Theater Artists Struggle With Unique Fears, Fallout And Uncertainty From Virus Drama

Mask photos by George Schaivone

By Bill Hirschman

God, I’m a dancer;
A dancer dances!
            —Ed Kleban, A Chorus Line

Choreographer Ron Hutchins lost $48,000 worth of assignments “all in one day. I was devastated…. Everything that I worked so hard for all my life was just snatched away from me.”

Veteran actress Margot Moreland was already dealing with the decline and eventual death of her mother. “I thrive on having a problem and trying to negotiate what would be the best. But this virus has kicked my proverbial optimistic ass. I am scared. I’m really scared of what is to come.”

Clay Cartland, known for his wry performances, battles despair: “Some days I wake up and I fire up the camera and the ring light and I will do like five self-tapes in one day. And then there will be other days… you just want to stay in bed and watch The Princess Bride 11 times.”

But then, there’s what’s been gained.

Production Stage Manager Amy Rauchwerger: “More than anything, it’s taught me that I really do love what I do, because if ever there was a time for me to pick a different career, to go off in a different direction – a baking company, underwater basket weaving or crocheting dog sweaters — like this would be it. But I can’t imagine doing anything else for the rest of my life.”

Six months into the pandemic, South Florida theater artists may be struggling with the identical hardships that nearly everyone in the country is combatting — depression, deepening debt, isolation and loneliness.

But they also are dealing with a profoundly damaging dimension particular to their purgatory-like limbo: The calling that gives their lives meaning requires other people. It requires interacting with  colleagues and a live audience.

Late this summer, 33 South Florida storytellers agreed to draw back the curtain on their backstage struggles that form the spine of an all too real three-act drama.

Act One: An entire world of expectations, exertions and arrangements vanishes – taking with it much of what gives them their sense of self-worth.

Act Two: They gingerly piece together ways to cope with the aesthetic loss – along with figuring out how to pay the light bill – seeking recovery, resurrection and reinvention.

But unlike the reliable arc of Shakespeare or Simon, their script has no discernable Act Three. Indeed, a few are uncertain whether there will be an Act Three.

Faced with an open-ended void, they summon resilience and protective gallows humor. Yet as another empty calendar page turns, they are dogged by the knowledge that more is at risk than a livelihood certain to be among the last industries to recover. They quietly fear that what they have trained for, what they have sacrificed relationships for, what is integral to their being, will disappear or be unrecognizable.

At the exact same time, most cling to the ancient article of faith: Live theater has survived 2,500 years of plagues, repression and recessions because it, above all art forms, provides a unique communal experience that feeds a hunger for storytelling in the souls of audiences and artists. And it will prevail.

Yet, this hiatus has also forced artists to reevaluate, reprioritize, to learn things about themselves, even to weigh dropping out.

I AM WHAT I AM

For performers, the second-most piercing moment in the musical A Chorus Line comes after a crippled dancer is carted away. The choreographer asks the ensemble, “What do you do when you can’t dance anymore?”

Practitioners of many professions define themselves partly by their work. But arguably few perceive that their vocation is so completely at the core of their very existence as those in the performing arts. They may moonlight 40 hours a week tending bar or styling hair, but “even when we’re not acting, we’re actors,” said musical theater actress Anna Lise Jensen.

Such sentiments may seem overly melodramatic to civilians who can only appreciate it intellectually. But acting, playwriting, directing, designing, stage managing seem viscerally encoded in most theater artists’ DNA.

“… nothing will fill being on stage. Nothing will. Nothing,” said actress-playwright Elena Maria Garcia said. “I mean being on stage, me interacting with the audience, giving them that hour and a half… that gift, there may be something equal to the pleasure of doing that… but I can’t think of it.”

Watching Hamilton on television conjured yearnings for actress Erin Pittleman who was to perform in a revue this summer. “When I’m in the wings waiting to go on, I always have this little moment every single night that this is exactly where I’m supposed to be … and every time I think about it now, it hurts my heart.”

Interviewees universally repeated that mantra about theater’s indestructibility. But in the timbre of their voices and sometimes even in their words, there is a fear that the audience’s new addiction to cyber entertainment fostered by the virus may have decimated the future of performing arts with an audience present.

