(NOT) On Broadway
In case you haven't noticed lately, prices have skyrocketed on just about anything and everything - food, drinks, clothes, gas, subscriptions, doctor visits, rideshares, food delivery, medicine, you name it. If you haven't paid attention lately, I guarantee your wallet has felt the effects. The place where your wallet is especially feeling the pinch right now? The theatre. Of course! It's no secret that ticket prices - whether bought in-person or online - are going up on the incline right now, but as of 2023, it's almost become too painful to even look at ticket prices to some of your favorite shows are the theaters in your hometown. While the rear mezzanine and balcony used to have the best deals in terms of affordability, that's no longer the case. You can't seem to catch a break from finding affordable seats that offer a great view that doesn't take a massive chunk out of your paycheck or expenses. This is most true for Broadway, and Off-Broadway shows in the past few years. The Broadway economy is still bouncing back after the pandemic that shuttered the theatre world for nearly two years. Many shows that started the 2020-2021 Broadway season are no longer with us; others are still struggling to hang on. And the only way they can hang on and continue entertaining the audience? Yup, you guessed it. Raise the ticket prices! But also... More shows that have characters and stories and songs everybody knows! More of the same actors and actresses to bring in the bank! More musicals based on well-known movies! More jukebox musicals! More Broadway revivals! More glitz! More glamour! More upbeat dance numbers! You get the idea. But while the big musicals with illustrious sets, gorgeous costumes, sweeping (or not so sweeping) scores, and stories are getting all the acclaim and fortune, the stories that REALLY matter are being left out in the cold. They are even closing way too soon. Like Ain't No Mo. K-POP. Allegiance. Slave Play. Paradise Square. A Strange Loop. Between the Lines. The question on everyone's mind right now is: WHY????? How could these influential shows with a message that should be shouted from the mountaintops close so abruptly? Well, several factors come into play in this case. After dealing with a global pandemic for three years, many people were anxious to get back to seeing live theatre, which meant returning to what was within their comfort zone. Like musicals, not straight plays. Or better yet, the musicals that are familiar to them. Aladdin, Hadestown, The Book of Mormon, Chicago, The Lion King, Hamilton, Wicked, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, and some revivals like Funny Girl, Sweeney Todd, Camelot, Parade, Cabaret, and Into the Woods all have songs and stories that the audience knows and loves. But then there are the recent additions to the Broadway lineup, and these are shows based on well-known films and figures that everyone knows and loves, like Tootsie, Beetlejuice, Mean Girls, Life of Pi, Some Like It Hot, Moulin Rogue, or New York, New York. Or even the jukebox musicals with songs everyone knows and loves, with an original story or even the story of the individual's life, like MJ, & Juliet, or A Beautiful Noise: The Neil Diamond Musical. People are spending hundreds, even thousands of dollars to let their hearts be light and merry for the next few hours and not have to deep think about anything in their lives, even if it makes an impact. That means shows like A Doll's House, Leopoldstaldt, Good Night Oscar, Summer 1976, Prima Facie, and Fat Ham are at the bottom of the list for most people. I think there's a word for this latest Broadway craze: ESCAPISM.
Lately, people want to get away from what's happening in the world and not have to think deeply about it in a space where empathy and thinking are encouraged. And that's causing shows with minority casts, impactful stories, and not the usual run-of-the-mill Broadway plays to suffer. But do you know what's also happening? Many are having a more challenging time getting the stories that started in workshops, industrial readings, regional theaters, Off-Off-Broadway, and Off-Broadway onto Broadway, simply because many audiences do not want to venture out of their comfort zone. And more importantly, that's sending a message to many artists and creators who long to be a part of it (pardon the pun) that they're not welcome and that there isn't a place for them. Just think about it: People who've had dreams of making it to Broadway only to discover that there may not be a place for them because of the need for comfort instead of discomforting truths that would challenge and inspire others to speak out. Even if you're a dancer or ensemble member, it's hard to deny that the landscape of Broadway is changing, and it may not always be for the better. More shows are playing it safe, whether creating shows based on well-known films, using familiar songs everyone knows, and not being as original as you'd expect Broadway to be. And it makes yours truly wonder: Is there really a place for me on Broadway, or am I better off elsewhere? I'm honestly perplexed by where I'm meant to be if Broadway may never have a place for me. I hope you have a pen and paper handy because this week's post goes into all my fears of not belonging on Broadway and why I still have a glimmer of hope that things will turn around soon.
