On March 12, 2021, Broadway went dark. This shutdown was enacted in response to the growing threat of the coronavirus pandemic and new limitations on large gatherings across the country. As theaters across the country shut down, many performers and artists found themselves out of the job, indefinitely.
According to the Actors’ Equity Association, the labor union that represents over 51,000 live theater performers and managers in the live theatre industry across the United States, more than 1,100 actors and managers lost work on Broadway during the pandemic. Unfortunately, it is a majority of performers who work season to season, and do not benefit from Broadway-level paychecks or support. “My fear is we’re not just losing jobs, we’re losing careers,” said Adam Krauthamer, president of Local 802 of the American Federation of Musicians in New York, to the New York Times. According to Krauthamer, 95 percent of the local’s 7,000 members are now unemployed as a result of the coronavirus mandated shutdown. “[the pandemic] will create a great cultural depression,” he said.
Beyond the hard hit to performers and musicians, the absence of theater goers in cities across the country has had devastating effects on the economy. According to reporting from CNBC in 2020, The Broadway League reported that Broadway shows accrued more than $1.83 billion in revenue during the last season from May 2018 to May 2019. Because of the mandated shutdown, New York is unlikely to see this kind of money for a long while. Data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis in 2017 shows that arts and culture across the United States contribute 4.5% of the annual GDP and 3.4% of the total work force. This value is five times larger than that of agriculture and $265 billion larger than transportation and warehousing combined.
There is no question that the coronavirus pandemic has had a huge impact on theater and the performing arts across the country, with subsequent damage to the economy as well. Luckily, there have been efforts to reinvigorate the sector, through virtual performances and the like.
The Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago, IL, for example, began virtual programming for teens in spring 2020 and adapted plays into radio shows for their 2020-2021 season. This way, audiences across the globe are able to listen and enjoy the creation of Chicago theater performers and creators digitally, without the fear of possible exposure to COVID-19.
Many in-school theater programs have moved towards the creation of Zoom-musicals, where individual performances can be filmed individually or in pieces and compiled into a larger piece for virtual audiences. Though not without its own unique challenges, Zoom-musicals have proven to be a great way for theater to continue safely during the coronavirus pandemic.
On campus at the University of Illinois, Illini Student Musicals has kept the magic of live theater alive through their spring musical production of Little Women which was available for streaming in April 2021. Before COVID-19, ISM shows were live ticketed events and so had to be altered for a digital audience to follow the University of Illinois’ coronavirus guidelines. Multiple cameras were set up around the stage in Lincoln Hall to capture the performance for a virtual audience.
COVID safety guidelines also affected rehearsals, with time not only split between two casts, but also between the Union and Gregory Hall. The Union offered more space, while Gregory Hall was smaller but allowed dancing. Joanna Riemer, Class of ‘22, said that it was most challenging to stage scenes with actors that had to stay six feet apart at all times, at one point even using a tape measure to mark the ground! Most of the actors were vaccinated at the time of rehearsals, but not all, so it was essential that everyone wore a mask and kept their distance. Additionally, actors and crew members were held accountable for filling out contract tracing forms and following the University’s COVID-19 rules.
Looking to the future, it seems as though a slow integration of getting “back to normal” is on the horizon. Broadway theaters are scheduled for a gradual reopening beginning September 2021, and regional theaters across the country, including the Steppenwolf Theatre, are slated for returns as early as Fall 2021.
As for theater on campus at the University of Illinois, students are optimistic. “ISM has worked so hard to make our shows the best they can possibly be,” said Kelsey Handschuh, Class of ‘21. “I know that everyone is just itching to see live performances again. So, I expect a full recovery for theatre within the next year!”