Life for theater workers during COVID, and virtual performances to watch at home

Hosted by

Acting, directing, or writing for the stage may not always be the most fortuitous career path. But many Angelenos are determined to make it work by supplementing their income with a teaching job or by working in film or TV.

But this pandemic has crippled most live audience events, so what does that mean for young people of color who often face barriers to entry when trying to work in theater? 

“Any time that I work on a production here in LA, we always try to make sure that we have … a community of color that we’re putting together,” says Julie Oni, playwright and visiting assistant professor of English at Pepperdine University. “But these are productions that are in many cases, they’re self-produced shows. … We have very limited budgets. So I feel like most of the playwrights and theater participants of color that I know, instead of necessarily having the expectation that we’re going to have a lot of opportunities handed to it, we’re doing it on our own.” 

Gregg T. Daniel, artistic director of the Lower Depth Theatre and adjunct lecturer at the USC School of Dramatic Arts, says theater is going to be online for a while. 

“It’s a mercurial time. But I do see movement and growth in that when we were shut down, there was nothing going on. But now I do see television, film, and projects like that getting the greenlight and going ahead and shooting. And that’s where the money always was in terms of being able to support yourself as a performer,” he says. 

Anthony Byrnes, host of KCRW’s “Opening the Curtain,” points out that Center Theatre Group just laid off half its staff in summer. “Now you can see the financial hit there. Now what’s interesting is in some ways, we might be better positioned as a city. We’re going to take a hit at the top. We’re going to take a really big hit at the middle, which is a place that we’ve always struggled in Los Angeles.”

He continues, “But if you have the smaller theater companies, especially ones that don’t have to pay a lease, in a sense, they might be able to hibernate right now. … Some of these theater companies are … actually coming together and they just put on a festival these last three weeks and they’re talking about next steps. … There’s potential there, especially if we can come back with a more diverse theater.” 

He notes that if people leave the industry now, the effects go beyond economics and entertainment. “If we lose these folks, we’re not just losing plays, we’re losing the folks that are teaching your kids, we’re losing folks in the classroom, we’re losing folks who really make our city a more vibrant and livable place.”

In the meantime, there are two virtual shows he’s excited about. Center Theatre Group will offer a reading of “Electricidad,” the Greek trilogy of Luis Alfaro. That’s available on demand starting November 6. 

Also, UCLA is offering “Complete Works: Table Top Shakespeare: At Home” now through November 15. “Imagine you’re at a pub and you said, ‘Hey I never really understood what … was going on in ‘King Lear.’ And somebody sat down across from you at a table and used just beer bottles and the salt shakers, and just told you the story of each of Shakespeare’s plays in under an hour,” Byrnes explains.

— Written by Amy Ta and Jenna Kagel