SOMETHING’S COMING

Few people saw it coming. March was a flush time for theater work. Many companies were staging their last big budget show before the snowbirds left, such as Zoetic Stage’s A Little Night Music in Miami. But South Florida theater now lasts year-round and many artists had work scheduled deep into the summer and even the fall.

The peripatetic actress Laura Hodos opened and closed the same day as Penelope Pennywise in Urinetown at Pembroke Pines Theater of the Performing Arts. She had inked deals to perform in Forbidden Broadway in The Villages, then Beer For Breakfast at Ensemble Stage in the mountains of North Carolina, and finally Henry V in Orlando.

Dancer-choreographer Emily Tarallo savored two previews fulfilling her bucket list role of Sheila in A Chorus Line at the Wick Theatre in Boca Raton, then there was opening night, then a Sunday matinee. And then it was over. “It felt like I was grieving, like I had lost somebody physically,” she said.

The plug was pulled within days of openings for such productions as The Price at GableStage in Coral Gables for which 30-year actor Tom Wahl had spent pre-rehearsal weeks researching the period, Arthur Miller, the play’s background, as well as memorizing lines.

“I doubt if you’re (a non-actor) starting a new job, you don’t spend (unpaid) months beforehand doing research…. Then all of a sudden the whole thing is ripped out from under you,” Wahl said.

Most thought the delay would be limited. Rauchwerger recalled the shutdown of A Little Night Music. “I left all my stage management goodies and we got our coffee pot. All of our paperwork is up on the walls and the tape is down on the floor…. You left that day thinking, man, these two weeks are going to suck, but if you want to leave things here, it’s okay, because we’ll be back in two weeks.”

Some directors told casts and crews to be ready to return later that spring, maybe late summer. Sets stayed on stage and costumes were kept on racks.

But multiple scenarios deteriorated into changed dates and shuffled titles. The most ambitious works were re-penciled in for as much as a year later. Night Music was put on hold and the more modest Gringolandia was moved up in the Zoetic schedule. Later, when Gringolandia was delayed indefinitely, there was “the crushing realization… that we knew that the season was done,” Rauchwerger said. “It feels unfinished…. There’s one thing to open and close…. It’s another thing entirely to… bring it to almost perfection and then never be able to have that” consummation.

Slowly, the optimism-defying reality sank in that this could be a long haul – archly redubbed an “intermission.”

Hodos recalled, “I kind of thought, okay this will be like what, a month, six weeks, you know, and then we’ll be back to normal…. I had zero clue that it was going to be this kind of impact because we’ve never seen anything like it.”

Occurring at the tail end of the busiest, most lucrative and most encouraging part of the season, the sudden loss was a gut punch.

“I was already starting to actually make a living just as a working artist for the first time in my life,” said Sabrina Lynn Gore, noted for her lead roles in Next To Normal and Lizzie. “All of a sudden I’m starting to make traction. I got an agent, I’m booking commercials, I’m booking all these theater jobs, and then suddenly my entire livelihood disappears overnight.”

Secondary survival jobs, especially in the food service industry, evaporated at the same time. Disney and other theme parks in Orlando which supported many South Florida performers also shut down. Designers whose day jobs were working backstage at the large performing arts venues were furloughed. Artists who lived from paycheck to paycheck as a normal fact of life, now had no paycheck and wrestled with the state’s malfunctioning unemployment application process.

Personal plans were scrapped. Gregg Weiner, a mainstay lead in a score of area dramas, was preparing to act in two local shows, then follow through on a long-held dream to try his luck in New York City.

Three months in, Rauchwerger returned to where the Night Music set was being dismantled in a surrender to the virus’ power. In one room, “We were like, wait a minute. Nothing has changed. It’s like this is where we were three months ago when we thought we were coming back in two weeks. And it was a very, very scary experience. It’s like when something is constant while the whole world has shifted.”

Delays were announced, postponements revealed, week after week, month after month, until the truth became inescapable.

That produced a familiar feeling of uncertainty “intensified a thousand fold,” said actress Margery Lowe whose Brighton Beach Memoirs at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre luckily had run its course just before the shutdown.

Contrary to the stereotypical depiction, most theater artists from divas to costumers are far from snowflakes. They have chosen to remain in a calling in which rejection and fallow periods are de rigeur. “We are used to not being financially stable. We’ve never made a paycheck 52 weeks out of the year. Never,” reminded Elizabeth Dimon, one of the most respected actresses in the region. But now “you wake up one morning and you know we truly have no control over anything.”

