — the shutdown began a period of professional and financial insecurity even beyond the normal risks of choosing a life in the theater. Some moved back home with their parents or leaned on their still-working spouses; some enjoyed a temporary boost in their weekly income when the federal government added a $600 supplement to unemployment benefits. Sylvia Khoury, the playwright, who was in her last year of medical school, began a rotation in telemedicine, listening to people’s symptoms and advising them on whether they should go to the emergency room.
In interviews, the metaphor that kept cropping up was one attributed to Tyne Rafaeli, the play’s director.
“As Tyne says, theater is like a cockroach,” said Brett Anders, the stage manager. “It survived civilizations and empires coming and going. So why would a pandemic stop us? If I didn’t feel that way, it would be harder to live right now.”
At first the shutdown seemed like it would be short-lived. Ms. Fishman, the general manager, assured everyone of paychecks until the end of the month and offered help in applying for unemployment benefits.
She and Mr. Greenfield considered alternative ways to produce the play — maybe as an audio production, maybe via Zoom. But they ultimately decided it needed to be experienced collectively to have its full emotional impact.
The theater offered refunds to subscribers and ticket holders but encouraged them instead to donate the ticket prices to the theater (tax deductible) or accept a credit for a future production. Few asked for their money back, Ms. Fishman said. Because Playwrights owns the building, the loss of ticket revenue did not hit as hard as it has some organizations; 40 percent of Playwrights’ revenue comes from donations.
But the theater and the people who work there suddenly had to find both income and purpose in a city that was largely shut down.
Until the pandemic, Mr. Anders, the stage manager, supplemented his income by carting materials for several theaters. Now that money was gone as well. “I worked in food services when I was a kid and through college,” he said. “I’d be happy to find something similar. Grocery store stocking — I’m not above any specific kind of work. I just know I have to jump in that employment pool sooner rather than later.”
He started seeing a therapist to help with the stress. Even so, he said, “there are days when I don’t really feel like talking to anyone, don’t really feel like leaving the house. I just try not to think too hard about everything. And sometimes I can’t shut it all off, and it’s kind of overwhelming.”
Even the area around Playwrights Horizons seemed different. West 42nd Street, a formerly derelict stretch that has become a bustling theater row, was now eerily quiet after dark.
“I felt like I was in those photos from the ’80s,” said Carmen Quiñones, an administrative assistant, who visited the neighborhood in August but did not go into the theater. “To see Midtown restored to the ’80s was heartbreaking.”
Marjan Neshat, one of the actors in “Selling Kabul,” taught an online class for the New School for Social Research; Babak Tafti, another cast member, drove to New Mexico to help in his parents’ restaurant; Arnulfo Maldonado, the set designer, used his skills to remake his Brooklyn patio; Fatimah Amill, the assistant stage manager, joined community groups fighting food insecurity in Upper Manhattan, where she lives. She pondered a career change, but thought: “I’ve been working in theater since I was 16. What are my other skills?”
For now, Ms. Amill’s partner’s income has kept the couple solvent. “I’m a very independent person, so it’s hard to lean on him, but he’s been very understanding and loving,” she said. Some of her theater friends have split up during the pandemic. She felt lucky. “This has strengthened our relationship.”
Jen Schriever, the lighting designer, lost her agent because the pandemic drove him out of business. For her, the pandemic has meant a rare chance to catch her breath. “We pulled our 3-year-old out of pre-K, so I’ve been a full-time mom in a way I haven’t been since my son was 4 weeks old,” she said. “So it’s been kind of a blessing.”
The family eats dinner together almost every night, a ritual Ms. Schriever had not experienced since childhood.
For some people in the production, the move to unemployment actually increased their incomes. Ryan Kane and Joan Sergay, both recently out of college and working on fellowships at the theater, had earned weekly stipends of $300, plus a MetroCard. The $600 supplement to unemployment, which ran until the end of July, more than doubled their weekly incomes.
But they felt the loss in other ways. “Selling Kabul” was the third and final play in their fellowships, which they hoped would lead to their next jobs. Suddenly there were no opportunities to meet the people who might hire them. Ms. Sergay, whose fellowship was in directing, hopped a train to her parents’ house in Maryland the night “Selling Kabul” shut down and let the lease on her Brooklyn apartment expire. Since then she has been earning money by tutoring via Zoom and has scrapped any plans for the near future. “I feel I’m waiting for life to begin again,” she said. “Most of why I was in New York was the theater.”
Mr. Kane, the stage management fellow, also left for his parents’ home but returned to New York in July, finding a room in Bushwick, Brooklyn, for $750 a month. With the money he saved from unemployment, he said, he figures he can last four more months.
For others, even as they managed the financial shock, they still faced the loss of purpose and meaning that came from the work. After all, few people go into theater for the money.
Act Three: Stories Without a Stage
‘If We Aren’t Innovating at This Moment, It’s a Missed Opportunity’
At a time when the city needed the shared stories and emotions of theater, creators and performers were suddenly isolated in their homes, silent. What did it mean to be part of a theater company when convening with others was not cathartic but possibly deadly?
