Kate Eastwood Norris and her husband Cody Nickell lost all their acting work in March, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced theaters to cancel performances. Since then, their only source of income has been Norris’ other job as a theater professor at Mary Baldwin University in Staunton, Virginia. Norris says her husband will soon have to find a job to help cover their mortgage and other expenses, or they could run into serious financial trouble.
“We’ll try and make it happen,” Norris says, “but we’re just budgeting the heck out of everything.”
Nine months after theaters in D.C. closed their doors, hundreds of theater professionals and their families are now facing a grim reality: Without more relief funding, many may soon lose their health insurance or be unable to make mortgage, rent, or other bill payments. And with little hope that theaters will reopen anytime soon, many creative professionals in D.C. are debating whether to leave the performing arts industry.
In early August, the Brookings Institution published a report revealing the devastating impact of COVID-19 on the “creative economy” in the United States. In their analysis, the authors estimated that, from April to July, creative industries, such as the fine and performing arts, design, advertising, publishing, and fashion, experienced 2.7 million job losses nationwide based on data provided by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the Bureau of Economic Analysis, and the Census Bureau, among others.
The authors also concluded that the COVID-19 crisis hit the fine and performing arts industries, including the visual arts, music, theater, and dance, the hardest, with those industries having suffered an estimated loss of 1.4 million jobs nationally as of July. In Washington, D.C., alone, the fine and performing arts industries experienced 62,000 cumulative job losses, according to the report.
“It was a time of great transition,” says Amy Austin, the president and CEO of theatreWashington and former publisher of Washington City Paper. “There were many people I talked to who had a year’s worth of work lined up that suddenly disappeared within a matter of weeks.”
Anticipating the closures, Austin’s organization raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to provide financial assistance to theater professionals who lost their jobs.
“Since late March, $342,281 was raised from the community, and 597 grants have been distributed to theater professionals,” Austin says. “Currently, we have over $100,000 remaining for distribution as we continue to fundraise with a new goal of $500,000.”
Many theater professionals say theatreWashington’s “Taking Care COVID-19 Emergency Relief Fund” grants helped them, especially between March and July, when they were still waiting to receive unemployment.
“I got a $500 ‘Taking Care of our Own’ grant in the first couple of weeks of this,” says Susan Rome, who, like Norris and Nickell, lost all her acting work earlier this year. “That first round of grants I received really helped me until unemployment started to come through.”
Rome, 56, lives in Baltimore and was working at Signature Theatre in Arlington, playing the part of Marian in Easy Women Smoking Cigarettes. But on Friday, March 13, Signature canceled all performances through the end of March, ending Rome’s show 20 performances early.
On the same day, Rome was also let go from her part-time teaching job at Baltimore School for the Arts.
“I’m feeling just a general sense of loss and grief,” she says.
During those first few weeks without any income, Rome says she was scrambling to apply for grants to make ends meet. It took a month for her to start receiving unemployment benefits after her last day of work on March 13. When she eventually did begin to receive unemployment in April, she says it was a lifeline.
“My car insurance and my property tax came due in June,” she says. “I wouldn’t have been able to pay either one.”
For many theater professionals in the D.C. area, the federal CARES Act was crucial to keeping their heads above water. The extra $600 a week in unemployment benefits allowed individuals and families to pay essential bills while the country was shut down.
“It definitely gave me hope that I might be able to hang in there,” says Zachary Borovay, 46, a projection designer based in D.C.
Borovay and his wife spent a significant portion of their life savings buying a house in Silver Spring six months before the coronavirus shut down the country. Borovay had freelance work lined up for the next few years, which he thought would be able to replenish those savings—the timing felt right. Now, Borovay has to rely on unemployment checks and his wife’s income to pay their mortgage and other important bills.
But getting unemployment was anything but straightforward. Borovay, Rome, and Norris all had to enlist the help of their state and federal representatives to start receiving their benefits.
“I think there was a lot of confusion between the federal government and the state as to how it was supposed to work,” Borovay says.
Theater professionals in the performing arts are typically independent contractors and sometimes their work takes them all over the country. Borovay says that, for this reason, it took more than three months to start receiving his benefits.
Norris, on the other hand, says she and her husband, after months of trying, never received any unemployment benefits.
“We tried and failed in the sense that it seemed impossible to get through the system,” said Norris.
For Borovay, Rome, and countless others in the performing arts industry, the CARES Act was vital. But unemployment benefits have run out, and the focus now is to try and find work.
“I think that the majority of the people I know that work in theater … have this very specific skill set that is perfectly suited for theater and allows them to excel and be successful in theater, but is not translatable to a non-live entertainment job,” Borovay says.
After 20 years of working as a projection designer, Borovay says he has had to look for work outside of his field. So far, Borovay says he has been hard-pressed to find anything that suits his skill set, and he’s not alone.
“Pretty much every job I’ve applied for in the last four or five months has been outside the industry,” says Michael Donnay, who lost all his work as a freelance stage manager in March. “There are more people looking for work than there are jobs available.”
Donnay, 26, was working as a stage manager for Actors Theatre of Louisville during the Humana Festival of New American Plays when the festival was canceled in late March. Donnay decided to sublet his apartment in D.C. and move back to Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, to live with his parents. After six months at home, Donnay found a temporary job in D.C. through a hiring agency. Donnay says it was not an easy process, and many people he knows have not been able to find work.
“Competing with everyone else who’s also lost work and is trying to find a job, I think, makes it a particularly challenging moment for people to be making that transition,” he says.
Donnay is not alone. Many theater professionals have weighed trying to find another career path versus sticking it out. It’s challenging to make the transition, and even when theater professionals have been able to do it, the outcome isn’t always better.
