When thinking about the closure of Broadway in New York City, you might consider Alexander Hamilton, Elsa, Evan Hansen, or Elphaba, but what about all those working behind the scenes to ensure the magic of live theatre?
On Thursday, March 12, 2020, Governor Andrew Cuomo directed theatres to suspend all performances, which has now been extended through May 2021.
From janitors to box office workers, choreographers to carpenters, ushers to marketing directors, Broadway employs more than just those onstage.
“I was flying back from San Francisco, and when I got home I lost my entire year of booked events within three days. It was gone,” said Kate Dial, former Broadway stage manager. “We have a mortgage, we have a 2-year-old, and we lost everything at once.”
Dial and her husband both started their careers on Broadway – her as a stage manager and him as a production audio technician. Dial had just begun switching from stage managing live theatre to corporate events in order to spend more time with her now 2-year-old child.
According to The Broadway League, Broadway grossed over $1.8 billion in 2019, bringing thirty-eight new productions to stage. During the 2018-2019 season, the Broadway industry supported 96,000 jobs.
“The theatres being closed is not just a theatre problem. It’s an NYC restaurant, bar, and cafe problem because not only are all of the workers going to different restaurants on break or going to different bars after a show, you also have the audiences coming in who filled those hotels around Times Square and filled those restaurants in between, after, and before shows,” said Ashley Cudney, a former head usher of an Off-Broadway theatre.
Will Broadway Come Back to New York City?
With live theatre shut down for the foreseeable future, its employees have had to find other creative sources of income like starting small businesses, offering online classes, or working at local restaurants.
For Ashley Kristeen Vega, it meant trying to adapt to producing, directing, and acting from her bedroom in Washington Heights. During the pandemic, Vega co-founded Party Claw Productions, a new media production company, with her colleague Laura Kay (click here to donate to their future projects).
Vega claims doing a 50-minute piece solo in her apartment surprisingly left her feeling more drained than she would’ve been in what she calls “the before times.” The energy given by a live theatre audience is a difficult thing to replicate.
“You’re giving absolutely everything and receiving nothing in return,” said Vega. “It’s just me on a screen. Throughout the run, I realized I need to save a little energy for myself because I would finish the show, close my computer, and just sit on the floor for half an hour.”
While Vega exhausts herself constantly working on creative projects from home, other theatre employees struggle to find work at all in an industry where getting hired is never assured. And even if it is, the pay is scarce and sometimes nonexistent.
This past year the Flea Theater, a prominent Off-Off-Broadway company, faced backlash for failing to pay artists along with numerous accusations of racism, sexism, and overall abuse. After making a statement vowing to begin paying their artists, the theater canceled their emerging artists program, leaving those they said they would pay – actors, playwrights, directors – unemployed.
“I think for the rest of the country, they think ‘Oh the shows are closed down. That’s not that big of a deal.’ But they don’t understand that it’s a huge industry that employs so many people,” said Cudney. “I think the highest stake is people’s livelihoods. For those shows that closed permanently already – those are just jobs lost..”
New York Broadway has a few silver linings
Actor and singer Carla Angeline Mongado chose to find the silver lining between all the Covid devastation and support another important cause.
After singing on a cast album for the (what was supposed to be upcoming) show Platinum Girls, Mongado began sewing masks to generate income during the pandemic. The masks slowly turned into her small business Hiraya by Carla. “Hiraya” translates to “a vision” in Tagalog.
“I think for the rest of the country, they think ‘Oh the shows are closed down. That’s not that big of a deal.’ But they don’t understand that it’s a huge industry that employs so many people,Ashley Cudney, former head usher of an Off-Broadway theatre.
Eventually, when the Black Lives Matter movement started to kick up during quarantine, Mongado began making protest masks for people to feel secure leaving their homes to join the cause.
“I really put my heart into it,” said Mongado. “I’m not just gonna make a mask, this has gotta be something. That’s where I think being an artist kicks in. We did the Black Lives Matter mask in solidarity for all the different cultures that really believe this was one of the most important moments for the movement.”
Dianna Blaylock worked as an usher for an Off-Broadway theatre when the Covid pandemic hit. Blaylock also worked at merchandise sales and is a part of the Screen Actors Guild for the acting work she’s done.
Blaylock describes the live theatre communal energy that she misses most.
“I love getting to share my love of theatre with other people. Be it someone coming to their very first show – like the high school kids who get so rowdy and hyped. That’s it’s own special moment. Or maybe it’s that one older patron who comes in who’s seen every show that we have and saw whatever monumental show – maybe Chorus Line back in the 70s – and they have to tell you all about it. All of those experiences – I love every second of it. It’s that communal aspect that I love.”
What will the future of New York’s Broadway look like?
As far as the future of live theatre in New York, many of its former employees worry about the number of jobs and the accessibility of shows for those with lower incomes.
Many Broadway and Off-Broadway theatres in the city feature different ways to score tickets for cheap, including lotteries and high school educational programs. With the industry losing money every day the house lights stay down, employees worry about the future of Broadway’s accessibility to the general public.
According to The Broadway League, the average household income for a Broadway theatergoer in the 2018-2019 season was $261,000, more than twice the $71,855 median household income for New Yorkers.
“I feel like it will become a money thing about who can afford to go,” said Dial. “And it is sad because there were so many different endeavors and cool reach-out opportunities that were being incorporated more. I also fear there’s going to be fewer shows, so less work for people. I think the shows that come back first are going to be the ones with the most money – so the Disney shows will come back because they’ve bought out the buildings next door and created Covid entryways. They can afford to have every other seat empty, whereas some shows can’t.”
Although many former Broadway employees fear the uncertainty Covid-19 continues to bring the community, some holdout hope to soon be able to bring the magic of live theatre to audiences once again.
The average household income for a Broadway theatergoer in the 2018-2019 season was $261,000, more than twice the $71,855 median household income for New Yorkers.
“There’s just an unspoken energy between you and the audience,” said Vega when asked what she misses most about live theatre. “They’re excited to be there. You’re excited to be there. And that’s just a very difficult thing to replicate.”
“We really lost a lot of the essence of theatre,” said Mongado. “The question of can we go back or will it ever be the same again – honestly I don’t know, but I’m hopeful.”
Whether you’re an avid theatergoer or someone who just watched The Prom for the first time on Netflix, now is the time to support both local and Broadway theatre! Click here to find ways to support artists and industry employees. Click here to find ways to support artists and industry employees.
Hopefully, by this time next year, we’ll all be able to sit in on our favorite show (while glaring at those who decide to open their M&M’s right in the middle of a monologue).