There was no way Eric Anderson and Jessica Rush could have known what they were in for when Rush, who was performing in the Broadway production of Tina: The Tina Turner Musical, packed up herself and their daughter to join Anderson in California after Broadway closed all productions due to concerns about the spread of COVID-19. After all, as Anderson recalled, a spread-out beach town like La Jolla, where he was set up in artist housing for a production of Fly at La Jolla Playhouse, felt like a much better place to ride out the pandemic than the crowded metropolis of New York City, which was already starting to empty out.
“I didn’t really begin to feel or see the depth of it until I started tuning into what was happening on the news,” Anderson said. “The contrast between what was happening in New York and what was happening here in Southern California was jarring.”
A week later, they found out that someone in Rush’s cast had tested positive for COVID-19. Rush fell ill and so did their daughter. Thankfully, Anderson noted, their daughter only wound up with a cough. Rush, who recovered but still had some residual aches and pains, wasn’t hit very hard. But Anderson himself soon was, though he is quick to express his gratitude that Rush has been able to “carry the heavy load, physically and metaphorically.” Anderson was in his 24th day of fighting the breathing difficulty and fatigue caused by the disease when we spoke last week.
“I make an appearance from time to time and try to participate as much as I can,” Anderson said, “but I’m just getting to the point now where I can at least sit down with my kid and play Legos with her. I’m so lucky to get to hang out with a five-year-old who is blindly optimistic, because she only knows the world that she’s thriving in. She keeps me positive.”
Anderson said he’s usually an optimistic person too but hadn’t been feeling that way until very recently. Add to that the fact that Anderson knows friends who’ve entered intensive care units with the disease, and a dimming of the outlook seems inevitable.
“The sickness can really play with your head,” Anderson said, noting that he’s a shallow breather by nature, a trait the disease exacerbates. “I never thought that, in my 40s, I’d have to focus so hard on breathing. I’ll wake up after a long night’s sleep and just be fatigued and have to focus on deep breathing myself into a more stable place. That’s a weird place to start a day.”
He’s had some difficult days when he thought he was feeling better, only to wind up needing to lay down for the rest of the day. Now that he seems to have finally turned a corner, he said he’s thankful for being in a situation where he’s able to do things like start a succulent garden and have dinner with his family—things that hadn’t been possible since their daughter was born, as either Rush or Anderson have continually been in a show.
While auditioning for theatre still isn’t on his radar, as theatre companies themselves sit uncertain what their actual next productions will be, Anderson has started to receive notices for television and film auditions which are still accepting self tapes (he’s not ready yet to submit, he said). A month or more after theatres across the country pulled the plug on innumerable artistic ventures, Anderson’s physical fatigue echoes the mental and emotional fatigue other actors in the field are experiencing.
“We all mourned what we were creating and what we were developing,” Anderson said. “I haven’t felt myself enough to be able to participate in all of the uplifting things people are posting. I’m grateful that they’re out there, and I’m glad that there are some people out there that are so bored that they have to create. But there’s also a lot of people that aren’t being recognized because they’re not putting it out there that are really going through it.”
Grief can take many forms, depending on the individual. While some artists may be comfortable picking themselves up after the wallop of productions closing to produce new art or participate in virtual readings, others have found it much more difficult to use their unplanned abundance of free time on their hands for artistic endeavors or aspirations.
“As sad as it is to say, my work is the last thing on my mind right now,” said Quincy Tyler Bernstine, who was set to play Olga in a star-studded New York Theatre Workshop production of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, adapted by Dance Nation scribe Clare Barron, with direction by Sam Gold. “I’m having a very hard time focusing on much of anything. I try to read, I consume a lot of news—probably to my detriment. I’m trying to be better about that and not spending all day reading about the situation and watching CNN, but it’s challenging, because I just find that I’m drawn to news in general, especially now. I wish I could say that I’m sitting here reading a bunch of plays or working on monologues, but I’m not doing that.”
