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The Art of the Pivot: How Theater-Industry Workers Navigated the Pandemic

In March 2020, theater workers across the world were forced to scramble when their industry shut down. Here are some of the things they figured out.

Times Square
(© Tricia Baron)

Jim Joseph was watching TV at home in March 2020 when he saw the reveal at the bottom of the screen: Not only had an NBA game been canceled after players tested positive for Covid-19, but the rest of the season was in jeopardy, too.

Joseph, then the director of operations for the Alliance of Resident Theatres/New York (ART/NY), recalls looking at his wife and saying, "Broadway will be shut down by the end of the week."

Less than 24 hours later, his prediction came true. A monthlong hiatus to stop the spread of Covid-19 was announced by the Broadway League on March 12, but no one not even Aladdin's tap-dancing Genie – could have predicted that this would be the start of a theater industry shutdown that lasted more than 16 months.

Jim Joseph
(image provided by Jim Joseph)

Ali Kerner was in callbacks for a show just days before the shutdown. She describes being "shocked" by the news. "It was especially hard, as a career as a performer is so much more emotionally driven…and suddenly it was just gone."

Bronwyn Tarboton was performing as a swing in Frozen at the St. James Theatre when Broadway shut down. "They use their swings a lot, so I had been working there consistently for about six months," she said via email, further describing the situation as "pretty worrisome."

In a market where work is as inconsistent as the subway system, those who were lucky enough to have secure employment on Broadway were stopped dead in their tracks, and little did they know what would lie ahead.

These are just three of the countless stories of theater industry workers from around the country, and the world, who saw their lives and careers derailed by the pandemic. Broadway supported more than 96,000 local jobs during the 2018-19 season, according to a report published by the Broadway League. Extend that beyond New York to touring and regional houses and it's a significantly larger number. While the industry is slowly returning, there are still many people with question marks lingering as to when they'll be afforded an opportunity to return to their careers.

Of course, performers have been without a stage to call home. But also consider those people you never see in person. These theater-industry workers, like Joseph, whose daily runs of show are equally as integral to the onstage success as the actors, have also been displaced.

Joseph had given his notice at ART/NY. He was set to become the director of theater operations at the world-famous Apollo Theater on March 30. That never happened.

He received a phone call from an executive at the Apollo on March 28 rescinding the offer, citing a hiring freeze brought on by the pandemic. By that point, ART/NY couldn't reinstate his position, either. So Joseph found himself fully unemployed. The economic reality of the situation hit home quickly, as he, like so many other theater-industry workers, had rent and bills to pay.

The pivoting began. He looked at his transferable skills and started working to reinvent his résumé, and himself.

"That's when you realize that working almost 30 years doing something you love doesn't qualify you to do much of anything else," Joseph said with a laugh.

Kerner's pivot was both literal and metaphorical. She moved back home to Los Angeles and began working remotely for a small business doing marketing. But it wasn't an easy transition. "When I first got hired — although I am really loving my job — it was difficult to grapple with the fact that taking a full-time job in marketing meant it was going to be a long time until I was returning to a stage," Kerner said.

That reality is something many theater workers are still grappling with. As weeks turned to months, Joseph said, it became like " the stages of grief and mourning. There's denial, anger, depression, acceptance...I went through all those phases."

For some, like Kerner, pivoting has meant changing industries completely. Others got creative. Tarboton pivoted to trash. DIY-ing her apartment during her time away from Frozen has grown into a full-fledged venture. Tarboton's "highly curated trash," as she's deemed it, was born from her love of finding and repairing curbside items that otherwise would have been pummeled by trash trucks. And it's not just old picture frames and lamps. Some high-end items, like side tables and trunks, have sold for hundreds. To date, Tarboton has amassed more than 6,000 followers on her Instagram page, @nyctrashtotreasures, where she features her restored creations for sale.

Bronwyn Tarboton
(image provided by Bronwyn Tarboton)

"I had no idea that it would grow into something real, so it's been really fun to see how it's developed and how much people respond to it," Tarboton said. In many ways, it's not surprising to learn just how resilient theater-industry workers are. They carry on as they always have, hitting their marks and finding their light as they start along a different path.

But what happens now that theaters around the country are reopening? For Tarboton, it's back to pounding the pavement, both for a new performance gig (Frozen was one of Broadway's early Covid casualties) and for trash to refurbish. While excited that auditions have begun again, she has no plans to sideline her passion project. "I think our artistry can grow and expand into more areas than we realize," she said. "I found my inspiration in the garbage. Who knew?"

Kerner is on her first post-pandemic gig in North Carolina as an associate choreographer. While Covid protocols have challenged rehearsal-room norms, she's "incredibly happy" to be back. She maintains her full-time marketing job and says it's helped her appreciate her performance career more. Her other newfound passion? Ending the stigma associated with being a starving artist. "Performers are so incredibly resourceful, creative, intelligent, and hardworking," she said, "that there is no reason these jobs can't supplement pursuing performing."

As for Joseph, he had a stint as a location manager for a digital art gallery. In July, after fielding multiple offers, Joseph began a new position as director of operations for Second Stage Theater. Within days of starting, he was swept up in preparing to welcome audiences back for special benefit performances featuring Tony nominee Kate Baldwin, with a full season of shows on Broadway and off. "I'm really 100 percent right back at it," Joseph said.

And with any luck, more theater-industry workers will be right behind him, pivoting their way back, too.

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