Actress Sandi Stock, secretary of the South Florida Theatre League, added, “People who have sort of a 9 to 5 job, they can’t imagine what it would be like to have to go on 20 job interviews to just get one job and that job only last three weeks. And so while you’re doing that job, you’re also sweating your energy between learning that job and doing that to the best of your ability, but also trying to get other jobs because this job is only going to last for three weeks.”

The uncertainty felt different as the calendar crossed into the period when artists are used to auditioning live for a theater’s whole season, said actress Gaby Tortoledo.

Pittleman took long showers during which she might sing or cry. “Honestly, I’ve been giving the best shower concerts of my entire life, but my water bill has” skyrocketed.

On top of that, the pandemic traumatized artists exactly as it did civilians. Actress-director-educator Elizabeth Price had been coming out the other side of “an emotional rollercoaster” in her personal life. Then this. “Fear, because it’s a plague now that we don’t know what it’s doing and we don’t know if we’re going to get it.”

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Like most civilians, artists took advantage of the first weeks cleaning closets, reading books they had on bedside tables for years, baking, meditating, painting rooms, gardening and binging television series.

“YouTube has taught me a lot,” Garcia quipped dryly. “YouTube taught me banana bread, how to cut hair. I cut everyone’s hair in my house and dyed my mother’s hair.”

A few like actress Irene Adjan were blessed with reliably long-held day jobs or they cobbled patchworks of part-time gigs, such as voice overs and dubbing like veteran actor Wayne LeGette. Many who were teaching privately or in schools ramped up their availability for students either online or in-person.

Musical theater pro Julie Kleiner Davis said she “invested my entire being into my family and felt fulfilled, although that being said, I feel like I need (to satisfy) that theatrical passion that I have.”

The urgent need to be doing something creative drove several back to dormant projects. Moreland pulled out notebooks of ideas, themes and songs for a one-woman show that has percolated for years. Younger actors like Eytan Deray eagerly dove into writing plays on their own dime or they wrote and recorded music like Krystal Mille Valdes. Some landed grants or commissions such as Weiner’s reBOOT video play for the Engage@GableStage program.

Many happily, eagerly snatched up invitations to act or write in online projects, from Theatre Lab’s Online Original Monologue Festival to interviews set up by New City Players, Slow Burn Theatre, Palm Beach Dramaworks and Actors Playhouse. Some gigs produced a modest fee for participants such as Michael Ursua’s weekly Florida Sings Showtunes. But most appearances were “contributions” to companies they hoped to continue working with. All the projects boosted the companies’ profiles and kept the performers’ talent in artistic directors’ casting consciousness. But many appearances were just a way of releasing their pent up creative need to perform.

A clear trend has emerged: Many artists have taken charge of their situation – as much as is possible under their circumstances. Whereas theater employment traditionally has been a passive pursuit – usually someone had to hire you after auditions – performers now are making their own opportunities by creating online mini-productions and aggressively sending online auditions outside the South Florida region. Performers spend hours reading scripts aloud and singing to karaoke tracks to keep their artistic muscles from atrophying.

“I’ve been having a big problem for the past few years being able to get the courage up to audition,” Pittleman said. “But during these five months I’ve been working on my (audition material). I’m not going to wait for someone to call me.”

Many have concentrated on conquering the subtleties of the newly ascendant paradigms of digital auditions and online performances that have become as required a skill as voice projection. They have learned techniques not taught in drama school: not just how to emote effectively for the camera, but how to light themselves to advantage, how to balance sound correctly.

Price put her stimulus check toward “some sound equipment and I set up a little recording studio in a tepee in my bedroom… and I started messing around with that. And I’m looking at setting up a YouTube channel where I do audio recordings of poems and meditation readings.”

Creating effective offerings has required a steeper learning curve than some people expected. “I was asked to record something for a theater company and it took me an hour to record like a 35-second introduction of myself. I just couldn’t find the best performing personality,” Hodos said.

Some embrace the potential of a new platform, gorging on livestreamed and Zoomed productions. Others are ambivalent.

Adjan said, “I enjoy watching them myself. I don’t want it to come off for a second that I’m putting it down. But for me, I just need those other actors on stage with me and I need to be looking at them and having the exchange. It’s not the same energy that tingles or sometimes an explosion of energy from the audience. It’s not the applause. It’s just there’s that energy that’s in the room because you’re telling that story and you feel it landing on them.”