I know what you're all asking: "Nessa, why do you think there isn't a place for you on Broadway?" For starters, I'm not a triple threat. I'm a double-and-a-half threat. I can act. I can sing. I can move, NOT dance. And in the eyes of the gatekeepers of Broadway, that's not good enough. Also, I've been cast in plays more than musicals, and the musicals aren't playing in the bigger houses that some of the most successful musicals are in now. And straight plays, particularly dramas, are my forte. And in the eyes of the gatekeepers of Broadway, that's not good enough. I've done workshops and readings of new plays and musicals that brought me joy and fascination for the creation of the shows that get the chance to be onstage one day. And I've fallen in love with original works. And in the eyes of the gatekeepers of Broadway... You get the idea. "But Nessa, you can always learn to dance, sing, and act to become Broadway potential!" Here's the thing: I always enjoy learning new things and getting better at my craft. Heck, I want to get back into singing lessons to strengthen my voice so I can find joy in that. I appreciate what the industry professionals and seasoned actors share with me so I can improve and take pride in my path. I may even take some dancing classes to help strengthen and tone my body for choreography. Learning is not the problem. I don't think I'm meant for Broadway anymore because it's become too commercial for me and my curious spirit to belong there. You read that right. Broadway is becoming more and more COMMERCIAL, and it's getting to a point where I'm not sure if someone who likes straight plays and original stories and is a double-and-a-half threat, let alone a black woman, is ever going to belong in this vast theatre community. It's scary to think about it. And do you know what's even more scary? Some of the biggest names who graced the most prominent stages left because of the feeling of over-commercialism and even deeper strains of mistreatment and continued racism. Karen Olivo left Moulin Rogue shortly after the musical opened on Broadway again in 2021. They had heartbreaking things to say about the industry's silence, stagnancy, and decision to leave the show. (NOTE: Much of these quotes came from the People article from 24 September 2021. You can read it entirely here: https://people.com/theater/moulin-rouge-tony-nominee-karen-olivo-on-why-she-left-show-something-really-shifted-in-me/) Olivo, 45, spoke to the Los Angeles Times in a story published on Friday about leaving their starring role as Satine in the musical after what they felt was the theater community's lack of meaningful response about the Rudin allegations.
"There was the complete and utter silence from my industry. I'm a survivor of assault and sexual abuse, and I was like, I'm not going to say yes to an industry that can't stand up for survivors," Olivo told the newspaper. "These are people from inside our industry, who were courageous enough to speak up! Something really shifted in me." Another lead-up to them quitting the Broadway show, Olivo said, was when they "went to a building, I did something in good faith, and there was no one checking up on us" during the pandemic. "It's another instance of how the industry doesn't take care of its own, even though we're "family," they continued. "It only shows up when the cameras are on or when it's time to fundraise. In the year of community organizing during the shutdown, I realized I can actually help my industry in a different way, by caring about the people who are suffering in silence, because we can't go back to the way it was."
