Updated: Sep 13, 2020
It’s happening all over the entertainment industry, especially live performance, where the economic ties and the corona-virus pandemic has hit very hard. Stagehands who have been in the business since their teenage days are looking at early retirement, while others not necessarily born into it are struggling with what to do next: transition? Having only worked in mostly one industry for several decades makes the idea of switching careers at 50 years old, more or less, seem beyond daunting. How do you re-market skills that unique to the business? Many in the live performance business are asking these questions at this turning point. Broadway, filming, and live concerts in the city remain shut down pending a credible, globally supported vaccine (think tourism dollars), or subject to very minimal staffing. Every time someone like Ariana Grande or Lady Gaga go on tour, they employ hundreds of people who are out of work. No quick changes, set lifts, flying or lighting going on with the virtual concerts going on.
As a union based business, each union group is doing what they can to support their actors, stage managers, wardrobe, front of house staff, cleaning staff, box office workers, musicians and stagehands. All these unions cross paths during a typical live performance day, not including the thousands of dollars that each of these hundreds of people spend before, during, and after performances on food and drink. Yes, patrons also contribute to New York City’s midtown west economy too, but the local bodegas and bars receive daily patronage from all the Broadway and off-Broadway houses from 42nd to 54th streets.
No one drinks like a stagehand. Or an actor. Or a musician. Or a costumer. Or, like everyone working on a show. The eateries around each block feed the workers so much so, that everyone knows everyone by face at the very least. If you see Ming, owner of Starlite Deli, he’ll ask you where you are now if he hasn’t seen you for a while. Or, he’ll ask how your kids are, if you work across the street at Lion King. Behind the register is a wall of all his baseball caps featuring the show logos for the places he services for morning coffee; they often represent all the theater personnel that stop by daily. Sometimes twice on a two show day. He always has a show cap on his head, and he rotates them through. On the walls are show posters and theater notices, alongside the poster of the Naked Cowboy. The Naked Cowboy has known Ming for years.
Beyond midtown west, we come to the fashion district, also known as the garment district, which supplies the costume shops, wardrobe departments (for opera, theater, TV and film), and garment industry. They have also taken a substantial loss. This area covers 42nd street down to 34th street, where rehearsal studios for musicians, dance, shows and tours, can also be found, along with many repair shops and other backstage suppliers. They are juxtaposed between the myriad of dining options, fabric stores and notion supplies. Live performance and all the details that make up those live performances, directly impacts a substantial area of Manhattan’s economy. Essentially, from Columbus Circle to 34th street is suffering major economic losses, impacting thousands of workers.
Rumor has it that live performance won’t return until there’s a globally accepted vaccine by the World Health Organization. Imagine tourists from around the world in Times Square, un-vaccinated converging to see a Broadway show or squeezing into the Jazz Standard in the West Village. Estimates say a possible start up summer 2021, with life “back to normal” around 2022-2023. These numbers are daunting to lifers of the industry, and reinventing the wheel is being spoken aloud more and more. Some are doing virtual coaching, back stage tours, and other web-based ideas featuring performers and crafting. Talk about a niche market. For the rest, it will be going back to school to shift into what will soon be the “new normal”, which includes parts of the old, pre-pandemic life, but lots of new, post-pandemic realities.
To be honest, many of the changes could only happen during a global shutdown, such as addressing the substantial pay-parity between men, women and people of color, and the systemic racism that permeates the business down to its core. To those privileged enough to get to see what live performance will look like behind the scenes in two years… oh to be a fly on the wall.
© Isabel Alvear, September 2020