Without some outlet, “It’s like putting somebody in a cage, a wild animal in a cage, and not allowing them to run,” said Alessandra Lasanta, mother of 13-year-old professional actress Alexa who stayed busy including an online reading at YiddishFest.

But these forays could not fend off the emotional fallout for many.

While everyone interviewed steadfastly rejected pity, many acknowledged paralyzing depression. “There was a point about two months ago where I was just really thinking, you know, you get up in the day and you’re like, okay, what’s next?,” said Dimon.

Jeanine Gangloff Levy had been researching the Weimar period in anticipation of playing Sally in Cabaret at MNM Theatre Company in West Palm Beach. Since the virus put the production on hiatus, “I just can’t look at it. I can’t sing the songs in my house. It’s so upsetting because it was a dream of mine for so long.”

Gore said she fought a feeling of being “absolutely defeated…. My savings started to dwindle. I probably started drinking more wine than I normally do because what the hell else are you going to do now?”

Sound designer and musician Matt Corey still ran Insight For The Blind, but the loss of theater and symphony work for himself and his wife actress Lindsey was literally stunning. “From the first week in March through July, there wasn’t a creative bone in my body…  I just wasn’t motivated to do anything creative.”

Some are hiding the extent of their pain. LeGette said, “I’ve read texts of utter despair from some of the people who are seen as ‘beacons of positivity and light’ on Facebook…. people you think are all happy and gay all the time. These things go on behind the fake facade of social media. Everybody is unhappy to one degree or another and it’s taking a toll on all of our mental health.”

Four people interviewed acknowledged that they sought emotional counseling, although others noted it’s an expense too hard to absorb at this point. One other artist reportedly briefly considered suicide.

Indeed, attempts at online theater, even on the edges, were only a reminder of what was at best delayed and at worst lost. “I can’t read a script right now because I get emotional. It breaks my heart,” said Patti Gardner who was in rehearsals for The Price.

Even those watching livestreamed or rebroadcast of full productions like those of the National Theatre in Great Britain ached inside.

“As I finished watching… I would start to cry because I missed it so much. I wanted to be there either in the audience or I wanted to be on that stage doing it,” Hodos said.

I THINK I’D BETTER THINK IT OUT AGAIN

The creative black hole during this “hiatus” has prompted some artists to reassess the monopoly that the art has had on their lives, and whether they have “something else” besides theater that can sustain them.

Jensen cited the weddings, the family gatherings and vacations she missed. “I realize now, there’s a healthier balance to be had.”

“If there is a remote silver lining to this, people are coming to terms with what is important on a personal level,” said Nick Duckart, a Miami actor now in New York waiting to be called back to the Come From Away national tour. “I think this time has made artists go back to the drawing board. All these life goals that I had for myself that I put off.… I now have time to (ask) can I look back on my life and say I am fulfilled?”

Others have reaffirmed its saving power in their lives. Weiner offered, “I’ve been working nonstop theater for the last four years of my life …  and I didn’t realize how integral this work was for my own personal growth and well-being and support.” Terming it life-saving and therapy, “who knows what the hell I would have been. … It’s a larger part or more important piece of my life than I gave it credit for.”

But some artists are weighing the previously heretical idea of abandoning their craft, although their sentiments switched back and forth during the same interview between unshakeable commitment to their profession, and reconsidering it.

“I might already have been one foot out the door,” said Gore, “I’m pushing 40 now. I always thought I would die on stage. But… when you’re dealing with something like this pandemic that has the potential to shut down a lot of people’s main source of income, you start thinking about your plan B, your plan C, your plan D.”

She has taken a new civilian job. “A little part of my soul hurt at first, but after some time, I accepted it….  I would love to get a call from a director in the next few months and have to eat my hat, but right now, I just don’t know.”

Given the relatively meager pay in theater — ironically often for the most satisfying parts — Gore said, “It’s already a tough balancing act between our lives and our jobs when we choose shows. Now, during COVID, I find myself weighing those questions much more heavily than before when asked to participate in projects whether virtual or not.”

Among the most vulnerable to “thinking it out again” are people succumbing to such economic realities as a supporting a newborn child, uncertain insurance and the total unreliability of the profession, Duckart said.

