When Jarrett Johnson stepped onstage for the first time in 2019, he was nervous. For eight years, he had been on active duty with the United States Air Force. He’d stood in front of commanders, colonels and generals. He’d been actively deployed all over the world.
Yet standing in the spotlight on the stage at Erickson Theatre as he portrayed Det. Rob DeBree in a Seattle Central College production of “The Laramie Project” was humbling, Johnson said.
“I had a couple of moments where the spotlight was just on me and it hit me — if I mess up it’s all on me,” he said. “I’m really doing this thing. I’m really onstage. I’m up here, and I’m acting.”
After leaving the military in 2018, Johnson intended to begin a career in information technology, but after taking a course at Seattle Central and experiencing the thrill of performance, Johnson was hooked and immediately began working toward a degree in drama at the University of Washington instead.
Now, Johnson is about to graduate into a landscape in which live performances are greatly restricted, theater work is scarce and online productions try to fill the gap left by the absence of live theater. He is among an entire class of emerging theater artists — fresh from drama programs, hustling between part-time jobs and busy audition schedules, or about to make their big breaks — whose careers have been stalled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Locally, this class of emerging theater artists interrupted by the pandemic is facing an uncertain future as artists struggle to make professional connections, keep their craft sharp and make ends meet. They wonder what new challenges they will face once live performances fully return, and some, under the pressures of financial hardship, are already shifting to other professions.
Staying on target
Johnson is one of the luckier ones. With the Post-9/11 GI Bill, he and his wife, who was also in the military, get a housing stipend while they’re going to school.
Even so, he was laid off from his weekend job as a security guard in March due to the pandemic, and with his wife in school and his 2-year-old daughter at home making cameos in his online drama classes, Johnson has to juggle school, child care and figuring out what his next steps are.
He was recently offered a position in an acting program in Savannah, Georgia, but he’s not yet sure if he’ll go back to school or try his luck in a largely shuttered theater scene when he graduates from UW in March. (Although theaters in most counties in Washington state are currently allowed to reopen at 25% capacity, up to 200 people, most have not done so.)
Still so new to theater, he knows it will be difficult to forge a path in an industry that has been so devastated by the pandemic. Johnson cites the particular challenges of trying to make professional connections that would be organic in an in-person theater setting, but are stilted and strange as video coffee dates. There’s also the difficulty of acting or auditioning from your living room.
“Because I’m home, it’s harder to jump into character,” he said. “I notice one of my daughter’s toys in the background and it grounds me back in my home.”
Still, he has no plans to veer from his newfound passion for theater. Staying on target is something he learned in the military, he says.
“With COVID, I understand how difficult it’s going to be to continue to act, but I welcome the challenge,” he said. “[My wife and I] were both deployed. If we can make it through that, we can make it through anything.
“Nothing has come to fruition”
Damon Reaney vividly remembers the day local theaters were shut down due to the pandemic. He was at Cornish College of the Arts painting a marble flooring pattern with gold inlay for a production that would never see the stage.
When Reaney graduated from Cornish in May 2020 with a degree in scenic design, the pandemic was already in full swing, and many local theater stagehands had already lost their jobs.
“It’s been pretty much impossible to find any work,” said Reaney. “There have been no opportunities for what I went to college for four years for.”
“We’re grieving,” Reaney said of Seattle’s theater technician community, including stagehands, scenic designers, prop designers, lighting designers and more.
“I feel like the work I’ve been doing for the last eight years hasn’t come to fruition. Nothing has come to fruition,” he said.
While some actors, writers and directors have adapted to the circumstances by taking their work to online or audio platforms, theater artists with more technical, hands-on roles have had few opportunities in theater since last March.
Unable to find scenic design work, Reaney took a front-line job as a grocery worker.
But theater holds a special place in Reaney’s life. He says theater helped him get through a particularly rough period in high school when he was struggling with being a queer person and with adapting to the structure of traditional schooling.
“Theater gave me something to put my energy toward,” he said. “I don’t know where I would be without the people who helped me.”
Community is one of the biggest losses for theater technicians like Reaney. Industry professionals work strange and long hours, and so often the people they work with become like family, said Jennifer Bacon, president of IATSE Local 15 (Western Washington’s chapter of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees union).
When theaters were shut down, many tech workers and stagehands were instantly out of jobs and isolated from their primary work communities.
Now, as some of the more senior technicians retire early due to the pandemic and others, with more adaptable skills like woodworking, try to move on to other professions to make money, Bacon says she’s worried that much of the knowledge that would normally be passed down to those coming up in the field will be lost.
But Reaney is hopeful that when live theater returns, it will return improved — more inclusive, more diverse, more adaptive to new technologies. Reaney himself has taken a stronger interest in audiovisual work.
Bacon believes that younger theater technicians may even have an edge if digital becomes a larger or more integrated aspect of theater.
“I would like [theater] to flourish into a new digital era,” Reaney said. “We’re in desperate need of an update.”
“We’re not dealing with a lost generation, not yet …”
Theater has often adapted to crises of various kinds.