Olivo said that when it came time to reopen Broadway and "make offers to go back" they were "offered the same amount of money and the same amount of rehearsal time." "This is the hardest show I've ever done," said Olivo, who has previously starred in Hamilton, In the Heights and West Side Story. "I was like, who's gonna remount it in six weeks? This robot that you built to look like me? I can't. I was like, you don't really mean you want to take care of us. You want to get us to the stage so that you can keep making money or start to make some of the money that you lost. I was like, I'm good. I'm out." Another beloved figure in the Broadway community left Actors Equity, effectively ending her Broadway career. She even went as far as calling it "the worst union in the world." She needs no introduction. Here's a snippet of what Patti LuPone said recently on her decision to give up her Equity card and leave Broadway behind for the remainder of her life. (NOTE: You can find the complete article here: https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/Patti-LuPone-Reveals-Why-She-Will-Never-Return-to-Broadway-20230424) "I've been offered something and there's something I'm interested in doing, but I said to the producer, 'Don't do this on Broadway. I want to work on East Fourth Street. I don't want to work on Broadway anymore.' Broadway's now turning into a combination of Disney, Las Vegas and the circus. Plays are closing. The education of an audience is in grave danger. Plus, Times Square is a nightmare. It's like the lowest common denominator of humanity hanging out in Times Square. They're not going to the theater. They make it difficult for people who are trying to get to the theater. And then when you go to the theater, it's way too expensive and it's compromised. So I'll never do eight shows a week again, ever. It's just over." Yeah. After seeing some of these stories and being in the DC theatre community for seven years, it's becoming clear that Broadway has lost a lot of its sparkle and allure that used to captivate me when I was first starting. Don't get me wrong; I'd love to move to NYC someday when things are more affordable (it CAN happen. Don't knock it!) and things change for the better. But the idea of being a part of the over-commercialism of Broadway and an industry that's become seemingly cold and silent these past few years terrifies me. It's as if this industry's primary goal of reopening after a pandemic was focusing on money and returning to what it was before the shutdown, without taking into account checking in on the talented actors, writers, dancers, choreographers, stage managers, set crew, and more on how they're doing emotionally and mentally. It's as if this industry doesn't want to be transparent about sexual abuse or hold those responsible accountable because it's all about the money and getting the butts back into those seats just so everyone is happy and life can go on as it was before. Nor do they want to be transparent about why ticket prices are so high, expect a show to be back up within six months or less after a pandemic (when the pandemic never ended, to begin with), or how they can be a more proactive industry on causes like black lives matter, AAPI, LGBTQ+, homelessness, mental and emotional health, and equity in the workplace. It's as if this industry wants to play it safe and not take chances on original stories that would make as much of an impact on the global community, let alone inspire people to think and reflect on how much things need to change because of past mistakes and behaviors. It's as if this industry only relies on people they know to help bring in the bank and does not want to give as many new talents a chance to shine, no matter how good they've been in other theatre communities nationwide. It's as if this industry is putting on a front to show that theatre is back, more vital than ever, and things are going well when they aren't. They rushed back into this too quickly, and the people working behind the scenes and onstage suffered because of their impatience. Do you know what's sad about this? It's not just Broadway that's going through this. It's just about what is happening in theatre communities across the country. Hear me out: Like many people, I was excited about theatre opening back up in 2021, but I was also skeptical and concerned. (I partially blame that on being a Virgo, and being cautious and organized is an occupational hazard.) After being back in theatre for the past few years, I'm starting to see why. Everyone in the industry, especially at the top, went too fast in bringing back live performances without considering the necessary steps to keep everyone physically, mentally, and emotionally safe. They didn't see that they were asking for too much when putting a show back on its feet within six weeks or even forcing understudies to keep the show going when so many actors were out with COVID, with the infamous mantra "the show must go on" forging people ahead to keep the doors open. They also didn't see that virtual theatre opened doors to keep the theatre going beyond the pandemic and made it more accessible for audiences to see shows in places where it's hard to attend shows in person due to finances, health, and more, and instead threw it away after the doors opened. The people returned to live performances—even going as far as not calling it "real theatre" anymore. They also didn't see that there were plenty of people outside of their roster of trusted actors for their seasons who longed for a chance to perform onstage for years and that deserved a chance to shine but were glossed over because they're not a "name," or that money is the most important thing right now. We must use "names" to keep our audiences returning and for future seasons to flourish. This industry had a year and a half to two years to listen, reflect, and make proactive changes to a theatre community that's become more challenging, divisive, and sometimes toxic. All