Bernstine, who said she finds herself cooking and baking more than usual as well as running outside (“quickly and avoiding people”) instead of a treadmill nowadays, also said she can feel paralyzed during the day. The mental space usually allowed for the creation of art, which she said used to be one of her main reasons for getting up in the morning, has been replaced by concerns about her health, the health of her husband, and “what tomorrow holds.”
“These are really terrifying times,” she continued, recalling going to the grocery store on Friday the 13th, the day after Broadway closures went into effect, and seeing lines out the door, people wearing masks, and shoppers starting to panic shop. “I feel like acting and theatre—those things were the last thing on my mind,” Bernstine said.
Chicago-based actor Heather Chrisler also found herself struggling to find the motivation to continue with theatre-related activities after the pandemic shutdown. She recalled spending at least the first week of Chicago’s stay-at-home order “being depressed to the point of numb.” Before the shutdown, Chrisler was in the midst of an exciting year she was quippily calling her “year of projects.” When Chicago theatres started to cancel productions, she was on the precipice of opening The Last Match, her acting debut at Glencoe, Ill.’s, Writers Theatre, as well as celebrating her first turn as a playwright, adapting Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women for Oak Brook, Ill.’s, First Folio Theatre—a commission that had been in the works for over a year with the cast having been together for a year. The Last Match was scheduled to have its press opening on March 25, the same day as Little Women’s first performance.
“We lost them both in the same day,” Chrisler said. “Traumatized is the word I kept using. I had trauma from having all of this artistic work suddenly yanked out from underneath me. Also, suddenly the entire world looks different.”
As time went on, Chrisler found herself trying to wrap her head around the possibility of continuing to create as a theatre artist during this time. Her Little Women production team entertained the possibility of doing a digital reading of Chrisler’s adaptation, but multiple people (through anonymous votes) said it would hurt too much to perform.
“This thing was meant to be this living, breathing animal,” Chrisler shared, “then you put it into this digital form, and it always gets lost in translation, doesn’t it? You see people doing theatrical acting on film and they just look like cartoon characters and very two-dimensional and weird, because there’s something magical about being in the space with someone that doesn’t translate.”
On top of that, Chrisler was struggling in light of global events to find the motivation to complete auditions that had been scheduled to be in person, then moved to self-tape submissions.
“I was in this really surreal place where I didn’t know what was going on,” Chrisler said. “There was a worldwide pandemic. People were freaking out. You couldn’t buy toilet paper. And every project I’d had was wiped from my slate. I was in this place of utter emotional devastation, wondering if I even wanted to be an actor anymore. Then I’d have to pick up sides and act in my living room. It was bizarre that people were asking me to act.”
This led Chrisler to wondering, “What is the end goal of this thing? If I’m auditioning for something that takes place in September, are there going to be plays in September? I don’t know.”
That said, Chrisler was quick to add that if the day came where Writers Theatre called and said The Last Match was going to go on, she’d jump at the chance to be back onstage. “That would be so healing,” she said. But until that time, she admitted, she hasn’t picked up her script—it’s too painful.
One thing Chrisler has noticed is that individual artists can be lost and almost forgotten during conversations around the fallout from COVID-19, as the field frets about its institutional future.
“The utter devastation that’s happening to individual artists gets overlooked in the greater scheme of what this much bigger story is,” she said. “There is a lot of focus on, ‘Will Goodman be okay, will Steppenwolf survive?’ And it’s like, I absolutely hope they do. But the individual people who make this art form for you—they can’t be thinking about whether or not the biggest institutions in the community are going to survive when they’re trying to figure out how they’re getting groceries. This had a really real, individual human impact on artists. I’m not sure that even the theatre-consuming community totally comprehends that.”
