Creativity finds a way.
It's been more than seven months since live public performance in New York City essentially came to a halt, and the shutdown doesn't look to be ending anytime soon: Broadway, for example, will be dark at least June 2021. That has left theater artists spinning their wheels in frustration. But some of them have been using the Great Pause as an opportunity to channel their creative energy into new kinds of projects. Here are five of their stories.
The Broadway chorus boy now expressing himself through flowers
After 15 years as one of Broadway’s most prominent chorus performers, Adam Perry is probably used to getting flowers. Now, he’s arranging them. Even by 2020 standards, this has been a challenging year for the strapping dancer: While on medical leave from Broadway’s Frozen for a torn tendon, he became seriously ill with COVID. “It was a terrifying experience,” he says. “I literally wrote a will, because I thought I was gonna die.” (Meanwhile, Frozen announced that it was closing for good.) But everything’s been coming up roses for Perry lately: In June, his friend and fellow dancer Robbie Fairchild (An American in Paris) invited him to join Fairchild’s budding flower business, boo•kay nyc. “I'm from the mountains of Tennessee, and my family's Southern Baptist, but I was always dancing and singing and going out into the yard to pick flowers,” Perry recalls. “It was just another one of the gay-as-fuck things that I did.” He has worked as an assistant florist between jobs in the past, and took courses at the Botanical Gardens earlier this year; now he’s helping create colorful decorations for a burgeoning client list that has included Bernadette Peters and Tommy Tune. “It's brought me so much joy,” Perry says. “This year has been a dumpster fire, and to be able to work with flowers and create has been the best thing that could've happened to me.”
Adam Perry | Photograph: Ryan Steele
The musical director supporting the community with candles
At the start of the quarantine, the songwriter and musical director Lance Horne and his husband, Aussie song-and-dance man Kurt Phelan, were sheltering upstate at a house belonging to Neil Gaiman and Amanda Palmer. “The main room didn't have electricity,” Horne says. “But Kurt knows how to make candles, and out of a combination of necessity and invention he taught me.” They soon began sharing their creations with members of their pod, and over the summer, their business grew into a company called We Light, which crafts lovely soy-wax candles in varieties such as Rosemary Grapefruit and Deep Amber. Horne’s NYC apartment serves as a friendly makeshift factory where other performers—including many regulars from Horne’s weekly show-tune night at Club Cumming—earn much-needed cash by pitching in. “My space turned into a collective for people who needed a place to live or to shoot their latest film project—and while they were here, they would make candles,” Horne says. “About five dollars per candle goes directly to the performing artist who made it.” This community effort came about partly because Horne and Phelan were out of town for much of the summer. “Had we been here, there wouldn't have been this many people involved,” Horne observes. “But it's turned out to be the whole point of the business.”
Kurt Phelan and Lance Horne | Photograph: Courtesy of the artist
The actor making a new space for artistic development
Mirirai Sithole’s Aye Defy began years ago as a blog: a way for the Zimbabwean-American actor to share her experience as she tried to make it in the theater world. “It was about grappling with hope to be an artist in America while figuring out what being an American even meant to me,” she says. “I was still selling merchandise on Broadway and performing in whatever I could get my hands on.” She has attained considerable success since then in shows including School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play, and when the shutdown began she teamed with producer Jeremy Wein to create the charitable virtual-theater site Play-PerView. After two months, however, she returned to Aye Defy with an expanded idea of what it could be: an artist-centered, service-oriented consultancy, advocacy and producing organization that aims to establish what she calls “a brave and safe space” for creation. “We are building programs for people who are scared about how to continue making art,” Sithole says. “Joy has always been at the heart of this.” In July, Aye Defy produced seven virtual readings, and it has numerous other projects in the works. “It’s about giving people the tools to produce themselves and not wait for a theater to say yes,” she says. “That’s why it’s Aye Defy: It’s Aye as in yes.”
Mirirai Sithole | Photograph: Gabriela Della Corna
The cabaret star now creating vibrant paintings
The celebrated actor and cabaret singer Jessica Molaskey has been brushing up. “I’ve been transitioning, as they say, as a woman of a certain age,” she says wryly. “I’ve always loved painting but I never had the time to do it.” During the shutdown, she and her husband, the jazz guitarist John Pizzarelli, have mostly been holed up in their small home in Putnam County, which she has found freeing in one sense. Starting in March, and drawing on her Catholic background, she has created imposing works she calls The Reluctant Saints: large canvases that portray prominent right-wing political figures like Mitch McConnell and Kellyanne Conway in the tradition of religious iconography. When working on that series became too stressful, she changed the subjects: ”I couldn’t meditate on that every day, so I started painting New Yorkers and my friends and my family: my daughter graduating from college in a mask, my husband making his next record in a mask.” Now she tries to paint something every day, and sometimes auctions off her smaller works—“Just, like, paintings I made of a tomato that afternoon”—in the Thursday concerts she performs with Pizzarelli on Facebook and Instragram. “There’s something about what’s happening in this horrible time, because we’re not running around,” Molaskey says. “We can just sit in a room and say, What do we want to do? What would we do today if we had nothing else to do? And to me, that’s painting.”
Jessica Molaskey | Photograph: Courtesy of the artist
The singer with a new shower-set streaming series
Lots of people sing in the shower, but Todd Buonopane has taken it to a different level. The ebullient comic actor was in Delaware preparing to open in a touring production of The Play That Goes Wrong when the theater world went dark. “I knew that if I just sat on the couch for a while, I would get depressed very quickly,” he recalls, so he decided to stream a live rendition of a monologue from Neil Simon’s Lost in Yonkers instead—and his shower was the quietest place to do it. (“I looked in my bathroom and I was like, ‘Well, the tub even has a curtain!’") Thus began the Bathtub Theatre series, which finds Buonopane performing on Facebook and Instagram several times a week; a complete archive can also be seen on YouTube. (He plans to cap the series soon, when he hits his 100th episode.) Most of episodes now feature musical numbers, performed sincerely despite the silly surroundings, and nearly all of them were originally written for women. “My mom doesn't get that at all,” Buonopane says. “She's like, 'Why can't you do something you could do in real life, so they could cast you in that?’ But there's something a bit more pure about it this way. I'm just doing things I love.”
Todd Buonopane | Photograph: Courtesy of the artist
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