those stories of cast and crew members being mistreated due to race, sexual orientation, and gender. All those times, actors and stage managers protested for more money to make a living wage to keep doing what they love without falling into poverty. All those moments when new faces enter the audition room for a chance to be seen, considered, or even cast in projects with theatre companies and organizations they want to be a part of. All those virtual theatre credits actors amassed during the pandemic allow them to continue doing what they love and make a difference in bringing accessibility to those who need it the most. All those people who stepped out of line to speak up against the abuse of actors, even risking blacklisting, to make sure no one else works with those in power who act like that again. And that's just the surface of the underlying problems this industry had a chance to listen to and even make an effort to bring about the needed change. There are lots more where that came from. How did the industry "listen" to all the frustration, cries, and shouts? To put it bluntly: Money. And that's in the form of putting statements of equity and diversity on their websites without trying to follow through with their promises of diverse staff members and female-led roles in executive places in the organization. That's in the form of adding more unique stories to their seasons but not using new faces or even allowing understudies to perform in the roles, let alone giving them money that's giving them a living wage. That's in the form of addressing the sexual abuse and mistreatment to fire those responsible for it; however, welcoming them back with open arms when they attend opening night celebrations or parties because they have the means and connections to help theatre companies and organizations keep going. A colleague of mine told me about how the artistic team at a theatre she's working at currently has a lot of anxious energy, and they don't know what to do with it. I told her that there's a lot of anxious energy going around right now at just about all of the theaters across the country, and much of it is being put towards staying with what is best for themselves, not for everyone else. And a lot of that anxious energy is being directed at and in the ways I just described in the paragraphs above. This industry is supposed to be a family, and families are supposed to be looking out for each other. This industry should check in with everyone on how they're doing - physically, mentally, emotionally, even financially, if they're struggling to pay the bills and take care of themselves. This industry should be open-minded, allow new stories to flourish, and not rely on commercialism to bring in crowds and recoup costs. This industry is supposed to stand up against homophobia, sexism, racism, xenophobia, and division and not allow those who support this back into our community ever again. This industry is not supposed to be all about money and let that do the talking to keep things going as if they haven't changed. This industry is not about the "boys club" and keeping all of those whippersnappers in line so that they can stay in the lap of luxury. This industry is not supposed to be immune to change and ignore all the harm and distress it is causing to those who want to do what they love. This industry cannot be silent and not check on the well-being of performers and creatives before putting a show on its feet, pandemic notwithstanding. This industry is supposed to be more than what it is now, and it's letting those who are a part of this career down. And it's a damn shame. (I know this is a lot for this week's blog post, but as I've said in previous posts, these are my observations and reflections. You are welcome to disagree with anything I've written here or sit down with me and talk about how you're faring in this industry or wherever you are. I won't tolerate offensive language, disrespectful comments, and hate. They have no place here or anywhere, and I will block you if you cannot afford to be kind to each other.)
There are a lot of emotions going on in my mind and heart as I see the ugly truth of what's happening in our industry right now: Outrage. Frustration. Sadness. Shock. Bewilderment. I had the chance to both listen and talk with working professionals who are on the same level of their careers as I am or are more seasoned than I am, and the fact remains that things aren't going well. It's heartbreaking that this industry continued as if nothing's changed or even a pandemic happened. They only care about money and keeping the doors open without consideration for those who work hard to make it happen daily. "That's how it is" isn't sitting well with me, and it brings me to this question: If "that's how it is" is how things have been on Broadway, regional theatre, or national tours, how come it's been doing more harm than good for those who genuinely want to do what they love? I wish I had an answer to that. I also wish I didn't feel so out of place in my theatre community. Yeah. I'm unsure where I belong in the theatre community or this industry. It seems like I'm not meant for the commercial successes on Broadway or the raw, original straight plays in the DC theatre community, and I'm struggling to find my voice and purpose when I'm in this season of transition. And it doesn't help that there's an industry coming out of a pandemic that seems to want to stay rooted in one spot and not make a conscious effort to change things for the better. I guess I'm on the brunt of coming out of a pandemic with no clear direction or guidance on where I'm meant to be or where I belong. If I can't seem to get cast into musicals or get considered by significant theatre companies, or I'm not commercial enough because of an industry's silence and staying in their comfort zone... That puts me and plenty of others trying to find their place in the community on the wrong end of the stick. And it hurts like crazy. I used