It goes without saying that the theater industry has been particularly hard hit by the coronavirus pandemic. But stage folk have never been known to let a crisis get them down, and with New York productions shuttered through at least early June, those who work behind the scenes on Broadway shows—from designers to wardrobe supervisors to stagehands—are finding creative and charitable ways to put their unexpected spare time to use.
Many are providing direct assistance to those on the front lines of the fight against COVID-19. As part of a national initiative overseen by the Theatrical Wardrobe Union, for instance, Local 764 of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees has been making masks and protective gear for health care workers and civilians. Melissa Joy Crawford, production wardrobe supervisor for Come From Away, has been working with the volunteer-run group Relief Crafters of America since wildfires erupted in Australia last fall. Recently, her focus has shifted in part to making “small attachments for the masks, so the ears won’t be rubbed raw from the elastic.”
Molly Braverman, an assistant stage manager on Wicked and director of the Broadway Green Alliance, has been helping coordinate mask creation while working with the hit musical’s veteran company manager Susan Sampliner to sustain online engagement in BGA. The organization has been encouraging a “green quarantine” (#GreenQuarantine), Braverman notes, through “twice-weekly virtual learning sessions, which are free,” focusing on topics ranging from stress management during self-isolation to eliminating the use of plastic in the theater.
The Broadway Green Alliance also participated in an Earth Day Initiative virtual celebration on April 19, lining up performers such as Beth Malone, James Snyder and the cast of Jagged Little Pill to “join throughout the day, helping everyone stay centered and resilient,” Braverman says. And BGA collaborated with Hamilton alum Javier Muñoz and Open Jar Studios to establish the Broadway Relief Project, which involves members of the Broadway community in sewing personal protective equipment, particularly surgical gowns, for medical workers. “It’s one of countless heartwarming initiatives,” says Braverman.
Sampliner offers another great example of people in the theater community coming together during the COVID blackout: Winzer Cleaners, “which works with most of the shows on Broadway,” has been working with the wardrobe union and B&J Fabrics, another regular Broadway supplier, so that “vans they normally use to pick up and deliver costumes are being used to pick up masks and gowns and bring them to hospitals.”
Euroco Costumes, which counts Moulin Rouge! The Musical, Mrs. Doubtfire and Marianne Elliott-helmed Company among its clients, has been working with Open Jar to provide more hospital gowns and masks. Euroco owner Janet Bloor has been “toying with the idea” of designing masks for theater fans pegged specifically to certain productions. “I don’t know if people would want to pay a premium for a COVID mask,” Bloor allows. “But if we’re going to be wearing them for a while, maybe a [Moulin Rouge!] fan would like a can-can mask with a little orange frill, made of scraps from the show.”
Tony Award-winning set designer Derek McLane, whose current projects include Moulin Rouge! and the upcoming MJ The Musical is using this time to improve his skills. Before developing a mild case of COVID-19 himself, McLane had begun to re-explore painting, an interest he’d dabbled in before. “Painting is unrelated to set design, but I’d talked for years and years about doing it,” he says. “The minute the theaters shut down, I asked myself, what is it that I’ve always said I’ve wanted to do?”
Since recovering, McLane has been juggling whatever work he’s able to do at home with everything from landscapes to portraits of his two cats. “No one can tell them apart,” he quips. “A lot of what I’m painting right now is just stuff that makes me happy. A lot of the set design I do is darker, but it’s such a dark, anxiety-ridden time as is.”
For electrician Jessica Morton, who was working on the revival of Caroline, Or Change at Studio 54 when theaters went dark—right before previews of the production, now postponed to the fall, were scheduled to begin—the break has provided an opportunity to work on a house that she and her husband and fellow stagehand Tom Goehring bought in northern New Jersey, which Morton cheekily describes as “a long-term construction project.”
Like McLane, Morton and Goehring—a flyman and carpenter at Studio 54, responsible for flying scenery and overhead rigging as well as building and installing scenery—were both infected by the coronavirus, though the former says her only symptom was a loss of sense of smell. Once Goehring’s fever, cough and chills subsided, they began applying their professional prowess to tasks that might challenge other homeowners, such as installing a new bathroom sink and countertops. “We also had an Easter game on Zoom, where we caught up with two other electricians on Caroline, or Change and a bunch of other stagehands who have worked at Studio 54 on and off,” Morton reports. They played Cards Against Humanity, “which is wildly inappropriate but very, very funny.”
Morton is hoping that testing for antibody levels among those who have endured COVID-19 becomes more readily available, “because I really want to volunteer at food banks and soup kitchens.” For now, like others in her community, she is finding ways to stay connected, imaginative and useful, and as positive-minded as possible.
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