Theater / Film

Theater artists keep body, soul and craft together in the time of COVID-19

Posted By Christine Dolen
April 9, 2020 at 4:32 PM

Slow Burn Theatre has rescheduled “Ragtime” for spring 2021. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Fitzwater)

As worldwide coronavirus cases have soared past a million, with South Florida a COVID-19 hotspot, the region’s theater artists are – like all of us – confronting the questions of daily life in a temporarily remade world.

How do we pay rent, the mortgage, our bills? How do we keep food on the table? What happens when health insurance, current work or future projects suddenly vanish? How can we use creativity to keep moving forward?

What follows are snapshots of the ways some individual theater artists and couples are coping during this strange moment in time.

Clay Cartland was the trapped weatherman in Slow Burn Theatre’s “Groundhog Day.” (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Balfanz)

CLAY CARTLAND

In February, Carbonell Award-winning actor Clay Cartland gave another richly nuanced, inventive, funny-yet-moving performance as the cynical TV weatherman in Slow Burn Theatre Co.’s “Groundhog Day.” After that show closed, he continued doing his side jobs – work as a voiceover artist, driving for Lyft and Uber – and started rehearsals for the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Camelot” at The Miracle Theatre in Coral Gables.

Then came the shutdown of shows about to open, the loss of three potential future jobs and the majority of the side-job work, and self-isolation.

Cartland, who is nominated for another Carbonell for playing the nastily narcissistic, height-challenged Lord Farquaad in Slow Burn’s 2019 production of “Shrek,” has been keeping busy in a variety of ways.

He has put up shelves for his vast collection of Funko Pop comic/superhero bobbleheads. As an avid bodybuilder who can no longer go to the gym, he’s created an outdoor gym on the patio of the house where he and musical director Eric Alsford are roommates. He’s hanging out with his dogs, visiting his mom in Hollywood every day (he stands at her front door to talk to her), and he managed to navigate Florida’s overwhelmed website to file for unemployment.

He’s also having Skype sessions with a therapist once a week, dealing with anxiety and depression, and a temporary spiral when his mother thought she had COVID-19.

On March 29, he participated in Theatre Lab’s Online Original Monologue Festival as both a performer and a playwright. The 3 ½-hour fundraising event for South Florida theater artists has now been viewed nearly 2,500 times.

“It was such a joy to get up and take a shower and put pants on!” he says.

Creatively, he’s revising his 90-minute play, “That’s My Time,” which had a staged reading as part of Jan McArt’s New Play Readings series at Boca Raton’s Lynn University in February.

Although he thinks the coronavirus shutdown will alter theater in the region, he also has faith that it will come back – maybe for the better.

“I really do believe that there will be the usual crowd, and maybe more from the younger generation,” he says. “They’re saving some money from not running around, ordering food and eating out. I think there will be a yearning to go outside.”

Karen Stephens starred in Thinking Cap Theatre’s production of Samuel Beckett’s “Happy Days.” (Photo courtesy of Nicole Stodard)

KAREN STEPHENS

Karen Stephens had one of the most challenging, rewarding roles of her career in February – playing Winnie in Samuel Beckett’s absurdist “Happy Days” at Fort Lauderdale’s Thinking Cap Theatre. The Carbonell-winning actor is also a talented hairstylist with her own West Palm Beach salon, and for the first part of March, she was serving her regular clients.

“I rely on my salon business to tide me over,” she says. But now she’s at home with her two dogs and three cats, out of work for the foreseeable future, except for unemployment benefits.

“When things are stressful, I don’t expand. I curl up,” she says. “Emotionally and financially, I’m trying to cope. I just paid off the mortgage on my salon, so I don’t want to saddle myself with more debt. I don’t want to decimate my rainy-day savings. But if this lasts much past May, I don’t know what I’ll do.”

Still, she believes some good can come of this socially distanced time.

“This allows us to rid ourselves of all the things that didn’t serve us, without all the distractions we usually have,” she says. “Will we be left with residual fear because of this? I’d hope people will be happy when theaters eventually reopen. I’m praying the layoff is not too long. I hope that people don’t get out of the habit of going and supporting live theater.”

Alex Alvarez played the harried director in Juggerknot Theatre’s “Miami Motel Stories: North Beach.” (Photo courtesy of Daniela Piantini)

ALEX ALVAREZ AND SAHID PABON

Miami-based partners Alex Alvarez and Sahid Pabon are busy working actors with several side survival jobs. Both do voiceover work (though not much since studios in the region severely cut back or shut down).

Carbonell winner Alvarez, who played the harried director in Juggerknot Theatre Co.’s immersive now-on-hiatus “Miami Motel Stories: North Beach,” is also an adjunct theater professor whose three classes at Nova Southeastern University have all moved online.

