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Some were working on scenes for the end-of-year showcase, picking out characters that would display their hard-won skills to agents and casting directors. Some were rehearsing plays, ready for the brightest spotlight of their three years in drama school. About-to-graduate playwrights had premieres on the brink of opening; directors had their staging plans in place. And then March happened, and one after the other, each opportunity went dark, like the hall lights going out in a horror movie — thunk, thunk, thunk.
The topsy-turvy economics of an MFA in theater all hinge on the final spring semester. Only the stage-besotted and the reckless and the rich get performance MFAs to begin with: No one sane would live for years on loans, paying law-school prices to train for a job that has, historically, leaned heavily on unemployment insurance. To learn your art, you get your head down for three (or two) years, focusing on radical vulnerability, your spinal alignment, your mask-and-clowning skills, your Shakespeare class. Or you do until March of your final year, when suddenly you look up to find you are about to enter an industry. In the best of times, theater is a career built out of rejection and slush piles and invisible toiling, and so arts programs produce new-work festivals and acting showcases to draw the world’s momentary attention to their graduates just as they launch. At least, they did.
One of Yale’s grad acting students, Eli Pauley, was sitting in her apartment quarantine this week in New Haven, simultaneously sheltering in place and completing her degree. There had been a little flurry of discussion in the first days of the crisis — she and playwright Noah Diaz had thought about driving cross-country to their midwestern homes — but most Yale School of Drama students I spoke to had decided to stay in town. Yale has quite a plum arrangement, in which second-semester third-years no longer have classes, just one-on-one tutorials in voice and the occasional session on Alexander Technique. All second-semester guns are supposed to be brought to bear on the showcase. Yale also had the resources to hit the coronavirus ground running. “We got back from spring break,” she says, “and went straight into Zoom classes. That speed proved really overwhelming for a lot of classmates,” says Pauley. “For me, I felt suspended. In acting school, you’re on this curated journey of growth, in which you split open and then reintegrate, a process that doesn’t really finish until a year after you graduate. So we’re emotionally suspended wherever school left you.”
Drama students know they are lucky. For the most part, they don’t have kids. They don’t feel unemployed because many didn’t expect to have jobs this semester. Some of them, like Yalie Dario Ladani Sanchez, can still go home, where “my mother, who is a bit of a mama bear,” can provide shelter. (He did see the theatrical collapse close-up, though: On March 12, he was with members of the original British cast of Six, all dressed to the nines, when the text messages started rolling in telling them that the show’s Broadway opening night was canceled.) For the next few months, at least, academic institutions, with their massive infrastructures, are ready to take care of the students — there are Zoom classes, Dean’s Forums so everyone can air concerns, compassionate faculty, financial aid offices. In fact, the more I talked to them, the more I wished that outside life were more like graduate school, with big administrative structures weaving their tender basketwork around me. I stared out the window for a while before I realized I was fantasizing about Sweden.
But the loss of the showcase is, within this world, titanic. At Yale, gears are moving to convert the event into a filmed version, and everyone I spoke to was busily finding scenes that would work onscreen. Doireann Mac Mahon, who is from Dublin, is still in New Haven because it’s safest to stay put. She’s a little rueful at the choice to live alone (“it seemed like a good idea at the time”), and she was relying on her rigorous early violin training to give herself a sense of structure and forward movement when all “promise of performance” is gone. “I’m just trying to do as much as I can, working on dialects and accents, practicing self-taping, trying to justify the decision to stay,” Mac Mahon says. Her secret to combat loneliness is an app called Runkeeper, which you can listen to while you exercise six feet away from everyone. “A lady called Erin talks to you in your headphones, saying ‘You’re doing such a good job!’” she says. Mac Mahon thinks of Erin as a friend.
International students like Mac Mahon are in a particular bind, since the typical structure of a student visa includes a conversion that allows the graduate to get work experience (occupational practical training) in the States — for only one year after they graduate. That’s the crucial make-or-break window; either you find a way to convert that into another visa or you have to leave. Brazilian filmmaker and director Danilo Gambini is grieving the loss of the student-playwright Carlotta Festival at Yale, partly for the loss of collaboration. But he’s also feeling the sharp edge of losing one of his only public-facing productions, since the clock is ticking. How will he get a job if no one has seen him direct? And can he get work experience if the industry is still closed? “There are always,” he says, talking about his immigrant experience in the U.S., “the complications, the lawyers’ fees, the xenophobia, the microaggressions. I knew about those. I never thought it was going to be easy — I just didn’t think it would be this hard.”
Some are battling existential fears, even as Yale hustles to keep them in training. Says Sanchez, “I personally have not always felt very interested in being an artist! I don’t care about dropping my breath and releasing my spine, you know?” And while his classmate Anula Navlekar is extremely busy by third-year standards — workshopping a Nikhil Mahapatra play for the Gingold Theatrical Group in New York, taping a poem for a friend’s Instagram, and auditioning for film and television back home in India — “to be honest, it’s made me worry about life in general,” she says. “I don’t care about acting at the moment! I want to take a pause, take into account where I am, things like family.” Playwright Diaz is less diplomatic. “It’s bleak, bitch, it’s dark! Honestly, is the industry crumbled? Is it coming back? We’re assuming that the ’20–’21 season, should that happen, is kind of a wash for us, so we will have to spend the year reconfiguring our place in the industry. Will a launch out of Yale have impact by then?”
