(NEW YORK) — Broadway seamstress Amy Micallef hasn’t put her talent on hold while theaters are shut. She’s been making plush toys—unusual plush toys.
Micallef, who has worked in the wardrobe departments of “Hamilton,” “Waitress” and “Frozen,” makes gleeful representations of COVID-19, complete with a pair of eyes and faux fur. Each one goes for $23 on Etsy and she encourages buyers to unleash their anger on her creations — to be merciless against a virus that has caused so much loss and disruption.
“Sometimes you need to throw something against the wall, you need to step on something. Do you want to run that thing over with your car? Honey, be my guest,” she said. “Here is here is your chance for sweet, sweet vengeance.”
While stages remain dark, Broadway workers like Micallef are finding ways to keep the lights on at home with side hustles. Some teach dance. Some offer music lessons or acting tips via Zoom. Some make jewelry or prints of their art. Some sell skincare products or handmade journals.
“Actors’ normal side gigs are catering and even those jobs don’t exist. No one’s hosting parties,” said Jeanna de Waal, who is to play the title role in the musical “Diana.” “A lot of people are having to learn new side hustles and utilize any skill that they’ve got to pay the bills.”
The survival picture is certain to get darker when the government’s $600-a-week pandemic unemployment compensation program expires this month. Unemployment checks in New York top out at $504 a week but most people get a fraction of that, not enough to get by in an expensive city. The relief group The Actors Fund has distributed more than $14 million in assistance to some 12,000 people, but more is needed. The city doesn’t expect shows to restart until at least January.
“I can’t say this any clearer: The arts and the entertainment sector as a whole is on the verge of the biggest existential crisis we’ve ever had,” said Adam Krauthamer, the president of Local 802, which represents musicians. “We’re on the edge of the cliff.”
He said many of his 7,000 members are taking a hard look at their careers and may not return to Broadway orchestra pits or symphony spaces. Krauthamer warns the sound of New York may soon be very different without help.
“If the right politicians and philanthropists and people who help the arts are not engaged to put together a program that will save culture and the arts in New York City, it’s going to change as we know it forever.”
Ali Solomon’s career was finally soaring when the pandemic hit in mid-March. Like many Broadway artists, she had a patchwork of jobs: She was an associate choreographer for the off-Broadway show “Trevor: The Musical,” the tour choreographer for “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and was helping a show in development. All were stopped—but rent wasn’t.
“You’re at the top of your game after working for so many years and now to go find a job in another industry, where do you start? You’re at the bottom of the totem pole. You’re lucky if you’ll make minimum wage,” she said.
To make ends meet, she is a skincare consultant for Rodan and Fields and teaches—both in-person at a studio on Long Island and virtually for PassDoor, an online dance studio created by Broadway veterans.
“I’m starting to add little bits of income. None of it will compare to what I was making before. But it’s something and luckily I’ve been able to save. But the fear, though, is that nest egg that you’ve been saving is quickly going to diminish because the cost of living is so high.”
Living with easy access to the theater district has always been key to Broadway’s talent pool. But those apartments often command the highest rent. So some workers are letting their leases lapse, moving out and biding their time to when the shows restart, raising fears of a talent drain.
“I already know tons of people who’ve left the city,” said Solomon. “It doesn’t mean that they’re never coming back, but they’ve given up their homes. And they’re like, ‘Until we have a reason to come back, there’s no need to be here.’”
De Waal has gone from acting to hiring. She’s put her focus on Broadway Weekends, a company she and her sister, Dani, started in 2017 offering in-person theater camps for adults. Following the shutdown, she decided to focus online and recruited fellow performers. “All my friends were unemployed. So it was very easy to ask around.”
Broadway Weekends now offers 20-30 classes a week on Zoom, charging $39 a month for unlimited access. Enrollment has rocketed to over 7,000. De Waal is paying her teachers and is working to establish a non-profit version and an educational arm for school kids.
Jenny Florkowski, a veteran at “Wicked,” crafts jewelry on the side for Etsy and is also looking to the wider community. She gives away all proceeds from sales of her beaded and friendship bracelets to the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and Color of Change.
“During this time, a lot of performers feel they’ve lost their purpose,” she said. “It was nice to connect with a lot of people and feel like we were all giving towards something bigger than ourselves.”
Broadway producers have donated millions of dollars to emergency funds and one has even reached into her own pocket to employ 70 dancers to lead free virtual dance-exercise session classes.
Jenna Segal, the co-producer of such shows as “Hadestown” and “What the Constitution Means to Me,” launched Get In Shape Grrl! on Facebook and has expanded it to an app, attracting some 15,000 members.
“I just thought to myself, ‘Wouldn’t it be fun to bring Broadway to people who are sad because the season was just about to open? Let’s do something where they can participate and we can keep dancers employed,’” said Segal.
Mackenzie Warren, a dancer and instructor, has turned to a different art form—offering prints of her watercolor floral arrangements. She says it’s another way to tell a story and bring light to people. But she also hits a heartbreaking note for theater lovers.
“I’ve gotten to perform some dream shows, I’ve gotten to perform on Broadway. I’m so grateful and I hope that my career is not over in that area. But if it is, I can look back with gratitude and say, ‘OK, well, what’s the next adventure? How can I adapt?’”
The pandemic has both revealed the creativity of the Broadway community and its fragility. Micallef, the plush toy maker, immediately donated masks for frontline workers when the virus struck. But now her side hustle is barely enough to keep her in yarn. She still has faith.
“I have the benefit of knowing two very important things that I think most people may not believe or may not truly understand—No. 1: This will end. It will. I promise it will,” she said. “And second, there is good on the other side.”