“To survive as a performer in South Florida, you have to have several things going,” observes Alvarez, who has been depending on his next scheduled theater job in City Theatre’s annual Summer Shorts festival to reactivate his Actors’ Equity health insurance.

Pabon was delivering for Shipt, driving for Lyft, and getting ready for a busy professional period. He was about to open as Bobby Strong in the Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts (PPTOPA) production of “Urinetown.” Then he was to go back to another edition of “Rock Odyssey” at Miami’s Adrienne Arsht Center; play Cliff in “Cabaret” for the Kravis Center-based MNM Theatre Co.; then move on to playing Che in “Evita” for PPTOPA.

Shalia Sakona and Sahid Pabon were getting ready to open “Urinetown” for the Pembroke Pines Theatre of the Performing Arts. (Photo courtesy of Ron Pollack Photography)

Those opportunities have evaporated, at least for the time being, and Pabon says that he “stopped both of my survival jobs. I thought shopping for Shipt was very dangerous, nerve-wracking and terrifying. I’ve been trying to get online jobs, like recording audiobooks or teaching English to kids in China.”

Pabon was one of the performers in Theatre Lab’s Online Original Monologue Festival, and the contributions he received helped him pay some bills. He had been hungry for an artistic outlet and was grateful to join in a community-supportive project with hope-themed pieces.

“With all of us shut in, it’s easy to lose hope,” he says. “But we can pave the way and show the value of art. Without the arts, we’d all be going crazy.”

Carbonell Award nominee Rita Cole was rehearsing for the starring role in Thinking Cap Theatre’s “Fefu and Her Friends.” (Photo courtesy of Joe Wesley)

RITA COLE

Rita Cole, Carbonell-nominated for her performance as Ruth Younger in New City Players’ “A Raisin in the Sun,” had one day of rehearsal for her next project. She was to play the lead role in Maria Irene Fornes’ “Fefu and Her Friends,” which had been set to run at Thinking Cap Theatre from April 2 to 19.

But rehearsals were paused so that she could go to Atlanta to attend unified auditions for multiple theater companies there, something she had previously scheduled.

She had paid the membership fee and ordered new headshots – and then the auditions were indefinitely postponed, as are “Fefu” and a reading she was set to do at Palm Beach Dramaworks.

“I don’t have a plane ticket home yet,” says Cole, who has been staying with friends and a cousin in Atlanta. “I’m playing it by ear. I’m choosing to stay here for my safety. I’m not coming back to anything.”

Cole works often at theaters in Miami-Dade, Broward and Palm Beach counties, but her survival job is as an interim teacher replacing teachers who have taken extended leaves.

She, too, is concerned about what the theater experience will be like when social distancing is no longer necessary.

“There will be a period when you’re not sure if you have it, when even regular coughs will be scary,” she says. “Actors have to be so in each other’s space … Maybe we can have go-live gatherings broadcast on the internet, and socially condition people, so we slowly return to normal.”

Nicole Stodard, left, and Bree-Anna Obst run Fort Lauderdale’s Thinking Cap Theatre. (Photo courtesy of Ian Dawson)

NICOLE STODARD AND BREE-ANNA OBST

Nicole Stodard, founder and artistic director of Thinking Cap Theatre, and Bree-Anna Obst, the company’s managing director, are partners who are isolating at home with Stodard’s three children.

Obst is also the manager of theatrical and early childhood experiences for the Miami Children’s Museum, and she continues to lead her team in creating virtual projects.

The women are also supervising the online middle school, third-grade and pre-K classes that Stodard’s kids are taking.

“We started working with them in shifts, because we were feeling fried,” Stodard says. “The name of the game around here is structure – normal bed times and routines. But we’re also trying to do what we can to make this fun, like eating outside by candlelight.”

Obst is thankful that her full-time museum job is virtual for the time being, though it sometimes means that she starts her day at 5:30 a.m., “and I am not a morning person.”

“But the more we share, the more we write, the more people who see the content justifies keeping the part-time staff on,” she adds.

As for Thinking Cap, this is the company’s 10th anniversary season, and Stodard is determined to press on once it’s safe to return to The Vanguard, a former church space that is the company’s home.

“We have five mainstage shows and a co-production with City Theatre. We’re hoping to use a portion of funds from a grant project to adapt and record ‘Coming Out Stories,’ then open that up to people – to the world – online,” she says. “June would have been the official anniversary of our first production. We were going to have a gala to try to raise $25,000 … Our goal is to resume as planned, in sequential order.”

Stodard and Obst remain focused on the nonprofit Thinking Cap’s mission. But they’re also ready to embrace the possibilities for whatever comes next.

“Too much worry keeps us on the path of panic and resisting change,” Stodard says. “Change is here.”