“In Shakespeare’s day, they had plague closures all the time,” said Odai Johnson, a professor of theater history at the UW School of Drama who created an online class called “The Art of the Story: Plague and Performance.”
“Actors went unemployed for long stretches and took up other things. Playwrights became poets and pamphleteers. They found other markets for a while,” he said. “Then it opened up. It was always a sort of dodgy, resilient business that way.”
Theater has a history of adapting to major crises by reinventing itself, notes Stefka Mihaylova, assistant professor of theater history and performance theory at UW School of Drama. Theater reinvented itself when it first began competing with television and film, and during recessions and economic depressions.
“This moment is similar,” she says, referring to theater companies that have begun creating virtual content. “Theater has to meet audiences where they are, and they are at home.”
In the meantime, Mihaylova anticipates that the experience of working on screens will be beneficial to emerging actors who often do work in film and TV to pay for the work they do onstage. Their Zoom performances, she says, may even become part of their portfolios for film work.
When live theater does return, Johnson believes, “liveness” will be all the more valuable to audiences and performers, and the digital theater will be reserved for emergencies.
He does predict, however, that the careers of many of the theater artists who are at the beginning of their careers right now will be transformed.
“We’re not dealing with a lost generation, not yet,” Johnson said. “We’re dealing with a lost year.”
But he warns that if the pandemic continues and stages remain dark for a few more years, we may see fewer and fewer new artists trying their luck in the field, and the industry will suffer for it.
For now, he looks forward to the wealth of stories that he anticipates will come out of this moment about how people survived these dark times.
Some worry about opportunities for emerging artists when theaters reopen, saying opportunities will likely go to artists who theaters are used to working with, or to those whose shows were canceled due to the pandemic.
That could leave many of the emerging artists of color in the wind.
With the pandemic disproportionately affecting communities of color, and given the tendency of theaters and audiences to crave the classics especially after moments of crisis, Mihaylova says performers of color may have difficulty making their big breaks while supporting themselves and their families in the recovery from the pandemic.
“It will be a lot of work and a lot of communication to make sure emerging artists and especially people of color don’t fall through the cracks,” she said.
More empowering ways of doing this work
In March 2020, just before the pandemic hit its first peak, storyteller and cultural worker Sara Porkalob was about to move to New York, where she would make her Broadway debut starring in a revival of “1776.”
Then the pandemic hit.
Like many people, she thought the pandemic would be resolved in a matter of weeks or months, and that after a few wonky Zoom rehearsals, she’d be back on her way to Broadway.
Now, almost a year later, she’s still in Seattle and is unsure what will happen with the production of “1776” that was going to launch her entry into the New York theater scene, granting her a national platform.
But missing out on Broadway isn’t why Porkalob is so disappointed.
“Fame was only ever the vehicle to achieve my higher goals. It was never the end destination for me,” said Porkalob.
“Those higher goals were to take care of my family and to take care of my community in any way possible — whether that be through financial resources, through mutual aid infrastructure, through having a production company of my own dedicated to uplifting the voices here in the Pacific Northwest. Much can be accomplished with fame.”
With her trajectory halted by the pandemic, rather than touring and taking the New York theater scene by storm, she has spent the last year in reflection.
“When it comes to my work, my creative and artistic values are not separate from my life values,” she said. “I go into this Broadway contract knowing full well that Broadway is racist and problematic on so many levels. I want to go into any opportunity that I have that grants me more access and privilege and power with open eyes. I want to do that so I can better understand how I can be a force for change in whatever way I need to be. If that means ultimately not going to Broadway, not accepting a Netflix contract because by doing that I’m compromising my life values, then so be it.”
This realization, she says, has been 10 years in the making. The pandemic simply brought it home.
“It takes so much energy. It takes so much emotional labor, literal time, to negotiate with people as to why my voice matters,” Porkalob said. “I don’t want to do that anymore when I could use my energy and my platform to build relationships with people who know that there are better, more equitable, more inclusive, more powerful and empowering ways of doing this work.”
Although this time to reflect has been valuable, it doesn’t take away the pain of having her career interrupted. She begins to cry as she talks about what her big break would have meant for her family.
“I was really excited to be at a place of financial independence for the first time in my life,” she said. “I would’ve been able to take care of my mother, who is a vulnerable person right now. Because of COVID, another year has gone by that I won’t be able to do that for her.”
Still, she is aware that she is in a privileged position, as she is financially secure and is still getting work in the pandemic.
With her career interrupted by the pandemic, she has occasionally reconsidered former personal goals, like running for city council. But for now, she feels that the best way to create the kind of change she wants to see is to stay the course as an artist and use her platform for good.
She hopes that on the other side of this pandemic, the Seattle theater scene will have reflected on its issues, too, and will emerge better and more supportive of local theater artists, particularly those from Black and Indigenous, trans and queer communities.
And Porkalob thinks it’s emerging young artists who will help these changes along.
“Theater has to transform, and I would encourage any young artists to start evaluating” their values and what they’ve been taught, she said. “Theater is ripe for revolution.”