Wagner alumni lift the curtain after Broadway's longest intermission
by Carey Purcell
The American theater industry was among the first — and the hardest — hit by the Covid shutdown, closing its doors on Broadway's 41 theatres for a year and a half. This story tells about the Wagner alumni who, in the face of tremendous odds, sustained the craft they love so deeply while building Broadway back — depicted with amazing scale models built by another alum. — Editor
It was March 11, 2020. Anna Kate Reep ’15 was ready to celebrate her wedding anniversary that night at a French restaurant with her husband. As she left work that afternoon, she smiled at her colleagues and joked, “See you later, losers! I’m going to celebrate my anniversary!”
Over the next 24 hours, every Broadway show in New York would shut down. The next time Reep, a costumer in the wardrobe department of “Hamilton,” would see her colleagues was June 21, 2021. She began to regret her parting words to her co-workers.
“The next day I was thinking, ‘Uh oh — that was the last thing I said to a lot of people,’ ” Reep recalled. “I wouldn’t have said that if I knew the world was going to end!”
For Reep and the thousands of other theater professionals working in New York, their world did come to an end on March 12, 2020. As the threat of Covid-19 grew, Governor Andrew M. Cuomo banned gatherings of more than 500 people, effectively closing every one of Broadway’s 41 theaters. By 5 p.m. they had all closed their doors, and the Broadway community suddenly found itself without work.
At the time, the shutdown was supposed to last for 32 days, with performances scheduled to resume the week of April 13, 2020.
The news was a shock, but not a surprise to employees of the Great White Way. The threat of the coronavirus was widely reported, and a Broadway usher had tested positive on March 11. Some audience members had begun attending shows wearing face masks, and sales of hand sanitizer were skyrocketing. When one of Reep’s colleagues tried to place an online order, the product was sold out.
“We were all talking about it,” Reep recalled. “We knew coronavirus was going to be a problem. We’d been hearing rumors and were on pins and needles.”
Her workspace had smelled like Lysol for the previous week.
Backstage at “Moulin Rouge!” things were tense. The lavish new musical, which attracted a large audience of international tourists, had already canceled its matinee and evening performances prior to Governor Cuomo’s announcement. No one in the production had tested positive, but a company member had a fever — one of the known symptoms of the virus.
The news was especially nerve-wracking for Caitlin Maxwell ’10, who had been working as assistant hair supervisor and make-up supervisor at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre — a job that required her to work “incredibly intimately” with the actors.
“The number of actors experiencing symptoms and later confirmed to be Covid-positive was quite high,” she said. “Most of us knew the odds were not in our favor that we wouldn’t experience direct exposure. I personally checked in on, or had changes with, many of the actors who became positive — including quick changes with some of our very sick actors [with] whom I would stand face-to-face in very small quick-change booths.”
While the threat of the virus was widely known, little else was. “Caroline, or Change,” a widely anticipated revival, was hours away from its invitation-only dress rehearsal when the cast learned of the shutdown. The news was devastating for the cast and crew, especially the young actors playing children in the show. Backstage, Ilana Bolotsky ’12, the show’s child guardian, found herself with five crying boys in her arms and no answers to give them. “It was a moment in time that I’ll never forget,” she said. “I can still picture that day vividly in my mind. As an adult, it was hard to wrap my head around the situation, let alone the kids who didn’t fully understand what was happening — but honestly, no one really knew the full extent of the severity of it all, either.”
The pandemic marked a first for the Great White Way. In more than 100 years, Broadway had never shut down for months at a time. The 1975 Musicians Union strike shuttered theaters for 25 days, and a stagehand strike closed its doors for almost three weeks in 2007. Performances resumed just two days after the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, and the 2003 Northeast blackout closed productions for only one night, with several shows selling out the following evening.
Reep was immediately aware that everything was going to change.
“It was very strange to suddenly find myself in a historic moment,” she said, “when I knew I would remember working on Broadway before and after the pandemic.”
But there was still the in-between. And with the curtains closed, cast and crew members found themselves with a sudden lack of work and an abundance of time. Going from a packed schedule of classes, auditions, callbacks, rehearsals and performances — all with large groups of people — to no commitments and few, if any, peers was a shock.
The loss wasn’t merely professional. It was deeply personal, actor and producer April Lavalle ’13 said.
“Actors, more so than I think in most professions, wrap up their identity in what it is that they do,” she said, “so it’s not just your job getting taken away. It feels like part of your identity is also taken away.”
For Lavalle and her fiancé Alex Boniello ’13, also an actor and producer, their time sheltering in place was a chance to expand their identities. Drawing upon his experience performing in “Dear Evan Hansen,” and hers with the Trevor Project and Story Pirates, the two wrote a children’s book, “A Case of the Zaps,” which will be released in 2022.