For example, after Rome was let go from her teaching job in March, she was rehired, but only part time.
“What I’m doing to survive now is teaching 11 periods a week at Baltimore School for the Arts,” she says. “I think I’ve got four different classes that I teach, but I’m making less than half of what I was making on unemployment.”
Rome is glad to have work and finds it psychologically helpful to have some structure in her life. But she is looking at other ways to generate more income besides teaching.
“My income from teaching is not tenable,” she says. “It’s absolutely untenable for a long term thing.”
Actors’ Equity Association, a labor union that represents 51,000 actors (including Rome and Norris) and stage managers nationally, has been lobbying Congress to pass legislation, such as the HEROES Act, to provide emergency relief funding for its members and other arts organizations.
In September, AEA delivered a letter to congressional leadership, which 270 theaters across the country signed, demanding $9 billion in supplemental funding for the National Endowment for the Arts, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting; a renewal of unemployment provisions; a 100 percent federal COBRA health insurance subsidy; and low-interest loans for theaters that do not qualify for NEA funding.
The national director of communications and public policy for AEA, Brandon Lorenz, said that, in addition to advocating for more relief from Congress, AEA is also focused on collaborating with producers across the country to create safety plans that could potentially allow some of its members to continue working. But returning to the industry safely has not been an easy process for some theater professionals.
Michael Wood, 37, a D.C.-based actor and member of AEA, says the union denied him the ability to work as an actor for Rep Stage in Columbia, Maryland, because the theater’s ventilation system did not meet the union’s safety requirements. Wood said he is frustrated because he wants to return to work so he can keep his health insurance and pay his union dues and other bills, but he can’t do so without the union’s approval.
“Our union is simultaneously asking us for dues while denying us work despite a 40+ page safety plan from the producers of our show, which is to be rehearsed virtually, then filmed in person over the course of 6 days with a small cast and production team,” Wood says. “They don’t seem to understand … that regional theater can be far more nimble, adaptable in the face of the pandemic than Broadway.”
In an official statement regarding Wood’s complaint, Lorenz said the union understands its members’ frustration, but added that cases in Maryland have been rising and they want to ensure safety standards, such as ventilation, are met, especially if the actors will be indoors for rehearsals and performances.
AEA did not directly address how it planned to help its members, such as Wood, pay dues or other expenses outside of advocating for more relief funding from Congress.
If relief funding does come, continued unemployment provisions and COBRA health insurance subsidies are among the most critical elements for many theater professionals who lost their work.
“I’m a cancer survivor,” Rome says, “and if I don’t get my screening every six months, it could mean that I die.”
In 2014, Rome underwent a double mastectomy after being diagnosed with aggressive stage 1 breast cancer. Eventually, her cancer went into remission, and Rome returned to acting. She can afford these screenings because she gets health insurance through the Equity-League Benefits Funds, a separate nonprofit organization jointly managed by trustees of AEA and its contracted employers.
AEA’s members receive health insurance coverage based on the number of weeks they work.
Without another acting gig, Rome says her eligibility will run out in February.
“I just don’t know what I’m going to do after February,” she says. “I don’t know.”
Norris and Nickell are in the same position. Norris says her insurance runs out at the end of the year and her husband’s runs out in the summer of 2021. After that, they are not sure how they’ll get insurance.
“I have no idea,” Norris says. “We’re very healthy, we’re exercising, and we’re going outside, and we’re getting fresh air, and we’re eating garden vegetables, and we’re just doing everything we can to stay super healthy. But I have no freaking idea.”
Norris, Rome, and several other Equity actors in D.C. say they are not only worried about their coverage running out. Their health insurance premiums also went up 300 percent, from $100 to $300 every quarter. Raised premiums are a problem because the extra expense strains their already meager income and savings.
“Help during this moment would be astonishing,” says Norris. “Especially health insurance, which looks incredibly bleak right now in terms of having any in the future.”
Lauren Halvorsen, 35, lost her job as a dramaturg with Studio Theatre in June. She says what many people don’t realize is that theater professionals are lucky to earn a middle-class salary in a good year, making it hard to save money. Any increase in life expenses like health insurance coverage, rent, or mortgage payments can be devastating.
“I just have to keep reminding myself that there is no amount of personal financial responsibility that could have helped me weather this outside of being born into extreme wealth,” Halvorsen says.
The savings that she does have, she says, are not enough. At this point, Halvorsen has resolved to find another career path, which she says is devastating after giving 15 years to this profession.
“My work has always just been such a huge part of who I am,” she says. “And what does it look like? If it’s just something I do to earn a living, what does that make space for?”
Norris, Rome, Borovay, Halvorsen, and other theater professionals say they welcome any kind of relief from Congress to provide a cushion to get through the next six months. And while they say they would like to go back to work to be able to provide for themselves or their families, the reality is they can’t.
“For many of us in theater, our work is our passion,” Borovay says. “Our work is our self-care. And our work is our job. But it is an industry that is not equipped to take care of its own when a catastrophe occurs.”
Despite longing to work again, many of the theater professionals City Paper talked to agree it’s not worth the risk to reopen theaters again. With few options for an alternative career path and little to no work in their industry available, it will be challenging for many to weather the next few months—or possibly years.
In the short term, theater professionals’ livelihoods may only be restored through legislation and philanthropy. In the long term, however, the impact of COVID-19 on the performing arts industry locally and nationally could be even more devastating if people decide to move on permanently.
“Unfortunately, theater is expendable in this kind of apocalyptic scenario that we’re in,” says Danielle Gallo, 23, a non-union actor in D.C. “Unlike other art forms that don’t require you to be in person, we’re going to be the last art form to come back.”