Scott Klavan: The Show Might Not Go On
A report on theater in New York City during COVID-19
Hello from New York City, the center of the coronavirus outbreak in the USA. Having written many theater reviews for EIL over the past five years, I wanted to report on the effect this crisis is having on the theater community.
As of March 12, there is no theater being performed live on stage in New York City. That has never happened for so long a period of time, is disorienting and hard to believe. All through wars, 9/11, and other disasters, Broadway and smaller theaters have, with only a brief interruption, continued to play. But the spread of this disease is caused by people congregating in groups, and that is one of the characteristics of live theater. Therefore, with little warning, all theaters around the city have shut their doors. Originally, the Broadway shutdown was said to last until April 12, but any date for resumption is now up in the air.
Theater workers and producers were either taken by surprise, or in denial about the potential of the upheaval. On Broadway, Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker, riding a big feature in the New York Times, were about to do their first preview of a revival of Neil Simon’s comedy Plaza Suite. The production was shuttered before they took the stage; there is no information about when or if the show will continue. Hangmen, the new Olivier-award winning play from England, by Martin McDonagh, already in previews, closed before officially opening and will not resume performances. The same with a revival of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, starring Laurie Metcalf.
Optimistic/hopeful rescheduling has been adjusted. At Lincoln Center, new musicals Flying Over Sunset and Intimate Apparel, both supposed to open in March, then delayed to April, have now been shifted to the fall. Off Broadway, veteran companies and performing spaces postponed or closed shows early, including Classic Stage Company’s (CSC) Assassins, Irish Rep’s A Touch Of The Poet, The Vineyard’s Dana H., and The Public Theatre’s Coal Country.
Even tourist attractions Blue Man Group and Perfect Crime, running for decades, are dark. Cast members from hit shows such as Moulin Rouge! and the upcoming revival of Company have tested positive. (As I write this, I’m reading that longtime playwright Terrence McNally has died from complications of the coronavirus.)
One thing is likely: long-running hit Broadway shows, with money in the bank, and a solid advanced sale, will reopen. Smaller, struggling plays with lower budgets, hoping for word-of-mouth or good reviews to sell tickets, may fold or never open at all. Shows with stars from TV and film may also suffer, as the change in schedule could cause the leads to leave for previously arranged, more lucrative projects. It is assumed numerous modest or up-and-coming theater groups, pluckily hanging on with grants, donations, and ticket sales, may finally succumb to the complete lack of income.
While a few companies, including Off-Broadway’s respected Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre and Ars Nova, have generously taken to streaming their shows, and some playwrights/dramaturges are optimistically starting or continuing developmental workshops on-line, there is a sense of shock, dread and despair darkening the atmosphere here.
Actors Equity has created the Emergency Curtain Up Fund, donating $500,000 and matching $250,000 from donors, to help members of the performing union affected by the virus. But that may not be enough. Related businesses that theater artists use to survive between jobs have been hard-hit. All NYC restaurants are restricted to take-out and delivery service, putting many wait staff out of work. Interpersonal positions like yoga teachers, gym staff, and personal trainers, even real estate agents, are sidelined. With all schools closed, probably for the rest of the school year, teaching artists running instructive workshops for youth, a popular paid position for theater people, have been either permanently or temporarily laid off.
Let’s put a personal face on this crisis: mine. I’ve been a working actor, teacher, playwright, and, in recent years, a director, in NYC for over thirty years. Here is how the virus disaster has affected me:
For years, I have taught therapeutic workshops, first in drama therapy for teens, and now general acting/theater arts workshops for seniors. As older adults are the most seriously affected by the virus, all in-person classes for seniors have ceased. Every one of the non-profit or cultural institutions where I work, including the JCC, and 92nd St. Y, closed their doors. This week, I began doing online classes for a few of my senior groups, but I have lost about 80% of my income from these classes. Given the projected length of the shut-down in NYC, and the health threat to older adults, some of these groups may never resume.
I was directing a new play, Night Shadows, by Lynda Crawford, about the Russian poet Anna Akhmatova, in the On Women Festival at Irondale Arts Center in Brooklyn. I had been working on and helping develop the play for over two years, and it was one of two plays chosen from nationwide submissions for a 4- performance main stage presentation in the festival. While we were lucky enough to get through three performances, we had to cancel the fourth, with the highest number of pre-sold seats.
In 2019, I was chosen to direct a pilot production of Into the Woods, condensed, to 60 minutes and cast solely with senior actors, at Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, in collaboration with Music Theatre International (MTI). The production was visited by Stephen Sondheim, written up in the New York Times, and enthusiastically received, enough to spawn another pilot, The Music Man, Sr., with Lenox Hill/MTI. Cast with 35 older actors, a full staff, promising both therapeutic value for the participants and professional attention for the staff, we were several weeks into rehearsal, with an opening scheduled for late May. The Music Man, Sr. was suspended, and may never restart.
The Actors Studio, where I am directing two projects in their Playwrights/Directors Workshop, and acting in several others, has shut down.
Television and theater auditions, which I go on as often as I am allowed, have completely stopped.
On and on.
Theater and its artisans are resilient. You get two call-backs, but miss out on the job; if you get the gig, the shows closes early; you work writing a play for years and when it opens, one of the actors screws it up, or reviewers hate it; trends change and your “type” goes out of style, just when you thought: I Know What I’m Doing. In all these cases, you suck it up and keep going. The institution itself isn’t called The Fabulous Invalid for nothing. Most Broadway plays lose money. So what? Nobody Promised You A Rose Garden. Everyone uses skills they never knew they had, just to survive. You keep coming back. But: there has to be something to: Come Back To.
As we had a last drink after the truncated run of Night Shadows in Brooklyn, one of the actors raised his glass and said: “Remember the old saying: Theater Cures.“
Scott Klavan, theatre writer at Escape Into Life, is an actor, director, and playwright in New York. Scott performed on Broadway in Irena’s Vow, with Tovah Feldshuh, in regional theater, and in numerous shows Off Broadway, including two productions of The Joy Luck Club for Pan Asian Rep. His stage adaption of Raymond Carver’s short story “Cathedral” was produced off-Broadway by Theater Breaking Through Barriers (TBTB), and his play Double Murder was published in Best American Short Plays of 2006-2007. For twenty years, Scott was Script and Story Analyst for the legendary actors Paul Newman and Joanne Woodward and for companies including HBO, CAA, and Viacom. In 2015, he was featured in A Soldier’s Notes, an episode of the Web Series Small Miracles, alongside Judd Hirsch, and earned a nomination for Outstanding Actor in the LA Web Series Festival. Scott directed the one-woman show My Stubborn Tongue, written and performed by Anna Fishbeyn, off-Broadway at The New Ohio Theater and at the United Solo Festival; and directed and appeared in the solo play Canada Geese, by George Klas, in the 2016 New York International Fringe Festival. In 2019, he directed a 60-minute version of the Sondheim/Lapine classic Into the Woods, cast solely with senior actors, for Music Theatre International (MTI) and Lenox Hill Neighborhood House; the show was written up in The New York Times. He is currently helping develop and directing Eleanor and Alice, by Ellen Abrams, about Eleanor Roosevelt and her cousin Alice Longworth; Eleanor and Alice was presented at the Roosevelt Library and Museum in Hyde Park, NY, and soon, the Roosevelt House in NYC. He is a Lifetime Acting Member of The Actors Studio and a member of the Studio’s Playwright/Directors Workshop (PDW), where his own play The Common Area, was chosen as part of the PDW’s Festival of New Works in 2019. Scott teaches at the 92nd St. Y and other arts organizations.