Michael Bullard ’13 had spent three years as a swing with a touring production of “Aladdin” when performances stopped. After more than a decade of performing, Bullard began training in the Gyrotonic Method, a movement system that had helped him recover from reconstructive knee surgery following a skiing accident. He earned his certification and began working with a chiropractor to treat injured patients as well as improving his own health.
“I hadn’t been using my body expressively for a year and a half,” Bullard said. “I was very out of shape and disconnected physically, so I found a way to kind of reconnect with my body in a healthy, energetic way without performing. I really do love that work.”
New Yorkers had been ordered to stay at home as much as possible, only going outside for necessities such as medicine, food or exercise while socially distancing at least six feet from others. For performers trying to maintain their strength and endurance, this proved to be a challenge. Emma Pittman ’18, who had been preparing to debut in “Chicago” at the Ambassador Theatre, began tap dancing on a single piece of wood in her apartment. The winner of the web series “The Search for Roxie” also taught dance classes over Zoom in between an “incredibly unsuccessful” attempt at baking bread and joining a play-reading club.
No longer working on costumes, Reep began making masks, which she distributed throughout the city, and sewed plastic hospital gowns in partnership with the Broadway Relief Project. She also channeled her energy where she could see it: on the walls of her apartment. She and her husband had moved just one month before the shutdown. Faced with the loss of her work and her co-workers, she threw herself into decorating their new home. Missing the landmarks of New York, she painted the ceiling of Grand Central Station on her bedroom wall.
“It made me cry when I painted it because I felt so disconnected from the city I lived in,” she said. “I didn’t know when I would be able to enjoy the beautiful parts of NYC again.”
The free time provided a new opportunity for Cait Maxwell, who nannied her sister’s daughter for nine hours a day, five days a week. Along with cherishing the time with her niece — “She’s the coolest little human I know” — Maxwell savored the stable work schedule, which was a drastic change from the demanding hours of Broadway. “For the first time in my life I had consistent evenings off and two-day weekends,” she said. “It was mind-blowing.”
For Jennifer DiBella ’04, director of education at Roundabout Theatre Company, the pandemic didn’t result in a change of job, but it certainly changed the job she already had. The nonprofit, which offers programs promoting social equity through the power of theater, serves more than 30,000 people in New York City. Following the shutdown, DiBella pivoted to digital work as soon as she could. Moving from offices in Midtown to her guest room, she found herself on Zoom for eight or nine hours a day.
“It seems like such an easy thing, but it wasn’t,” DiBella said. “I had to reimagine how our work could exist in a digital space, and the real magic of our work is in-person engagement. We worked hard to try to create those moments of joy and engagement in the space that we were now working in. We really worked around the clock for two years, trying to keep the work going.”
Those moments materialized onscreen through the Reverb Theatre Arts Festival. The result of 24 pairings between participating and collaborating artists, the festival spotlighted artists with disabilities on the virtual stage. Prompted by the theme of connection, artists from around the country submitted their works of original theater, including monologues, spoken word, dance or music. Another shift to digital was seen in the Remote Arts Learning Project — “a massive sort of undertaking” in which Roundabout partnered with Carnegie Hall, Studio in a School and the 92nd Street Y Dance Lab to create a digital curriculum for theater, music, visual arts and dance for New York City’s 1.1 million school students.
DiBella was also looking to the future and how to continue Roundabout’s mission of nurturing young talent.
“My biggest concern was, how are we going to support these young people who have put their faith in us to write, to be trained and be part of this industry?” she said. “I was very concerned about the young people in that program, our actual students losing their connection to the work that feels so fulfilling to them. … Lots of education departments were just cut.”
Widespread unemployment and income instability spread throughout the community. Loss of jobs, for many, meant loss of insurance, a worry that Lavalle and Boniello shared. The couple lost their coverage — hers through the Screen Actors Guild, his through the Actors Equity Association — on the same day. After calling the Actors Fund for guidance, they purchased a plan through the Affordable Care Act.
Originally, the plan was to shut down Broadway until mid-April 2020. Then September 2020. Then May 2021. When an official reopening date of September 14, 2021 was announced, theater workers and lovers celebrated — cautiously. For many, it felt like they were going home.
“I was so very, very, very excited,” Maxwell said. “I had been missing so much about the Broadway experience and was so pumped to be going back. I have been working theater professionally since college, so I had felt like a limb was cut off over the pandemic.”