Before he left for New Mexico, the cast member Babak Tafti poured his energies into Black Lives Matter protests and redoubled his conviction that theater should have “purpose with a capital P.” Wasn’t that what drew him to the theater, to convey a message?
Then he took part in an online reading of Oscar Wilde’s comedy “The Importance of Being Earnest.” In the past he would have appreciated the play’s cleverness. But in the pandemic, he found himself laughing unreservedly — therapeutically.
“In this moment, humor and lightness and levity and community — literally sharing words with people — we can’t deny that power,” he said. “It’s part of us. I still want Purpose and Meaning. But there might be Meaning and Purpose in laughter.”
Another cast member, Francis Benhamou, managed in April to land a role in a new show at the Manhattan Theater Club, scheduled to start later this year. Now that is on hold as well.
Mattico David, the only cast member from out of town, had gained career momentum the last time he had performed at Playwrights, in 2018, and was hoping for another boost.
But when things shut down, he began a slow trip home to Flint, Mich.
He called a cousin in Philadelphia to get him out of New York City, then began a series of close calls — exposed to the virus at his cousin’s, self-quarantined, then exposed a second time, another quarantine. When he finally made it home to Flint, he waited another couple of weeks before seeing his parents.
For Playwrights as an institution, the challenge was to “stay relevant and involved in people’s lives when our normal tool set is completely off limits,” said Kyle Sircus, the associate managing director, whose job is to handle marketing and ticketing. “If we aren’t innovating at this moment, it’s a missed opportunity.”
The theater had already been working on a podcast called Soundstage, to begin in the summer; when the pandemic hit, it moved up the launch to April. It moved a master class in playwriting online, where it reached five times as many people as the classroom version.
Ms. Rafaeli, the director, turned her attention to “back burner” projects, including musicals, which can take several years to develop.
Jay Janicki, the theater’s production manager, returned to 42nd Street after a monthlong furlough, using the downtime to refurbish parts of the building. “The silver lining is that we can do things we couldn’t do when we had audiences coming in,” he said.
“But there’s still the million-dollar question: Do we have socially distanced performances with a smaller audience, or wait till it’s safe to have a full audience? A lot of people don’t want to have a 50 percent full audience. If you have the capacity for 200 people and you only have 100, that’s not a success.”
Act Four: Making Theater in the Future
'You Still Find a Way’
“Selling Kabul” is now slated to run sometime next year, one of four productions on Playwrights’ calendar, down from the usual six. “Unknown Soldier,” which ran for three days before the shutdown, will not return.
Ms. Khoury, who wrote “Selling Kabul” while in medical school, is already finishing her next play. After her rotation in telemedicine at the start of the pandemic, she later did a stint in the emergency room. Suddenly, her two worlds — playwriting and medicine — came eerily together, she said.
“I remember one day doing triage work and seeing a Playwrights Horizons baseball cap on my desk, thinking, ‘What am I doing?’”
When “Kabul” will run is anyone’s guess. Ms. Fishman speaks daily with the general managers of five other Off Broadway theaters to discuss the logistics of reopening.
One possibility is that theater will return with smaller audiences, which will mean reducing budgets — smaller casts, shorter rehearsal periods, simpler sets. Mr. Greenfield invoked what he called “the ‘Cradle Will Rock’ school of producing,” referring to a 1937 play with music, directed by Orson Welles, which lost its public funding four days before the first performance. It ended up moving to another theater and opening with a bare stage and actors singing from the audience because of a union stipulation.
“When the world makes it hard to produce theater — and it has many times in the history of humans — you still find a way,” he said.
This model may point the way for New York’s eventual return, at least in its early stages: smaller, less garishly expensive, made for the people who actually live here, not for tourists or investors. New York’s economy needs them, too, of course, but if the city does not serve residents, including artists, at prices they can afford, it will trade one crisis for another.
On an afternoon in September, Mr. Janicki and an assistant were the only ones in the building on 42nd Street. Boxes of Swedish fish and M&M’s were piled randomly in the lobby, seemingly unmoved since March. Onstage — an elevator ride up from street level — garbage cans, a ladder and a shop vacuum filled an unfinished Kabul apartment. The lights, rented for a few months, were still up — no hurry to return them because no other theater needed them.
“It’s like Pompeii, frozen,” Mr. Janicki said. “It looks like everybody just left everything and walked out the door. Which is what they did.”
For the play’s cast and crew, now comes the question of what to do next. They’ve made it to one of the great theaters in the capital of American theater. And now they can only wait or give up.
“Every week I go through the whole cycle,” said Jenna Ready, the theater’s associate general manager. “I go from being energized — We’re going to bring theater back! — Then the dread sets in: It won’t come back, do I want to be a part of it, New York’s so expensive, what am I doing here?”
She tried the question from a different angle. New York was absolutely unmanageable, and the pandemic only amplified it. “But to leave that,” she said, “is a hard pill to swallow.”
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