It’s a given that theater is a gig paradigm, Duckart said, but now “people are saying the career is exponentially harder….. I know tons of actors who have said, ‘If this is going to be too hard, I’m done. Enough is enough.’ I understand why some people are kind of pushing the eject button.”

Jensen, who won a Carbonell Award for The Bridges of Madison County, said, “I believe the theater will come back. But my resilience for my place in it might not. And that’s okay — I have other things to do.”

Then, a moment later, she did a U-turn. “But what I love about performing is being a part of a moment in time, like a breath of air that a whole group of people take at one point and then after that, everyone hopefully has changed. You walk in one person and you leave differently, and it happens on the order of hundreds and thousands (of people).  Like, how awesome is that… being with mega talented people and laughing and creating something beautiful?”

Duckart himself is eagerly awaiting the call from Come From Away. But for the time being he has “dusted off” his real estate license and posted his renewed availability on Facebook.

Yet for most, their hunger for what they love overwhelms pragmatic considerations.

“Like I can guarantee you 90 percent of the community right now would be like, ‘You know what, I’ll brave it,’ ” Cartland said with a laugh. “I’ll go to a show right now with 50 people and I’ll make out with all of them on stage and I’ll let them breathe into my mouth. No masks. I don’t care. I just want to make theater. I just need that outlet. I want to tell my stories. I want to bring light to people, especially in times like these.”

While younger artists instinctively see the light at the end of proverbial tunnel – no matter how long it is – older experienced artists repeat the optimistic predictions, but with a little less certainty.

“I guess that’s my message to anyone that thinks ‘Oh my God, I’ll never be on a stage again…. it is forever doomed.’ (I respond) there’s nothing like theater. There’s nothing that can replace it. It will come back,” said Angie Radosh, a much honored actress who continues to fine-tune her own one-woman musical.

But she added wistfully, “I’ve done over 50 shows since I’ve been down here in 1996, and I thought how lucky I am to have had the career that I’ve had. I can only imagine someone in their 30s or 40s or 20s to have this happened, the rug pulled out from under them.”

Dimon, an active veteran still in high demand, echoed what three other friends and colleagues allowed: “I have to say I’m glad I’m at the end of my career as opposed to the beginning. I can’t imagine starting out with this. And I have to fight in my gut the idea of, ‘Oh, this is how my 35-year career doing this comes to an end?’ ”

TOGETHER WE GO

The singular blessing and curse of theater is the communal collegial aspect which is a crucial attraction for most theater artists. Accountants and cable repairmen may like their colleagues, but the marrow of their lives aren’t dependently integrated with them.

“I definitely miss feeling the breath of the actor next to me,” Stock said.

Garcia echoed that: “You can’t perform a tango by yourself. You can’t because you lose that passion and that synergy between that couple. And that partner was taken away.”

Adjan zeroed in on the collegial factor, describing a moment of “tiredness, excitement and frustration” that she feels in every show, standing on stage motionless during a halt in exhausting marathon technical rehearsals.

“This is where I’m the most comfortable, like where I’m supposed to be, like this is what I do…. There’s something about that time period that feels precious and unique and you’re living a life that so few people really do understand.… It’s not (the) taking a curtain call and having everybody clapping for you, which, of course, is lovely. But it’s that moment of just everybody being in the room, putting that last bit of it together.”

Miami musical director Manny Schvartzman, who has been touring with Hamilton, cited fellow musicians in the pit. “It’s that little look that you give each other when you play something and it feels good. (Or when) somebody will do something a little bit extra… that involves little, little, little, tiny moments that the audience wouldn’t even be aware. But we know and that’s what makes us feel alive, those little moments of glory that feel beautiful to be able to talk with each other because we’re having that communication without words.”

That co-creating in rehearsal and the interaction in creation in performance are what nearly every interviewee said they were missing. But the tight ad hoc family of fellow artists also provides a safety net of support even when it’s just a phone call, a Zoom session, a Facebook thread or email.

Radosh regularly connects with experienced actresses she has worked with and auditioned against for three decades. “We’re all good, good friends. We call. We talk to each other and we text. But it’s hard. It’s a physical hug” that is missed.