Let’s be real: A launch out of Yale is always going to matter. Catastrophes tend to increase competition for resources, and this may well further benefit those at the top programs, like Yale, NYU, and Juilliard. Agents and casting directors are already reaching out individually to people in these programs, and cruel as the divisions already are, they might now grow more extreme. Amaia Arana, a third-year at NYU, lives with her fiancé, Mike Magliocca, who is finishing his own two-year graduate acting program at Brooklyn College, which is part of the CUNY system. The difference in their two experiences is stark. Arana is taking Zoom meetings with agents and working out, spending the rest of her time painting her apartment (a lovely smoky blue) and turning a closet into a reading nook. The experience has made her fall a little more in love with the theater: “This incredible community of New Yorkers translates to our industry,” she marvels. “More doors are open because of the crisis; people feel for you. We’re artists in an industry of workaholics who love what they do. So while it’s scary, now seeing people come out and say, ‘Hey, would you like to put yourself on tape for us?’ feels heartening.” Magliocca, on the other hand, is still teaching, still taking classes, and teaching an undergraduate scene study course himself. “We don’t have the institutional structure of having people whose job it is to hook us up,” he says. “That falls on the students. We fund our own showcase — and that’s the underdog nature of city schools, but it is exhausting.” On the individual level, many of his professors have stepped up; he’s particularly grateful to the actress-teacher Welker White, who has put her whole contact list at their disposal. But the class is also reeling from actual, devastating loss: The beloved New York actor Mark Blum was their acting teacher, and he died from COVID-19 in March.
Real grief needed real joy to counter it, so Amana and Magliocca got engaged four days into social isolation. They are living on loans; they’re not sure what their lives will be. “But we got into a conversation about: How do we keep life going during this?” says Magliocca, “and I realized: Life does not get less crazy, it just gets crazier until you die.” So he sprung the ring on her. “We had just watched Uncut Gems,” he cries. “It inspired me.” They’re now in bliss. But what do you do if your program isn’t as plush as Yale’s or NYU’s — or you’re not planning a wedding?
If you’re Lindsey Steinert, acting class of 2020 at Brown/Trinity in Providence, you’re adrift. “The last I heard,” she says, “was about two weeks ago. The head of our program emailed us to say we’d shoot a multi-camera showcase to be distributed later.” But while the goal is to bring everyone back to Providence, there’s no guarantee that will be possible. The Yale students seemed to be mainly sticking around, but the Brown actors had dispersed (Steinert was in Boston). And the loss of the physical showcase was still hitting her, hard, day after day. “That was a big part of the reason I came to grad school,” she says. “I had been auditioning in New York; I had been trying to make connections with agents and managers, but I hadn’t been able to on my own. Now there’s no work, and I’m back to square one — being judged on my headshot. Anyone can look at a headshot. I’ve worked in casting offices and watched them get the showcase booklet of photos and just … throw it out.”
“As much as I wish I could be angry at my institution,” Steinert says, “I think they are doing all that they can. That unfortunately isn’t a lot — we’re not in New York.” Her class is having industry information sessions on Zoom, though the outreach hasn’t been as assiduous from agents as it is reportedly at Yale and NYU. But Brown is one of the first MFA acting programs in the country to be tuition-free, and it’s been forthcoming with financial aid and stipends. So at least she does have the freedom to spend her days on the online casting resource Actors Access, submitting for the few projects that are left and watching “The 24 Hour Plays: Viral Monologues.” “I would still choose to go to Brown/Trinity,” she says, “because when I look at myself as an artist coming into Brown and now — it’s such a different person.”
And occasionally, when life strafes you with lemons, there’s a tiny bit of lemonade on the bounce. The undergraduate musical theater program at the College-Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati had its New York showcase canceled, just like everybody else. That sounds bad; the CCM program wasn’t on that list of high-profile schools that’s likely to get proactive agent attention. But Chris Blem and Victoria Cook (founders of the creative-consultant firm The Network), and actor-slash-web-designer Joe Chisholm heard about the cancelation and thought they might be able to help. All three were 2012 graduates of the program, and they remembered how crucial showcase had been to their careers, so they built the class an online version. A far-thinking professor had asked a professional videographer to film the showcase scenes even before the shutdown, so in a week, they’ve been able to mount “a showcase minus the live element,” Blem says. Since their launch, they’ve already had responses for meetings and positive comments from agents, who say the online portal has let them get to know the students better. “It has made it seem like it was planned all along,” Clem says. We laughed together warmly. Plans! The concept seemed like an echo from a distant age.