It’s been two and a half months since Broadway started to look like an old, abandoned city: empty theaters with locked doors, marquees turned off, exposing the metal structure of those letters full of bulbs that usually shine brightly to catch the attention and to advertise the names and titles of shows that, according to Michael Paulon of the New York Times, in the last season generated an income of 1.8 billion dollars, with almost 15 million spectators.
But a pandemic doesn’t spare anyone and since March 12, 2020, everything has been closed and off for everybody’s safety. A few days ago, the President of the Broadway League, Charlotte St. Martin, announced the extension for the refund of all tickets bought up to September 7, Labor Day, but still no word about when walking a stage will be possible again.
What is perhaps most difficult to deal with is the fact that while on one hand we emphasize how important culture is to elevate human beings and make them more conscious, aware, rich and therefore also more just and wise and forward-looking, on the other hand all the activities that revolve around art and culture have been the first to be interrupted and will certainly be the last to resume, precisely because they need proximity and human contact. That’s a crucial paradox.
The problem doesn’t arise that much in the short term. Show business in fact, in terms of public enjoyment, has been able to reorganize itself quickly; many companies have made their archives available and on YouTube it is possible to find plays, ballets, concerts. Pay TV services, for some time now, represent an alternative to movie theaters. Today the web and the private homes of public figures have replaced theaters or the late night TV show’s studios or the stand up comedy clubs; even the big concert stages have turned into the living rooms of the artists that keep on performing from their homes.
But what will happen in the long term? Because, let’s be clear: pandemics end after a long period (the Swine flu lasted two years, the Asian, four) and we’re just barely into the third month of the lockdown.
Human beings, by nature, are not comfortable in the midst of doubt and uncertainty, they need reassurance and clear answers, possibly positive; all things which are impossible to guarantee during a pandemic, especially if this is managed in a different way by every country in the world.
It is impossible to determine what will happen to show biz, at least right now, because if it is true that past productions can be made available on all new means of communications, then what will happen to all the show business categories? How and when will it be possible to shoot a movie or perform a play? How will rehearsals work if proximity is dangerous? How do you put together an orchestra? How do you lift a ballerina? How do you set up a movie set? How do you kiss Romeo? How do insiders, left suspended, not doing their jobs and aware that they will be the last to go back to work, deal with the unknown?
In Italy the problem is huge: show business workers don’t have unions like the Americans, they don’t have any coverage, no refunds, no layoffs, no bonuses for VAT. In Italy they are desperate with nothing. Just recently a government decree has allocated a contribution of €600 (the same for the VAT) for show biz workers too. And in NYC what is their situation and prospects?
I talked about all this with two protagonists: a “young” actress and a well known actor and director with whom I tried to draw a picture of the present and future situations and from which all the uncertainty of the contingency emerges.
Amy Frances Quint is an American actress, born and raised in Rome until her adolescence and who moved to the States to start her career as an actress. She has her own theater company, Quattro Gatti, of which she is a co-founder, and she also belongs to the Shakespearian company Frog&Peach.
Amy, did you have any ongoing projects when the shutdown started?
“Well with the Frog&Peach we were rehearsing As You Like It and it should have opened on April 24 at the Sheen Center. We were in the middle of rehearsals in Times Square when all theaters shut down and suspended everything. Luckily the theater was able to entirely refund the rent money. It is of course disappointing, but we’re in a much better position than many other companies that manage their own spaces. Those are the companies that are suffering the most because they don’t have money to pay rent and wages, etc. It’s a heartbreaking situation”.
In Italy actors don’t have any coverage whatsoever right now. In NYC there are Unions instead, that recognize artists as they do all other workers so that they can now claim unemployment insurance. Are artists more protected here?
“Yes and no. Unemployment works for those who have a certain stability and certain wages because the subsidy is given according to your previous year’s income and it needs a certain continuity. But if you are a young actor performing in off off-Broadway shows or in small indie movies, if you work occasionally or, as it often happens here too, ‘off the books’ then you will never get it. The good news is that the Actors Equity Association, the Union for stage performers, has created the Curtain Up Fund to support the artists at risk because of the COVID-19”.
Do you have any projects with your companies that can be respectful of the necessary safety measures?
