On Friday March 13, Wayne State acting major Vanessa Fry sat in a talent agent’s office in New York City. The day before, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned gatherings larger than 500 people, indefinitely stopping all Broadway shows in response to the escalating COVID-19 pandemic.
Her appointment with the agent went well, but questions around the unfolding situation were arising, Fry said.
“All the talent agents were, you know, very concerned and things were getting chaotic in their offices because all their clients were calling, asking if they were going to get paid, how they were going to get paid and if they don't get paid the agents don't get paid,” she said.
Over spring break, before the entertainment industry was put on pause, graduating WSU theatre and dance students had the opportunity to showcase their talents for industry professionals.
WSU Department of Theatre and Dance Chair John Wolf said the showcase serves an important role in preparing students for careers in the industry.
“The acting showcase is a vital piece of professional development for these graduating students. It’s an opportunity to jump start a career, as we’re able to bring casting directors and agents together in one place where they can audition them in the hopes of a job or representation,” Wolf said.
Theatre students performed a song, monologue and group scenes at showcases in Chicago before traveling to New York City for more performances.
“The theater showcase in my opinion is pretty much the culmination of our entire acting major preparation throughout our time at Wayne State,” acting major Perry Quarker Jr. said. “To me it's a very wonderful gift that the department gives us before we are sent out into the professional world.”
For the WSU dance department, the trip marked the start of a new tradition, with it being the first New York City dance showcase. While the department has held other programs that allow students to travel to New York for professional preparation, the trip and showcase broadened this approach.
“Students are making work all through their time with us at Wayne State,” WSU Director of Dance Meg Paul said. “They have choreography classes, they have, you know, assignments in terms of making work, but they also want to make work on their own.”
12 senior dance students went on the trip to New York City, which gave them an opportunity to show their creativity to other talented individuals. Students on the trip performed three dance compositions — choreographed by individual members of the group — in front of alumni, artistic directors and professional choreographers during the week.
The experience gave theatre students the opportunity to connect with agents in markets larger than Detroit, acting major Nikita Krylov said.
“I mean, for us, it's kind of like a first step out there,” he said. “And maybe it's successful, maybe it isn't successful. It doesn't mark the end for anything, for any of us. But it is like a nice jump start if we do find a lot of success with the showcase.”
The trip showed students what opportunities as creatives are possible for them in the world, Paul said.
“We want each student through our program to find themselves, to really figure out how they in their own unique way are ready to, you know, move into the world and make that change,” she said.
Actors and dancers alike said they were proud of their performances during the showcases.
For Quarker, it was his first time experiencing the professional world of acting and performing in front of people scouting for talent, he said.
“Going into the trip I was kind of nervous. It's a big thing, it's what we all work for,” acting major Dewight Braxton Jr. said.
These initial nerves were felt by most theatre students, Fry said. After the first performance was finished, the excitement made the others fly by.
While watching each other’s performances, Quarker said the weight of everyone’s initial performance during the showcase could be seen coming off their shoulders as nerves subsided.
“It seemed like every single person that got done with their turn, they felt very successful with what they put in,” he said.
While students are auditioning their own individual talents during the showcase, everyone plays a team role in doing so, Fry said. Students collectively present work they can all be proud of.
“I think it (the showcase) represented each one of us. It does us all justice,” she said. “I was just super proud of us all and myself and I think many of us ended up getting interested, getting seen.”
After one of the auditions in New York City, students watched and listened to critiques from those in attendance, acting major Lauren Alo said. The audience responded positively to what was seen on stage.
“For the first time in my life I was able to zone everyone out and do my best. I think it went well for me as well as everyone else,” she said.
The dance showcase was held at Ripley-Grier Studios in New York City, where the theatre showcase was also held, Paul said. The showcase was run informally in a studio that didn’t give dancers much space, but dance major Sara Burman said she ended up liking these factors.
The studio space set performers in the faces of their audience, which can be a vulnerable way of being seen, Paul said. The experience is different when the distance a theatrical stage provides is removed.
“Performing in a space where you don't have that separation is always really intimidating so the opportunity to perform in that space is beneficial,” Burman said.
The audience understood how the parameters can affect a performance and commended students for being able to shine in the space, Paul said. After the showcase, they also told students how excited they were for their futures and that the students are ready to move to New York to start auditioning professionally.
“I think that was very rewarding and relieving for the students to hear,” Paul said.
Many of the students have never traveled to New York City before the trip, understanding the city through movie portrayals as a place where only a few lucky people find success, Paul said. What stuck with students is how their perception of the city changed.
“By going to the city, they were kind of like, ‘Oh my gosh,’ you know, I get like almost chill bumps thinking about it because it was so exciting. They were just so like, ‘I want this, I didn't even know I wanted this,’ and that was the whole purpose of the trip,” Paul said.
Apart from the dance showcase, there was a WSU alumni event where students were able to network with dance graduates. A panel discussion at the Gibney Dance Choreographic Center and a performance of “Moulin Rouge,” on Broadway were also included in the event.