to believe things would make sense again after the pandemic. However, on the contrary, everything is still bloody confusing and much more complex because of an industry's unwillingness to change things to make things better for all of us. Keeping things as they were pre-pandemic was a big mistake, and people like me are paying the price by missing out on some incredible opportunities to perform and make a difference in their community. I wish there were a way the theatre industry on Broadway and in regional theaters across the country could see that. I also wish that those at the top with all of the money in this industry start seeing that money isn't a way to solve all of the problems, nor is it a way to listen and make the change that benefits everyone, not just you. There is so much you can do to make this industry feel like a family and community again without business getting in the way of the most powerful relationships. Like checking in with actors, stage managers, customers, choreographers, writers, and other creatives regularly to see how they're doing physically, mentally, emotionally, and financially. Like taking steps to use a new talent for shows and trusting in their experience to make the show a wonderful one. Like hiring more women and BIPOC individuals (including those in the LGBTQIA community) for more executive positions and implementing rules and procedures to keep everyone safe without fear of being fired or delisted. Like looking at ways virtual theatre and streaming shows can be more accessible to audiences who cannot see the live performances due to finances, health, and location. Like moving away from commercialism and towards originality, community, and transformation with shows that matter the most to audiences. Like being more transparent about the causes that matter to us that make this world a better place, like equity, diversity, and financial support. Yes, you are a business, and making sure the theatre industry stays afloat is essential, but you can't be a great business if you don't see that people are people first, not playthings or statistics. That's what makes companies fall apart. I may not be a businessperson, but I'm a firm believer in making sure people are seen and treated as people first, and that can make a big difference in how people respond to kindness and understanding. You can say I'm disillusioned with Broadway and the regional theatre scene. A large part of why I became an actor is to tell the stories that matter to individuals who need to hear them and not be a part of the industry's commercialism. And there are times when I go about my auditions and callbacks when I wonder if it's worth it to keep going, even when I don't know what I'm doing and how to make sense of everything that's not making much sense. That leads me to another strong emotion that's kept me afloat as I make sense of this new chapter in my life: HOPE. I believe in the power of change and transformation, even if it makes us uncomfortable, and if this industry is slow to make changes that benefit everyone, not just those with the money. It doesn't have to stay the same, especially after a pandemic. There's no fear in venturing out into the unknown. Yes, you can be scared, but you can still venture out into the unknown, even very slowly. Sometimes, I lose my patience, move very slowly, and often force things to happen on my timeline because I miss performing. But then I forget that transitions and change don't occur on our timeline, and it's the universe's/God's/fate's way of controlling things we cannot control. I feel like that's what this industry is doing right now - those in power are being God/the universe/fate and determining what's best to survive and thrive, even if it means staying put and keeping things the same pre-pandemic. You can't expect things to improve in the industry if you stay in your comfort zone and only do what's best for you. It doesn't work like that, and it can't work like that anymore. You can't keep looking the other way when glaring problems must be addressed. You can't keep expecting actors to work for the same amount of money when the prices of just about everything is going up. You can't keep on treating actors, stage managers, creatives, and more as dispensable when they are people and they have feelings and opinions that need to be heard. You can't keep relying on shows and stories from well-known films and people to keep the doors open when so many stories need to be told on stage. You can't keep on having a roster of actors to count on for your success when so many talented artists can bring a story to life and have been waiting to do so for a long time. You can't keep falling on your old buddies in the old white boys club when they're not even holding themselves accountable for the harmful actions inflicted on the community. Old habits die hard, but they need to die nonetheless. If you genuinely want this industry to survive and thrive, it's time to improve. You've already let so many people down by hanging onto your old ways, and when they speak out about it, you don't respond or take proactive action. Isn't it time for a new change of pace for once? Karen Olivio and Patti LuPone think so, and they left because the Broadway industry wouldn't listen to either of them. Isn't it time you started listening with your ears, mind, and heart, and not your money for once? There's not a moment to lose. This industry, on Broadway and beyond, needs to do better for everyone, not just for those in power. Don't wait until things fall apart to realize things need to change. Don't let all of us dreamers become disillusioned and hardened by an industry that doesn't care about us. Do the thing you should've done throughout the pandemic: LISTEN to us UNDERSTAND where we're coming from. Don't RELY on old practices and the usual roster to keep business afloat. TAKE CHANCES. BE BOLD. BE BRAVE. And most importantly... DON'T BE AFRAID OF CHANGE. Thank you for coming to my TED talk.