The younger generation keeps just as tight a connection, especially through social media in which they unabashedly vent their joys and depressions, and receive support in return. One actress “was very open about her feeling vulnerable and feeling depressed, and she posted that (on Facebook),” Tortoledo recalled. “And ten minutes later, she has this list of comments showing support for her and her situation and encouraging her to keep going.”

It’s crucial because while many theater artists can expose their inner selves to two hundred strangers at a time, they are often shy, socially challenged people. Over time, they discover that the majority of their friends are people they’ve worked with.

A friend of musical director Eric Alsford’s told him recently, “I just realized that I don’t have a lot of close friends. My friends are usually who was ever I’m doing a show with.”

ATTENTION MUST BE PAID

Any whiff of lethargy vanishes instantly when interviewees are asked if they have anything they’d want to say to the man in the street. At that point, deep seated anger rises like lava bursting from a volcano. The fury – nearly universal among interviewees – flows into two channels.

The first is aimed at political leaders who allowed the virus to spread unchecked in the early weeks, and even more angrily at people who will not take anti-virus precautions such as wearing masks.  “If things were handled differently, we could be back to work by now!” Wahl said.

But their more potent outrage is aimed at the clear disregard by civilians of the crucial element that artists and art provide in the fabric of everybody’s everyday life.

“Theater is lifeblood and some people may think theater is a luxury,” said director Michael Leeds.

As they have for decades, they rail that the arts are as deserving of fiscal support from government, foundations and ordinary citizens as many other careers. “It’s like in our country (theater is) not subsidized, it’s not valued,” Levy said. “They don’t know that theater is the thing that lets them see their soul and gives us empathy and connection.”

The grievance is even more egregious in this moment when jobs are being classified as essential and non-essential. Gore wrote in an email, “If you got through quarantine watching movies and TV, listening to music, reading books… if you watched Hamilton live, if you enjoyed any type of entertainment… ARTISTS DID THAT.”

But most civilians see artists as rarified creatures luxuriating in a glorified hobby. Actor-cabaret performer John Larivere echoed that, “People think of the arts as pampered chorus boys and girls just out of college, doing it for a few years before they go off and get married and get real jobs.”

Interviewees stressed that theirs is a job, a hard job to commit a life to, and an artistic pursuit equally rooted in pragmatic trauma, such as falling a few qualifying weeks short of enough work to earn health insurance from Equity. “People need to realize we are not these gypsies who put on a mask to make you laugh. We have real life struggles just like you,” Duckart said.

OPEN A NEW WINDOW

So now they scan news accounts of experiments across the country: performances in plexiglass boxes, performances in drive-in theaters, casts kept in a virus-free bubble before and during a production.

“I’m sure that in 10 years I will be able to look back on this time period and say something like, ‘Wow, I got through that…. I was resilient or I persevered. But in the thick of it, it doesn’t feel like that,” Rauchwerger said.

Most believe the art form and their profession have a future, but a changed future. The groundswell among artists this spring demanding reforms in South Florida theaters regarding equity, diversity and inclusion make it almost inevitable, interviewees said.

“I would bet all my money on it,” Price said, predicting changes in the choice of shows to be done in the near future, more color-conscious casting and, later on, diversity in hiring staff and executives.

Gore drove further. “People keep using the word normal, like ‘I want to go back to normal.’  I don’t want to go back to normal. I think that normal should be over and there should be a new normal. It’s not working. It’s time to move forward (in) how we deal with colorblind casting and how we deal with LGBTQ people in the business and women in the business and how… business practices have got to change with some theaters.”

As far as when live unencumbered theater will resume, almost everyone predicts a dishearteningly slow return arc, not just because of restrictive anti-virus protection requirements, but to cope with financial challenges. The first forays of one-performer plays and cabaret acts will give way eventually to small cast shows, meaning fewer available roles. Epic musicals likely will have to wait many months. Pay – already a sore subject in South Florida — may be scaled back. Directors may lean toward hiring less expensive non-Equity actors who don’t have a union insisting on stringent health safety requirements.

But the resurrection provides opportunities for new initiatives. Leeds dreams of someone creating a real repertory company. Cartland advocates hiring understudies so that actors are not pressured to perform when they are incapacitated whether it’s by the virus or a twisted ankle. Schvartzman says lower ticket prices will be needed to build a younger audience. Several suggested partnership productions among multiple theaters; Schvartzman proposes an easy start would be creating and then touring cabaret revues.

