School of Dramatic Arts students unsure about their futures as COVID-19 shutters professional and student theater

SDA students feel “devastated” as USC and Broadway continue to postpone live shows due to the pandemic, leaving the theater industry in jeopardy.

The cancellation of USC’s fall theater performances left students in the School of Dramatic Arts (SDA) saddened and unsure about their futures in an industry rocked by COVID-19. They said this sadness was only compounded by the Oct. 9 announcement that Broadway’s hiatus will extend through May 2021.

On March 10, 2020, USC announced that all university-sponsored events, both on and off-campus, between March 11 and 29 were postponed. In an email statement to students, David Bridel, the former dean of the School of Dramatic Arts, announced that the remaining school productions would be cancelled, including student productions in SDA spaces.

The cancellation of in-person, student-run shows proved upsetting for USC School of Dramatic Arts students, who said they are already coping with learning their majors’ practical skills over Zoom.

“I was devastated because theater is an escape for many of us in SDA,” said Yajayra Franco, a sophomore studying lighting design. “It’s bliss to all of us, whether being a production student or an actor. It’s an escape and it’s our passion.”

“We know that student artists thrive in the presence of one another, their teachers, and their audiences, and we are profoundly sorry for the loss of these optimal conditions,” wrote Bridel in the email announcing the cancellation of SDA’s in-person performances.

Franco said planning virtual shows proved difficult initially due to the challenges of designing performances apart with fewer resources.

“It was tough because we had to decide how we were going to do this virtually because we’ve never done something like this before and we were obviously limited,” said Franco. “We just had to consider a lot of factors and make sure whatever we had to do was safe and went with the regulations.”

The lighting designer said she worries that the pandemic might deprive her of vital in-person opportunities to practice her practical craft at USC, leaving her insecure in her own talents going forward.

“I’m just a little scared that I won’t be prepared and I won’t have that confidence to design or for someone to hire me,” she said.

Ruby Marker, a junior majoring in theater, was cast in an Independent Student Production, “The Birdcage Experiment,” when the Spring semester went online. The play, written by USC theater student Aria Schuler, was ironically about a group of people living in a post-apocalyptic world ravaged by an illness.

Marker is now in online classes, which she said have posed new challenges to her as a performer.

“I don’t feel it anymore, you know? And then I’m like, ‘Well, have I lost my passion for acting?’” said Marker. “I’m pretty certain I haven’t. It’s just that when I’m sitting in my room and alone with my computer, trying to channel that same emotion I could have when doing a scene in class, it’s just not the same.”

Broadway officially closed theaters on March 21 due to statewide COVID-19 measures. After initially planning to reopen on Jan. 3, 2021, The Broadway League announced Oct. 9 that Broadway theaters would remain closed until May 30, 2021.

While the extended Broadway closure does not directly impact Marker, since she is still at USC, the reverberation of this closure across the performing arts industry does. With many of her family members being performers, Marker said she has felt the absence of live venues.

“I’m going to school to study what gives my life purpose and now I’m finding out that I might not be able to pursue that in the way that I wanted to — for a little bit, at least,” said Marker. “It’s kind of devastating.”

She said she recently added another major, philosophy, politics and law, partially due to the instability of the industry.

Recent USC alumni also worry about the industry’s current instability.

Olivia Singer, a theater major who graduated in May 2020, said it is difficult to find work both in and out of the industry. Singer spent her past summers training and performing rather than in traditional internships, which she said has made finding other jobs more challenging.

Within the industry, the process of auditioning has also changed in response to COVID-19 protocols.

“How do you act or sing or audition over the camera and make them feel like they’re in the room with you?” asked Singer.

Technicalities aside, Singer remains unsure if the projects she auditions for will come to fruition due to extended closures and pandemic safety measures.

“If there is something happening, it’s really hush-hush,” Singer said.

Unlike Broadway, which has tentative plans to open a few shows in late spring 2021, USC has not finalized any schedules for their upcoming spring semester. This lack of notice leaves the future of live performances at USC up in the air, creating even more uncertainty for theater students' futures. In the meantime, SDA’s website is selling tickets to a virtual performance of “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992,” which will be performed Oct. 16 and 17. Still, for some students, these virtual performances cannot replace the live stage production experience.

“We love sharing stories. We love designing these stories. We love just bringing these plays and musicals and stories to life, and the fact that we won’t be able to interact with that escape kind of sucks,” said an emotional Franco. “Not kind of, it does suck.”