It’s a sentiment shared by actor and playwright Kate Hamill, who was supposed to be celebrating the world premieres of her plays The Scarlet Letter at South Coast Repertory and Emma at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis over the last few weeks. Hamill considers herself lucky that she was able to actually close her production of Dracula (which she wrote and acted in) on March 8 at New York’s Classic Stage Company. It was only a few days later that she was flooded with texts from friends and colleagues whose shows were closing all over the country.
“It’s pretty hard to overstate how devastating it is to not only institutions, some of which are in existential crisis right now, but to individuals,” Hamill said. “A lot of actors, their day jobs are in other industries which are also just getting killed by this.”
Hamill’s concerns extend, in particular, to fear about what now out-of-work actors will do about their health insurance. She notes that she and her husband, Jason O’Connell, were, thankfully, able to secure enough weeks to qualify for health insurance through the end of the year, as they’d qualified with 19 weeks of work. But depending on when an actor’s turnaround date is, and how much work they lost to COVID-19 closures, many will find reaching the required minimum weeks difficult. Even if theatres reopen in time for full fall seasons, will the demand for qualifying roles overpower whatever supply is left?
“I don’t know how anyone’s going to get 19 weeks worth of work,” Hamill confessed. “That’s a big existential crisis. I worry a lot about actors and stage managers right now who are older or who have preexisting conditions, because it’s very, very difficult to imagine a situation where people are not just losing their health insurance pretty much en masse.”
Hamill also noted that she had recently received an email from the Equity League in response to concerns about whether these work requirements could be relaxed. The league, she said, “seems to be signaling that they will not be relaxing those work requirements. So I really get scared for people in our community who rely on that work, not only for income, but for health insurance.”
In an email, Equity League Health Trust Fund executive director Art Drechsler explained that the Equity League Fund, a nonprofit funded by contributions from employers and participants, is in the midst of putting together a plan of short- and long-term measures to “address this crisis.” The Equity League, Drechsler stated, has also put together a team to analyze the impact of the shutdown on workers, producers, and the industry as a whole. Drechsler expects the analysis to be completed soon, and a plan generated from there.
“Our current goal is to provide as much coverage, to the greatest number of people, for the longest possible time,” said Drechsler in his email. “Because our ability to carry out our mission is driven by the contributions we receive, and since employer contributions have plummeted as a result of theatre closings, along with the incomes of our plan participants, our income has severely and precipitously dropped.”
In the meantime, the Equity League has taken a handful of emergency steps such as removing copays on COVID-19 tests and treatments, allowing participants to obtain additional supplies of medications, relaxed some programs to allow participants to have their medical treatments approved quicker, waived three month’s worth of contributions usually required to enact/maintain coverage, and provided informational resources. Still, without the full scope of an eventual plan from the Equity League, and without any assurances that theatres will reopen in time for performers to accumulate necessary work weeks, all on top of the fact that many day jobs are furloughing or outright releasing staff, the economic anxiety, on top of the creative grief, can be crushing.
“I’ve seen people absorb that,” Hamill continued. “They just lost months and months of work, probably their health insurance, and probably their day job too, and turn around and comfort each other and crack jokes. I do think it is a community that is incredibly brave and resilient and really tries very hard to bounce back from everything.”
Those who haven’t been able to bounce back quite enough to participate in the slew of online offerings that artists and institutions alike are producing at breakneck speeds, may find solace in other outlets, like Quincy Tyler Bernstine with her cooking, baking, and running. Or Eric Anderson, with his family meals and succulent garden. Or Heather Chrisler, who is writing and illustrating a children’s book. It can be hard to focus on the ways such a devastating global pandemic is affecting people on an individual level, and even harder to remain hopeful. But as Anderson said, it’s crucial to hold onto optimism.
“It’s never been more clear that we’re all in this together,” Anderson said. “I look forward to being able to hug people again and to interact. This is going to spark a whole new renaissance that is going to be more tangible and more appreciative to living and the art of acting for the human spirit. I will forever be the blind optimist, and I know I’m not alone in that. I look forward to seeing what will be born from this. I only see the positive light.”