Real-life spouses Robert Fritz and Amy Coker played honeymooners in Juggerknot Theatre’s “Miami Motel Stories: North Beach.” (Photo courtesy of Daniella Mia)

AMY COKER AND ROBERT FRITZ

Amy Coker and Robert Fritz, actors married just over a year, were playing honeymooners in Juggerknot’s “Miami Motel Stories: North Beach” when the show and South Florida theater shut down.

The couple, who live in North Miami Beach, had health insurance through Coker’s job at Lush Cosmetics on Miami Beach’s Lincoln Road, and she was able to continue working there until March 22, when the business closed down the day after her birthday.

Fritz, a member of the Miami Children’s Museum Theater Troupe, is continuing to work part time virtually on projects for the museum. Both participated as performers in Theatre Lab’s Online Original Monologue Festival.

“It felt good to have something to do,” Fritz says. “I saw people performing who I’ve known, but I’ve never had the chance to see their work before.”

The pair are applying for unemployment and awaiting stimulus checks to make it through. They’re also looking forward to when they can return to playing the honeymoon couple tempted to stay in North Beach for good.

“It was a really sad close to the show. It had extended once and was going to extend again, so we were only halfway through the run,” Coker says.

Leah Marie Sessa played a lonely single woman in Slow Burn Theatre’s “Groundhog Day.” (Photo courtesy of Rodrigo Balfanz)

LEAH MARIE SESSA

In Slow Burn’s “Groundhog Day,” Leah Marie Sessa played a pretty, lonely woman who has a fling with the stranded TV weatherman during his endless loop of repeated days. Then she went into rehearsals for the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Camelot.”

Once that show shut down before it could open, she thought she could get by with her survival job as a Monday-night bartender. But the restaurant where she worked also shut down. Now, like so many of us, she’s living her own “Groundhog Day.”

“I’m in two industries where a lot of people live paycheck to paycheck,” Sessa says. “I can get by for a month, but I don’t know how long this will last.”

Sessa participated in the Online Original Monologue Festival, which allowed performers to show links where those watching could make direct donations to them. That part wasn’t easy.

“I’m very proud. It’s hard to admit you have to raise money for yourself. But you have to have income,” she says.

Even so, Sessa dedicated a Facebook birthday fundraiser to Slow Burn and raised $600 for the company. She’s a member of the 1940s-inspired musical group The Victory Dolls and is brainstorming ways to help the community with her fellow performers. She’s also making a video of herself singing a song to benefit MNM.

“Theater people don’t know how to sit around and do nothing,” she says. “We’re so used to a life that is go, go, go … It’s hard not to have a creative outlet.”

Slow Burn Theatre was in rehearsals for “Ragtime,” with Anna Lise Jensen Arvelo (back row, center) set to play Mother for the second time. (Photo courtesy of Patrick Fitzwater)

ANNA LISE JENSEN ARVELO

Before the pandemic, Anna Lise Jensen Arvelo was about to open as Mother in Slow Burn’s production of “Ragtime.”

Eerily, the musical’s Tony Award-winning book writer, Terrence McNally, died March 24 of coronavirus complications. And the New York City suburban community where Arvelo’s character lives with her white, upper-class family – New Rochelle – was an early virus hotspot, one of the first areas to be locked down to try to stop the spread of COVID-19.

The Lynn Ahrens-Stephen Flaherty-McNally musical, based on E.L. Doctorow’s sweeping novel about white, black and Jewish immigrant families whose lives intertwine in the early 20th century, is a show Arvelo first performed in New York in 2009.

“Two things are different now,” Arvelo says. “I am different, and the world is very different.”

For the time being, Slow Burn has rescheduled “Ragtime” for spring 2021.

After “Ragtime,” Arvelo was to have performed in and served as dialect coach for the Actors’ Playhouse production of “Murder on the Orient Express,” now postponed to an indefinite date.

Instead, when her husband leaves their Miami Shores home to go to work as a systems engineer for ChenMed, Arvelo teaches online classes to high school freshmen as a New World School of the Arts adjunct and also teaches English to children in China.

In thinking about what South Florida theater may look like once it resumes, Arvelo cites one of Mother’s songs from “Ragtime,” which says: “We can never go back to before.”

“We often get stuck in a cycle of production,” says Arvelo, a Carbonell winner for her performance in Slow Burn’s “The Bridges of Madison County.”

“We’ll do ourselves a disservice if we don’t see this as giving us a gift of clarity. I hope we start seeing new and interesting things.”

***

The South Florida Theatre League has established a fund to help theaters pay staff and performers, a fund that has doubled in a week. For information, visit southfloridatheatre.org/south-florida-theatre-league-relief-fund.

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