Two WSU dance alumni can be seen on Broadway, with 2002 graduate Sonya Tayeh choreographing“Moulin Rouge,” and 1969 graduate Garth Fagan choreographing “The Lion King.”
This trip helped clarify whether Burman should pursue a career in New York City in the future or stay in Michigan, she said. The trip has inspired her to pursue opportunities in New York.
“The amount of opportunities that are just always available as a performer I think is really valuable,” she said. “The hustle and bustle of the city, it felt important to be there.”
Many students are planning on moving to New York City, Paul said. It also made students realize their goals are attainable in other large cities as well.
“I want to end up in NYC,” Alo said. “I think the experiences that I had during (the) showcase have solidified my plan to move to New York.”
While students performed their showcase in Chicago, the coronavirus pandemic was escalating in New York City.
“In Chicago we didn’t have a huge issue with coronavirus, but the day before we were going to NYC the director sat us down and said they wanted to shut down our showcase,” Alo said.
If the showcase would’ve been scheduled a week later, it most likely would have been canceled, Quarker said. He was able to show his four years of hard work during the performance and also discover what future opportunities it might lead to.
“We decided to not really take into account too much the effect of the pandemic. We knew what was happening around us, but at the same time, we knew we had a job to do,” he said. “We were just gonna go in and do what we do best and that's exactly what we did.”
Fry first noticed the pandemic’s effect on life during their flight to New York, she said.
“There were only like 40 passengers and we were like 20 of those people,” she said. “The flight was, like, empty on this, like, big plane which is something I’ve never experienced before.”
People on the trip took extra precautions: washing hands, disinfecting plane seats and social distancing, Braxton said.
Advisors on the trip helped provide students information on how they could prevent themselves from getting sick, Burman said.
“I had hand sanitizer at all times. I have never washed my hands more times than I did on that trip,” Alo said.
WSU dancers flew back on Friday morning as things began to heighten around the pandemic, Burman said. The group discussed traveling back a day sooner but ended up not changing their plans.
“We were pretty much the only large group in (the) New York City airport. It was pretty empty, that was jarring,” she said.
While WSU dancers had flown back to Detroit, theatre students were experiencing a city beginning to shut down.
While in line waiting to buy tickets for a Broadway show on March 12, Braxton found out all theatre performances were canceled, he said.
When Krylov walked through Time Square one night, it was “empty” as everything was starting to shut down.
“It was kind of baffling to look at,” he said.
Students stayed with alumni in different parts of the city, Fry said. She said she started realizing how bad things were getting when the three women she was staying with all came home saying they’d lost their jobs.
The day after Gov. Cuomo’s actions, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer declared a state of emergency that advised for the cancellation of large gatherings. The remainder of the 2019-2020 season for WSU theatre was canceled.
“I think we're all little bummed that it (the trip) really was our last time together basically since, you know, the semester (was) canceled,” Fry said. “I wouldn't have wanted to end my senior year any other way. It was lovely to travel with all of them and kind of see what the cities brought out in all of us.”
The WSU canceled productions included “Bus Stop,” “Stage Kiss,” and “Mary Poppins.” Other touring shows of “The Magic Kite,” and Motor City Cabaret’s production of “Do You Believe in Magic?” were also canceled.
With many students performing in these productions, the showcase unfortunately served as their “last hurrah,” Fry said.
“I've taken time to like reflect on how fun the showcase was and it made me realize you can't really take memories like that for granted,” Quarker said.
The cancellation of shows impacted Braxton, who performed in the Motor City Cabaret tour and worked building stage sets for WSU productions. He’s now out of work, he said.
“I was devastated. I know the people who were playing in Mary Poppins,” Braxton said. “I can’t do my show for my senior year.”
This decision was hard on Krylov as well, he said. But he’s proud of being casted as Bert in “Mary Poppins.” This role made him realize how far he’s made it as an actor.
“You make it (the role) kind of a part of yourself and you add your own personality to it so then you can make it more personal,” Krylov said. “So, kind of, that's why it really hurt so much for our shows to be canceled. It’s our own personalities that are being cut off.”
The decision to cancel the productions also personally struck Quarker, but he understands why it was made, he said.
“It is depressing at first, but at the same time it kind of makes me want to work harder once I can get back up on my feet for the future for future projects,” Quarker said.
Despite the show not happening, Quarker said they can still be proud of the work that was put into the production. Actors put their hearts into the show, working hard when it came to line and music memorization, accents and other details very early on.
“What this pandemic made me realize is the memories that we put in those rehearsals, and we only had like a few weeks, but there were so many people that bonded together,” he said.
A memory that has stuck with Fry was performing in “Heather’s: The Musical,” last semester, she said.
“I got to play my dream role, and all my friends were in their dream roles, and we had the best director and we all just came together as a family,” she said. “It was just a really special show for all of us.”
The showcase was another reminder of why theatre is so important to Alo, she said.
"The reason I like theater is because of the community and the people in it,” she said. “Time and time again the people in the theater community show me that there are always people there to welcome you home.”
Jenna Prestininzi is a contributing writer for The South End, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jack Filbrandt is the arts and entertainment editor at The South End. He can be reached at email@example.com.