Live theater was impacted more heavily than any other recorded entertainment during the COVID-19 pandemic. On Thursday, March 12th, it was announced that Broadway would be “going dark” in response to the growing concerns of the pandemic. “Going dark” just means that no theaters would be open, no shows happening, no Broadway. In March, the shutdown was anticipated to last a few weeks–a month even–but 10 months later, TV and film have restarted production, but Broadway is still closed and traditional theater is almost non-existent.
During the beginning of the pandemic, live theater seemed impossible to put on. Sitting in a large room with 500 other strangers doesn’t sound very COVID safe. But, as 2020 progressed, more options seemed to open up to do non-traditional theater. Some actors did simple script readings over Zoom, broadcasting it, and some people even wrote specific plays that could be performed socially distant or in environments safer than a crowded theater. Adam Szymkowicz’s “The Parking Lot,” was written just for that. The show takes place in a parking lot, with a two-person cast. The MirrorBox Theater in Cedar Rapids was one of the first to put on the show and the main characters were played by a married couple, allowing for safe interaction between them.
Washington High School even put on small productions of “Space Girl” by Mora Harris in the fall. Auditions were virtual and the actors were put into two smaller casts. The two casts consisted of 10 people each, with little to no contact between the two groups. The groups rehearsed separately, one right after school, the other around 4. The shows rehearsed and performed in the courtyard, the actors masked when offstage and wearing face shields while onstage. The first cast performed Friday, October 16th, while the other performed Saturday, October 17th.
But what about professional theater? Broadway stands as the cornerstone of live theater, much as Hollywood is for film. While Broadway was originally named after the street in New York, it represents something much larger now; it encompasses the 41 main professional theaters in New York, employs actors, musicians, directors, producers, theater technicians, stagehands and more. And that entire list is currently out of work.
The Actors Fund is a non-profit organization that helps provide stability for those in the entertainment and fine arts industries, and they have been working hard during the pandemic to keep up with that work. They help find and provide housing, insurance, and host classes for those in the industry. Many Broadway and Hollywood actors have been coming together to raise money for the Actors Fund during the pandemic. One includes “Ratatouille: the Tik Tok Musical,” a musical that started as a joke on the social media app Tik Tok, based on Disney’s 2007 animated movie “Ratatouille.” The show was a one-time event on January 1st, starring Broadway actors, including Andrew Barth Feldman of “Dear Evan Hansen” and Ashley Park of the “Mean Girls” musical, as well as several Tik Tok stars. The proceeds of the highly anticipated event went towards the Actors Fund. Stars have put on shows from their homes, done workshops, and hosted classes to benefit the cause as well.
Live theater takes a lot of money to produce. Production of a Broadway show (everything from the conception of the idea up until opening night) can cost anywhere from $8 million to $12 million, and this doesn’t include the weekly operating budget which can range from $300,000 to $750,ooo. Theaters make the money to pay these expenses through ticket sales, merchandise and vendors selling out of the theater lobbies.
During the pandemic, there hasn’t been a stream of income for the theaters like there usually is. However, when Broadway does reopen, it will take a lot of money to get the theaters up and running again. This is causing some popular Broadway shows to close. “Beetlejuice” was the first show to announce that it would not be returning to the Winter Garden Theater after the shutdown. In May, it was announced that the Disney musical “Frozen” also would not be reopening on Broadway. More recently, the musical adaptation of Tina Fey’s “Mean Girls,” announced on January 7th, that the show would not be reopening with the rest of Broadway.
The pandemic has had its ups and downs for the theater industry but ultimately the effects of this pandemic are unknown. Theater has become a little more accessible to people all over the country during this time with the use of Zoom and streaming to broadcast theater, but it’s not the same, and Broadway still remains dark every night. We do not know the extent to which the pandemic will change live theater and we don’t even know when Broadway will be reopening. However, we do know that there will be a storm of people rushing into theaters to finally see their favorite actors onstage again, when the marquee lights finally go back on.