How did the Covid-19 Shutdown Affect Broadway and American Theatre Workers?

5 mn read

The entertainment industry has changed drastically in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic as a result of film productions, concert venues and studios being forced to close. Broadway and Off-Broadway have been largely affected as all cast members were left without work. Theaters in New York City, which are usually filled with crowded seats, made it too difficult for audiences to social distance after the New York governor declared a state of emergency in March. The Broadway League, an organization of theatre owners and producers, shut down a total of 31 productions that were planned for over a year.

The largest production shutdown in Broadway history kept thousands of performers and production crews from receiving the stable income they depend on from shows. This not only brought financial issues to actors, directors, and costume designers, but also for immense behind-the-scenes crews like make-up artists or sound and lighting technicians. The Broadway industry supports a total of 96,900 local jobs, according to a report shared by The Broadway League. It also contributed $1.83 billion to New York City’s economy from ticket sales during the 2018-2019 season. The Theatre District is a huge tourist attraction in the city but as coronavirus cases continue to rise, the lack of traveling tourists resulted in the loss of millions of dollars.

As for the rest of the theatre community outside of The Big Apple, the shutdown was also a harrowing reality. It caused pressure for production teams to develop ways for audiences to feel safe in the future. For example, selling tickets with arranged seating by skipping seats or rows between each section or having smaller casts. Ernest Ochoco, who directs theatre productions in the Pacific region in the U.S. territory of Guam, had sold over 5,000 seats for “Little Shop of Horrors”; the production he was directing at the start of the pandemic. It is based on the 1982 Off-Broadway rock musical that tells the story of a florist clerk who discovers a Venus fly-trap and names it after his beloved co-worker Audrey. His unique vision involved creating an “out of this world immersive experience” to give audience members a chance to participate in the scenes. Actors would come down from the stage to engage with the viewers and unify as one character, as lighting would glow over them and the carnivorous plant.

From left to right: Dr. Randall Johnson, Iana San Nicolas, and Tim Dominguez. Photo: Robert Tenorio, Expressions Studio. Producing Organization: GATE Theatre.

Ochoco told Eat News, “We were all so disappointed,” after explaining the financial challenges he and his colleagues faced when shutdown forced the production to close. From pop-ups, billboards, press conferences, to media tours, all his plans were suddenly postponed for a date that still remains unknown. Despite all, Ochoco is optimistic that live theatrical experiences will return once there is a viable vaccine. “More than ever, we need the arts to continue persevering. We are going to need the arts to lift up humanity again.” His hopes for the curtain to rise again soon align with a better future, “I hope we can all learn from this experience, not just medically or economically, but remember the love we’ve shown each other, the compassion, the indomitable spirit and inherent goodwill of humanity.“

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Bottom row left to right- Elizabeth San Nicolas, Lynn Atoigue. Top row left to right- Richard San Nicolas, Ernest Ochoco (Director), AUDREY II (Character), and Angie Camacho. Photo: Robert Tenorio, Expressions Studio. Producing Organization: GATE Theatre.

In addition to the pandemic bringing various changes, demands to end racism and unite more people in the industry have also sparked. Actor and writer Griffin Matthews, along with “Hamilton” creator Lin-Manuela Miranda, are some of the celebrities that shared their support for the Black community in Broadway and across the country. For performers who recently started their professional theatre careers, like Genevieve Inez McCarthy, these events came unexpectedly but were filled with reflection on issues that were not often discussed. She mentioned, “I think a pause could be refreshing for the industry, especially with so much racial injustice in the industry being called out.” The musical theatre actress feels glad for the changes happening and added, “Broadway is going to have to be rebuilt in more ways than one but I think the industry will come out better on the other side!”

Genevieve at The Players Theatre in NYC performing for the musical called Humanity’s Child. Photo: Genevieve Inez McCarthy

Before the shutdown, McCarthy was performing every night in a different city for the U.S. and Canada tour of Baby Shark Live, a rock concert and musical for children based off the Baby Shark phenomenon. The tour was originally scheduled until July, which made the news in March about the shutdown hard to process. McCarthy told Eat News, “The night we found out we were getting cancelled, we only had that night to pack and the next day we were on a flight.” McCarthy had hopes of moving back to NYC, where she had the opportunity to sing and dance before the pandemic, including for a lead role in an Off-Broadway musical at The Players Theatre. She tried sending different auditions to maintain an income, until she realized there would be no other productions or temporary jobs in the months ahead.

Genevieve performing on stage for the Baby Shark tour. Photo: Genevieve Inez McCarthy

McCarthy is reminiscent about her live performances before social distancing was needed, “I definitely miss how thousands of people would be packed in a theater, the energy would be so high and no one was worried about a thing!” Although spread out audiences might not compare to how it was initially, she looks forward to small theatres opening once there is a vaccine available. She told Eat News, “It will be super magical when the first few shows can open again even if they’re tiny, so I bet we’ll see some beautiful moments coming out of that.” 

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The President of The Broadway League, Charlotte St. Martin, expressed an effort to “bring back the people who rely on this industry for their livelihood.” She continued in a statement, “We’ll be back and we have so many more stories to tell.” Theatres are offering refunds and exchanges for all the tickets bought for shows meant to take place during and after the shutdown. The organization concluded that theatres will remain closed until January 3, 2021.

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Victoria Gonzalez is a U.S. correspondent for Eat News who covers a variety of topics about the entertainment world and politics.

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Eat News is a Taiwanese digital media, analyzes current events and issues through column articles, videos, visual aid, and exclusive interviews.

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