This article is the first in a series titled Ghost Lights: theater in the time of Covid-19.
Following her 2020 graduation from Arizona State University’s musical theater program, Kait Russell had plans to pick up her life and move across the country with her boyfriend to pursue her lifelong dream of becoming a stage actress, in the heart of musical theater worldwide: New York City.
She had completed her four-year degree program, which was culminating in the program’s New York City showcase: a week of performances, held by many drama schools, demonstrating new graduates’ skills to agents, casting directors, and producers who might be enticed to represent or hire a school’s latest crop of alumni.
During her New York City showcase, Russell won the interest of an agent who got Russell her first-ever audition for a Broadway musical. But while preparing for it, she received a phone call that changed everything. “ ‘Broadway is shutting down,’ ” she said her agent told her. “ ‘We can’t keep your audition.’ ”
A few hours later, the coronavirus pandemic had forced the closing of every Broadway theater. Audiences could no longer share the same physical space. Live performances were brought to a startling halt. Shows were cancelled, profits plummeted, and for the first time since its debut performances in 1750, Broadway was utterly dark. For the people in the theater industry across the nation, that meant no more showcasing of their craft, and the halt of their careers. With 96 percent of the live-performance industry unemployed, furloughed, or receiving only 10 percent of their typical pay, the economic effects of Covid-19 on the theater industry are some of the harshest nationwide.
Russell’s focus shifted from pursuing a successful professional life in New York to leaving the infected city as soon as possible, and all she could do was watch as her dreams started to crumble.
“It was truly, if I’m being super vulnerable and candid, probably the most heartbreaking thing that I have ever been through,” Russell said. “I felt like I was making so much progress, and I was, towards the biggest, and only dream I’ve ever really had. And then it was so wildly snatched from me. It’s not like I broke my leg – the world stopped, and there were no ifs, ands or buts about it. It was just over.”
“When I came home from New York, I just stopped singing,” Russell said. “And I haven’t sung, because I cry when I sing. Musical theater, in general for me right now, is just very triggering for me.” While working through the grief of her industry shutting down, Russell turned to part-time, sporadic work to make a living.
She found there was little support from industry leaders as theater artists as a whole were suddenly facing no work and no pay, while a rapidly spreading virus took hold in exactly the kinds of environments that theater aimed to create: packed houses of people sitting shoulder to shoulder while those onstage forcefully spoke and sang into the air that everyone in the auditorium was breathing.
The jobs of theater professionals are not likely to reappear until a vaccine has been created, and theaters can open safely. Yet, keeping a positive outlook has helped theater graduates like Kait get through this barrier to their career.
“Just trying to approach it from a perspective of joy is helping me to find my way back to my first and only love in this life [musical theater],” Russell said.
Theater has been a love of mine since I was in fifth grade, so this topic hits close to home. I graduated in December 2019 with a degree in communication from Arizona State University, but I started with a double major in communication and musical theater. Although I ended up dropping the theater major to focus more on communication, I’ve stayed an active member of the theater community throughout my time in college and since graduation. Seeing my classmates, friends, and professors of all ages, at all points in their careers, being hit hard by the pandemic, breaks my heart. I knew that their stories had to be shared.
I reached out to Russell, who was one of my classmates while I was a part of the musical theater program at Arizona State University, and she relayed to me that she was in New York the day that Broadway shut down. Her story is just one in the thousands of recent theater graduates nationwide who are facing the same challenges. To be successful in this industry takes years of dedication and hard work. Actors must be extremely focused, and willing to put all their effort into seeing their success. Theater becomes their entire life, so having that taken away so quickly, with a recommencement unknown, is staggering. For Ghost Lights, I hope to explore the experiences that individuals within the theater industry are facing on a day-to-day basis as we work through this pandemic as a nation. Russell’s story is important. It provides a perspective on what so many people in the theater industry are experiencing. I hope the industry will reopen soon, so I can see Russell and her colleagues back onstage doing what they love – performing.
Cover image: Kait Russell playing Katherine Plumber in a Hale Center Theatre production of Newsies. Photo courtesy of Kait Russell.