Dreams Deferred

Artists on the brink of brave new stages in their careers have found ways to perform virtually — and support those on the front lines

26 May 2020 | 01:48

Erika Henningsen walked away from a key role in “Mean Girls” on Broadway to take a smaller one in a new Lincoln Center show called “Flying Over Sunset.” “It was an amazing cast, and it was Lincoln Center, which I’d always dreamed about,” the young actress says.

Alas, right after the technical run-through, the virus closed the show down. Another actress, Alyssa May Gold, was rehearsing on Broadway alongside one of her idols until ... well, until. Ryan Roberts, after a grueling audition process, had only five months before been accepted as the oboe/English horn player in the New York Philharmonic. He was then its youngest member, at 22. He has given up his Upper West Side apartment and temporarily returned home to be with his parents in Santa Monica.

All dreams deferred, and so it has been for so many artists who were on the brink of brave new stages both to step on, and in their careers. But the artistic community — including well-known names like Oscar Isaac, Michael Urie, Jane Alexander and Christine Baranski — has stepped up like never before. They have found countless ways to perform virtually for those of us hungering for authentic entertainment, and to support those not memorizing lines, but on the front ones.

People like Camille A. Brown, a Tony-nominated choreographer who was preparing for a Broadway revival of “Aida.” Now she is taking care of the members of her own company. “I’m trying to provide income for my dancers,” she says. “They are teaching social dance classes. And I’m hosting lectures centered around the African Diaspora.” She was born and raised and still lives in Queens. “My neighborhood is filled with flowers and trees and I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she says.

"I Miss Making Music"

Alyssa May Gold, who had gotten a big break supporting Mary Louise Parker, in “How I Learned to Drive” (which had not officially opened) cried, but not for long. She had founded her own small company, called Pocket Universe, which now includes a project to connect health care workers with artists to help in any way they can. “In some ways, this is not that dissimilar to my usual life,” Gold says, “with periods of waiting and finding other ways to be creative.”

Ryan Roberts may be in Southern California, but his playing continues: including participating in a video the Philharmonic is putting together for those missing its sound. Roberts grew up in Los Angeles, attended public schools, and then received a scholarship to Juilliard. “But I always saw myself living in New York,” he says.

Pre-pandemic, his life was filled with exciting performances, (including being prominently featured in a New Year's Eve Sondheim special) and preparing for world traveling with the orchestra. But he is not seeking sympathy. “I’m very comfortable being with my family,” he says, “and there are many suffering far more. But I miss my colleagues and I miss making music together.”

All the performers are finding things to do: reading, watching, exercising, and many are flexing new muscles. Like actor Patrick Breen, who was one of the stars of a Manhattan Theatre Club production called “Perplexed,” when COVID-19 struck. He has performed in two live readings, (including “Beirut” with Marisa Tomei and Oscar Isaac) and has joined a writer’s group. He is also the proud owner of a trio of unique non-humans. “My super found a zebra finch in a dirty cage on the street,” says Breen. “He knew I had two rescued sparrows. I named their new friend Zelda.”

Labor Day is the newest hoped-for date of Broadway’s re-opening. Some of the 16 new productions have already been canceled (“Frozen” recently added to the list) or postponed (“Plaza Suite” with Matthew Broderick and Sarah Jessica Parker and the new Michael Jackson musical). One being closely watched is the depression-era musical “Girl From the North Country.” Among its stars is Broadway veteran Mark Kudish, who has been nominated for Tonys, and rarely stops working. But he says this one — largely due to the music of Bob Dylan — was a dream come true. “It has been a true labor of love," he says. “I cannot imagine anyone in our company not coming back, but it’s a risky show and will always depend on word of mouth.”

That, and so many others, await the next, and hopefully definitive, word of mouth. All appendages crossed, but in the meantime, our performers may be temporarily postponed, but are proving that you can’t cancel creativity.

Michele Willens reports weekly on an NPR affiliate. “Stage Right — Or Not” can be found on podcast sites.