Reep’s return to the theater for a two-show day was an emotional one. Having worked on “Wicked” and “Hamilton,” she was invited to both dress rehearsals, and she was overwhelmed at seeing her friends and colleagues in theater aisles again.
“It felt like you had to touch everybody to have confirmation that we had made it through this hideous time,” she recalled. “The act of being in the theater and just having that communal experience again hits a bit differently.”
While it’s back to work, it’s not back to normal for theater professionals. Testing protocols have been established, masks are mandated backstage and in audiences, and actors no longer greet their fans at the stage door after the show.
“Getting swabbed multiple times a week is not my favorite thing,” Reep said, “but it’s amazing to be back at work and feeling safe doing this. Everyone I work with is vaccinated, all the audience members are vaccinated. Even though I don’t love walking up and down the stairs with an N95 [mask] on, it’s so worth it to be able to do what we do and not be scared.”
Backstage, at “Caroline, or Change,” Bolotsky continues to care for the safety and well-being of young actors during a difficult time while also ensuring they don’t go onstage while wearing a mask.
“Every day is different, especially in a pandemic,” she said. “Emotions run wild all the time, so it’s really important for me to really get on [the children’s] level and make sure that they’re ready to go for the show every day.”
For Bullard, the joy of reopening “Aladdin” was twofold — September 28, 2021 was his Broadway debut — but the joy was short-lived. Some cast members had tested positive the day of the reopening, and the following day the show was canceled with continued positive cases detected. It was a bizarre experience, Bullard said.
“We had just started to gain a sense of community,” he said.
The show soon reopened, but many other productions have since canceled performances when cases have been detected.
Pittman is still waiting to make her Broadway debut. Originally booked to star as Roxie in “Chicago” in August 2020, she has found herself without a confirmed start date, but the Wagner alumna has remained focused on the bigger picture.
“The entire world is going through so much,” Pittman said. “The last thing I’m worried about is making my Broadway debut. I’m worried about how can we make sure everyone’s safe and how can we make sure that we can get back to our business in a safe manner.”
By the time Pittman does step into the spotlight, the industry may look different. The Black Lives Matter protests for racial justice and police reform that followed the death of George Floyd echoed within the theater community as calls for more diversity, equity and representation drove conversations both online and in person.
The “general vibe” had changed, not just at “Moulin Rouge!” but throughout the industry, Maxwell observed.
“I think there’s a lot of harsh realities of working in theater that were difficult to return to: the hours, the personalities, the ancient white patriarchal power structure that we all have been grinning and bearing for far too long,” Maxwell said. “When you take a long break from all of that, the calluses you had spent decades building up to be able to keep pushing yourself through those things get broken down, and those things feel much more difficult to keep dealing with.”
Moving the conversations forward and really affecting change will take time, Pittman said, adding that she hopes the industry will continue to sustain this momentum.
“I’m really grateful that we are being reflective and conversations are being had and people are getting the parts they deserve and people are finally being seen and put to the forefront where they have worked so hard to be,” Pittman said. “I do hope that it is actually a conversation that is going to be continually ingrained in creative processes moving forward — not just a one-liner, but the whole play.” Some ripple effects have already been seen and heard in “Caroline, or Change,” a musical chronicling the experience of a Black woman who works as a maid for a Jewish family whose personal experiences are framed by the political change brewing within the country, including the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“The pandemic really shifted so much with the Black Lives Matter movement, social justice and all the relevant themes that happen in the show,” Bolotsky said. “It was like we came back and everyone was able to really dive into their characters even more, and into the storyline, and just be really thankful that we’re there every day — because you know that at any moment, anything can change.”
That ephemeral feeling makes Broadway’s reopening even more precious, Bolotsky said. What they had once taken for granted — gathering people together to create and enjoy art — was now seen as fragile and possibly fleeting.
“The closure, I think, really shook all of us to our core, to see that specifically the theater industry was so vulnerable to something like this,” Bullard said. “I think it was a time for a lot of reflection, for us to be like, ‘Is this a sustainable industry? Is this something that I want to pursue? How could this even happen? How could we do this safely?’ ”
With vaccines, and masks, and audience members’ love for theater, the industry’s recovery continues to move forward. And its workers will continue to create its magic.
“What’s so amazing about working in theater is that so much happens behind the scenes that no one witnesses from their seat in the audience — and that’s the magic and beauty of it all,” Bolotsky said. “Audience members get to see the incredible work done by the actors on the stage, all while (literally) hundreds of people are working together every single day to successfully run a show. And after almost two years of being shut down, everyone who is working is so grateful to have the opportunity to be back and be doing what they love to do.”
Want to know more about the illustrations for this story? Read “On the Cover” from this issue of Wagner Magazine!