It’s been a rough few years, but things are finally looking up for the theater industry and its actors. In-person productions are returning, for real this time, but the pandemic has thrown the instability and inequalities of the field into sharp relief.
In 2020, the unemployment rate for actors skyrocketed to 54% — up from 11% in 2019 — and theater companies’ average revenue dropped by more than half. Now, as the omicron wave wanes, revenue is creeping back up: last month, Broadway made $21.8 million, approaching its haul of $29.1 million during the same week in 2020, pre-closures.
For four young Seattle actors planning their careers, it’s a moment of transition and reevaluation, excitement and trepidation.
“Connecting with other people who are acting, and how special that is, you don’t realize it until it’s gone,” says Eloise Maguire, 18, artistic director for Young Americans Theater Co., a Seattle-based, youth-run theater troupe.
Like all of YATC’s leadership, Maguire is still in high school — she’s a senior at Roosevelt. Yes, she says, it’s “weird” trying to lead a company of teenagers while still a teen herself: “We joke that the ‘P’ in YATC stands for ‘professional.’” Nonetheless, YATC puts on a series of entirely teen-acted and -directed productions every summer.
She’s returning to YATC in-person with a new appreciation for theater and a hope to enjoy it “one day at a time.”
When it comes to planning YATC’s 15th season, Maguire is struggling with what youth theater should look like in 2022. It’s an “especially frightening and angsty time to be a teenager in America,” she says. Should theater uplift? Plumb difficult histories? Reflect America’s “seemingly dystopian height of capitalism?” Maguire hopes YATC’s next plays will “tell important stories but also bring joy and empathy to the audience.”
The pandemic inspired a shift in career plans from theater to screen acting for Bianca Mariani, 17. A senior at Lakeside School, she’s applying to acting Bachelor of Arts programs, hoping to work in television and film after she graduates. “My movie consumption definitely went up during the pandemic,” she says, and “that sparked me to be more interested in that path.”
Mariani has become comfortable with uncertainty. It’s OK that she might end up with a “safety job” to support her acting. “I already worked at a restaurant, so I know what that’s like. I know I can do it,” she said.
Acting in YATC productions buoyed her confidence through the pandemic and stressful college application process. As she watched her peers go on to pursue acting degrees, she realized, “OK, I’m surrounded by all these people who can do this. I’m in a cast with them. Maybe I can do this.”
Maguire’s prevailing emotion is gratitude for the teens of YATC: “The amount of ingenuity that our directors bring, and our technical team bring, and our actors bring in making something out of nothing, basically, is really special to watch.”
“Something out of nothing” could be a title for Naveh Shavit-Lonstein’s 2020 as well. Shavit-Lonstein, 23, dreamed of a professional acting career since his first performance as “a cornstalk or something” in a kids’ play. He was in his junior year in Cornish College of the Arts’ theater program, and late in rehearsals for a dream role in the musical “Chicago” when the pandemic hit.
When he abruptly found himself stuck home in Minnesota after spring break 2020, he set himself at his keyboard the first day of lockdown and started writing a play; he’s worked on it nearly every day in the two years since. He used the disruption to build new skills, like embracing his dance classes after years as a “very nervous dancer” in the back row of the chorus line.
Now graduated, Shavit-Lonstein works two day jobs while “swinging” — understudying multiple roles — in “Winnie the Pooh” at StoryBook Theater in Kirkland. He’s excited about the chance to practice his skills, even if he isn’t on stage every night. In the meantime, he’s exploring playwright workshops for his script in progress.
Brandon Jones Mooney, 27, took a winding path to professional acting: from community college to Pacific Conservatory Theatre to Cornish, where he graduated in 2020. Along the way in 2014, “totally just on a whim,” he co-founded a theater collective, Young Hot Thespian. He spent the pandemic working on another project, a digital series of filmed vignettes by Black artists called Black 365.
“I’m big on creating,” he says, “so I never wanted to wait around for an audition or someone to offer me a job.” Like Shavit-Lonstein with his script, or Mariani and Maguire with YATC’s productions, Jones Mooney is a young actor eager to make his own work.
To Jones Mooney, the biggest change of the last two years was not virtual performances or masked audiences but theater’s new embrace of diversity, Black artists and people of color. “I hope that the work that people want to do now as far as uplifting POC voices isn’t a trend,” he says, but the “new normal.” With Black 365, he’s doing his part to make the shift permanent.
While these young artists continue to chart their futures with cautious optimism, they’re also eager to get back to doing what they love. As an exuberant Jones Mooney puts it, “Now that things are opening back up, we are ready to rock ‘n’ roll!”
This article was written on special assignment for The Seattle Times through the TeenTix Press Corps, a teen arts journalism program sponsored by TeenTix (teentix.org), a youth empowerment and arts access nonprofit organization.