BAO Fam Share: Boston Stage Actors Face Setbacks But Find Inspiration During Pandemic

By Shira Laucharoen for DigBoston

April 24, 2020


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“I’m concerned for the economic welfare and health of our artists, but I’m not afraid and not nervous about what creativity is actually taking place right now.”

Maiden Voyage was slated to take its first journey in May. The production, a play about an all-female patrol aboard a submarine, was scheduled to premiere at Boston Center for the Arts. Because of the coronavirus crisis, the show has been postponed, leaving its creative team to figure out how to move forward.

“It’s such a world of unknowns,” Louise Hamill, artistic director of Fresh Ink Theatre Company, the group behind Maiden Voyage, said in an interview. “I’m trying to make 10 different plans at the same time. It’s super hard, because even if everything goes to plan B, we already know we have to recast the show, because half of the actors already have previous summer commitments. We’re not moving on auditions for that until we know we are going to have a physical performance. Everything is backed up, and everything is unclear.”

Fresh Ink Theatre paid the actors from Maiden Voyage for participating in a March workshop, but having to postpone shows has been a setback to the theater company. Hamill said Fresh Ink anticipated that Maiden Voyage would be a big production, and expected it to generate significant revenue. The loss of the performance has had a financial impact, and also left actors and others who work in the industry without work and missing the human connection that is part of their craft.

“It’s tough,” Hamill said. “We’re in a medium where we find joy in being with each other and breathing the same air, and now, we can’t. So many of us are extroverts who feed off of it. Figuring out how to stay grounded in yourself, when you can’t do the thing you love to do, is tricky.”

Katie Grindeland, an actor based in Jamaica Plain, said that many performers have lost important sources of income. Many actors work multiple jobs, frequently in the service industry, and have had their work terminated as a result of the virus. Since graduating from college, Grindeland has often worked three to seven jobs at a time, holding positions as a nanny and as a standardized patient for medical students. Losing multiple gigs during the pandemic has been a significant blow, she said.

“It’s devastating. My whole life is a very delicate quilt,” Grindeland said. “I was really excited to be in all of these shows. My career has been taking up, and this just put a big stop on it. It’s hard for a lot of us, because we’re told that we have to capitalize on the things we love, in order for them to be worth doing. When you have actors who feel like they’re only valuable to society if they’re working or auditioning—it’s hard to feel that I have purpose.”

Some theater companies are trying to navigate the waters of the coronavirus by finding new ways of bringing their art to light, even while people are not able to congregate. Blair Nodelman, a marketing coordinator for Fresh Ink Theatre Company, has created a personal initiative called the Homesick Play Project. Using the Zoom, it will feature live streams of new theater works, giving playwrights the opportunity to have their work read aloud. The Homesick Play Project currently has three plays that will be performed virtually, including Nosferatu, the Vampyr written by M. Sloth Levine.

Meanwhile, other organizations have forged unique ways for people to access theater. Apollinaire Theatre Company has a project called Apollinaire at Home, an online play and film script-reading that members of the public can participate in. Boston Playwrights’ Theatre started the Boston Theater Marathon XXII: Special Zoom Edition, through which New England playwrights will read 10-minute scripts over Zoom. And ArtsEmerson launched Together Apart: Explore New Worlds From Your Home, a digital curation of previous performances, and is also hosting video conferences with artists. ArtsEmerson Artistic Director David Dower said he hopes the challenges brought by coronavirus may give people an occasion to find inspiration.

“Sometimes these dark moments are what bring out the light,” Dower said. “A lot of creativity and a lot of potential happens in times of crisis, as long as we are moving at a pace where we can hear what we’re supposed to be hearing for that change. I’m concerned for the economic welfare and health of our artists, but I’m not afraid and not nervous about what creativity is actually taking place right now. …There’s a lot of activity and a lot of energy moving in this moment, to see what comes out on the other side.”

Others noted that recovery from the virus may be a difficult and convoluted process. It will take time before audiences are prepared to gather and especially sit in the same room. Hamill said the arts will “come back in a different way,” and will likely lose some people on the way. Grindeland predicted that it will get harder for new voices in theater to be featured—she anticipates that companies will fall back on safer, more reliable and nostalgic choices—but said the need for theater will always be there.

“A lot of things are being exposed and talked about more than they usually are in society,” Grindeland said. “I think people are hungry for humanness. I think that’s something that’s really unique to theater. It’s an experience you can only get, sitting in this sacred space alone with a hundred other people in the dark, watching something that can never be the same again. We’re going to need art and the live arts, in particular, to process what’s happening.”

This article is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism’s Pandemic Democracy Project. To support independent journalism at this critical moment, visit givetobinj.org and make a contribution.