At the same time, some nurse quiet fears. No one would be surprised if some theater companies don’t survive, especially since proposed social distancing regulations make it almost impossible for any single production to stay out of the red.

Younger artists are spooked, but artists who have navigated the vagaries of the profession for two or three decades wrestle with a mixture of optimism and concern.

“What’s so really discombobulating is I think we can handle anything if there’s going to be an end to it,” said Dimon. “When a hurricane comes and we lose our utilities, you know that in two weeks at the latest probably you will have your power back. But with this, we cannot see the end.”

Then her thrust changes. “I don’t know when we will be able to be back.  But I know we will someday…. It’s not going to disappear. But (will it be) as we have known it?… I do not intend to live my life acting on Zoom; I just cannot do it.”

What will it look like in South Florida where it competes “with the beach and the weather and boating and parks and sports arenas and so forth?” asked Moreland. “The arts are even further down the chain.” She echoed a common concern: If the core older audiences die off or are unwilling to risk their lives returning to a crowded auditorium, if younger audiences become accustomed to getting their entertainment fix from computer screens, “I don’t know how many people are going to be willing to come back to the theater for live” performances.

Yet even the most pessimistic interviewee believed, once again, that theater in some form is indestructible.

“When you go to a movie, there is a sense of isolation because it’s just you and that box or that big screen, whereas in the theater, that’s the extreme opposite of isolation. It’s collective. You are with other people. You are sharing an incredible experience,” Radosh said. “When I went to GableStage and at the end of a show or at the end of an act, there was almost a collective gasp (in the audience). “There is nothing more thrilling than that.”

Artists have found hope in the few attempts local producers have taken to reopen and the response from a hungry audience. Playwright-producer-actor Ronnie Larsen had reasonably encouraging audience attendance when he presented one-person productions in the tiny The Foundry space in Wilton Manors.

Managing Executive Producer Marilynn Wick has been staging cabaret revues on and off during the pandemic after instituting considerable health and safety measures. Alsford recalled playing “Hello Dolly” with the words “Hello, patrons” to a full house of socially distanced customers in the Wick lobby during the summer. “And all of us got emotional, started crying, because none of us had really done our art in three or four months…. And audiences came up to us and said just thank you for doing theater. They were just so grateful for live entertainment.”

THE SUN WILL COME OUT – TOMORROW

Stages remain dark, most likely for the next six months. At least. But for many artists, the intermission has only stoked fires that have never been banked.

Radosh cited the lesson from her personal “intermission” when she took time off years ago in mid-career to raise a family and then returned to a long series of successes.

“I think it’s given me optimism for when I go back. When I go back. Not if I go back. But when I go back on the stage, I think I’ll be better than ever because that period in my life (made me) stronger…. because you realize how important it is, how much you love it, how much you miss it.”

“So if it’s anything, if it’s taught me anything, it is reaffirming my love for the stage, my love for that connection with another human being, whether it’s sitting in the audience or being on the other end of the footlights, there’s just nothing like it. And we need it. We need it so desperately. The world needs it.”

 

This story is based on interviews with more than 33 South Florida theater artists plus comments made on Facebook. The interviewees courageously shared their inner struggle without seeking a shred of pity or sympathy. Their comments reaffirmed each other’s thoughts as if each was saying, “Oh, yes. Me, too.” Thanks are due to Irene Adjan, Eric Alsford, Clay Cartland, Matt Corey, Alexa and Allesandra Lasanta, Julie Kleiner Davis, Eytan Deray, Elizabeth Dimon, Nick Duckart, Patti Gardner, Sabrina Lynn Gore, Laura Hodos, Ron Hutchins, Anna Lise Jensen, John Larivere, Wayne LeGette, Michael Leeds, Jeanine Gangloff Levy, Margery Lowe, Missy McArdle, Margot Moreland, Erin Pittleman, Elizabeth Price, Angie Radosh, Amy Rauchwerger, Manny Schvartzman, Sandi Stock, Emily Tarallo, Gaby Tortoledo, Krystal Millie Valdes, Tom Wahl, Gregg Weiner and others who do not want to be named.

 

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One Response to Theater Artists Struggle With Unique Fears, Fallout And Uncertainty From Virus Drama

  1. Scott Bennett says:

    Outstanding piece of journalism.

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