“Well yes, we are thinking about alternative ways to keep a relation with the audience. With Quattro Gatti we usually do original works not only for the stage, but also films and web series, and we work when we feel inspired, so our way of producing hasn’t changed that much. Instead, with the Frog&Peach we’re using Zoom to do interviews to introduce the actors, tell a little about the show we were working on, and then we perform a monologue or a scene that we post on Facebook so as not to lose all the work already done and the contact with the audience. There’s a lot to explore right now: the beauty of theater is the connection which is difficult to find in the virtual world. As human beings we need to socialize and create, and we are searching for alternatives for both the theater and the everyday life”.
The interruption of all artistic activities has an economic impact on society. Do you think that it will also have a cultural effect? Will the dynamic of theater and its deep meaning, based on sharing between artists and audience, change?
“Theater has already changed compared to the past because it is fluid and in constant mutation, but it can’t do so without the necessity of human contact, so I think that it will be back stronger than before because we miss people and we hope that people are missing theater so much to have such an explosive boom when everything will start again to help the recovery”.
Austin Pendleton (What’s up Doc?, My Cousin Vinnie) is an actor and director trained at the HB Studio where today he is an acting teacher. More than fifty years of his experience are narrated in the short bio documentary of 2016, Starring Austin Pendleton.
Mr. Pendleton, what does it mean to be an actor right now in NYC? What are their prospects, considering that this is definitely a long-term situation?
“Being an actor in NYC now means that maybe, if you’re lucky, you get asked to do some impromptu readings of plays on Zoom. Sometimes they ask you to rehearse once or twice for these, but more often they’re cold readings. Sometimes that’s exciting”.
How is an actor protected and supported in the US system?
“Actors’ Equity is working out complicated formulas for getting money to Equity actors these days. I can’t keep up with them. But I’m impressed”.
Can you imagine a different way to make art with social distancing involved and in a profitable way so as not to have the whole production machine paused indefinitely?
“In acting, Social Distancing seems to mean Zoom. Zoom is becoming a kind of art form. It has its limitations, but it works better than one could ever have predicted. So far, this never seems to involve payment of any kind. It does keep the machinery greased, though”.
You are also a teacher at HB Studios and in this very moment all instruction is arranged via internet. How does a lesson work online? Do you work with classes or individually? Is it harder? How much do you lose by not working in person and not having contacts?
“The classes have proceeded just as if they were being held in the classroom. People rehearse scenes on Zoom and present them on Zoom. If anybody had told me this would work I would’ve laughed, but it actually seems to work. I think maybe it works because the actors think of a scene as an event where two characters are metaphorically in different rooms, emotionally speaking, and the intention of each of them is to get the other person into the same room with them. Whatever, though. A lot of good work has been happening in the classes these past weeks”.
Do you have any personal or artistic projects during this pandemic?
“I have a lot of projects kind of percolating during this pandemic. One is to catch up on the huge number of emails that I’m getting. And to give friends of mine a shout-out, on a fairly regular basis. One is to do some playwriting, and first really get into the research that the different plays I have in mind would require. And one — the most important one — is to have a lot of time with my wife. We watch MSNBC every night from 9:00 to midnight, the whole lineup: Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O’Donnell, Brian Williams. Then from midnight to 1:00 am we watch two re-runs of Golden Girls. And the other hugely important one is to stay in touch, daily, with our daughter and her husband. Both of them are doctors. Both of them are in the hospitals dealing with COVID patients”.
The shutdown surely has an economic impact on society and that is the very first effect perceived. Does it, or will it, also have a cultural effect?
“The pandemic will totally have a huge cultural effect, but I have no idea what that will be”.
Do you think that this whole period will impact the deep sense and meaning of theater? Will it change its dynamic? Or is all this just temporary and everything will go back to the way it was?
“I have no idea of what it will go back to at all after all this is over. I have some utterly vague feeling that it will be something more simple and less elaborated than what we’ve had. I hope so. And I don’t even know specifically what I mean”.
Right now we cannot have any clear idea of what we are living through nor of what the future will look like. What is certain is that the human ability to react is historically proven, so there is hope that from this chaos new creativity will come to light, new inputs, new possibilities. And maybe a new interest will emerge, stronger than before, that will make art and culture even more necessary. Let’s hope so!