Editors’ Note: With acknowledgment of the big-picture implications of a pandemic that has claimed thousands of lives, cratered global economies and closed international borders, Deadline’s Coping With COVID-19 Crisis series is a forum for those in the entertainment space grappling with myriad consequences of seeing a great industry screech to a halt. The hope is for an exchange of ideas and experiences, and suggestions on how businesses and individuals can best ride out a crisis that doesn’t look like it will abate any time soon.
Katelyn Kelley and Jon Demegillo, classmates in their fourth and final years at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, felt a calling to perform early in their young lives. Katelyn, who grew up in Los Angeles and studied dance as a child, was blown away by the female superheroes of the Marvel universe movies. “Seeing those women in positions of power and strength was something I’d never really seen before,” she says of Black Widow and Wasp and Scarlet Witch. “It just really inspired me and it made me want to feel safe in my own body and to feel strong and powerful. I think it’s what really ignited the spark in me to do this as a profession, and to be the strong role model for women. I became obsessed with Marvel.”
For Demegillo, who at 12 moved with his family to the San Francisco Bay area from the Philippines, the choice of an acting career was both inspired by his heritage and a challenge to it. “I always knew I wanted to perform,” says Demegillo, “but being in a Filipino family, sometimes they kind of want you to be a nurse or a doctor or a lawyer. It’s engrained in the culture. When we moved to America it was kind of like a free-for-all, my choices were expanded. I acted in high school and then I went to community college, and I took acting classes. My mom thought I was taking biology, but I wasn’t. I got my associate’s degree in theater, and then one of my high school mentors suggested I look into [the four-year program at] North Carolina. I auditioned and I got in, and four years later, here I am.”
Indeed, here he is, and here Katelyn is, wrapping up four years of study at one of the finest performing arts universities in the country – Kelley says she chose the school in part because of alumni like Mary-Louise Parker, When We Rise‘s Jonathan Majors and Fleabag‘s Brett Gelman – living what most likely will be their final months in Winston-Salem before heading back to hometowns to wait, just like actors with far more professional experience, on casting directors to resume casting, on workshops to resume workshopping, on theater and film production to resume after the devastating industry COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns.
And Kelley and Demegillo, along with their fellow students at even the most prestigious acting schools and universities in the country, will be entering the so-called real world without – or largely without – the rites of passage that have traditionally been academic capstones and professional launchpads: the live student showcases at venues like Chicago’s Apollo Theatre or the Matrix in L.A. or Off Broadway’s Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre, that served as coming out parties and networking opportunities, where talent and no small amount of luck and timing could foster introductions to the professional managers, agents and casting executives who attend the showcases and the schmoozing that often goes on post-show.
Of course, neither Kelley nor Demegillo, nor Emma Hoersdig at New York University’s Tisch School, nor so many others in their positions, could have predicted the novel coronavirus when they chose their majors and set their class schedules. They couldn’t have foreseen virtual classrooms, canceled showcases and at least some dreams dashed.
“My interest and my love lies in live theater,” said Hoersdig, an NYU-Tisch senior originally from outside Columbus, Ohio, “and of course it’s not NYU’s fault that it can’t happen right now, but it’s just so heartbreaking. This was my last semester and [in class] we had to do scenes over Zoom. It was kind of nonsense.”
Drama schools from North Carolina to NYU, Juilliard, Yale and University of California San Diego are scrambling to adjust, to make do, to satisfy their students and uphold their own responsibilities in any number of ways, perhaps no where so visibly than in the showcase realm. For now – and maybe into the future, in at least a partial way – the answer seems to be, like so much else these days, virtual.
On Monday, May 18, about 17 student actors in the Drama Division of New York’s Juilliard School will perform showcases online to an invited audience of industry professionals in New York, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Chicago and Atlanta, each attendee provided a confidential link. “Our capacity is not unlimited,” reads the Juilliard invitation, “however, if you have colleagues we should invite, given that we are no longer bound by geography, please let us know.”
Juilliard is one of many performing arts training grounds adapting to the new normal, as so many college and graduate students learned over spring break that their schools would remain closed through the end of the academic year, their planned showcases scotched. A generation of acting students, individually or in school-organized efforts, will make first steps into the arts industries electronically. For some, the new virtual showcases are a next-best-thing-to-being-there alternative, for others – students more comfortable or with a greater interest in film performance than the stage – perhaps a blessing in disguise, and for still others yet one more make-do sacrifice during a pandemic that has already stolen graduation ceremonies, farewell parties and any sense of closure after years of study and kinship.
Already, some in the entertainment industry are reaching out to students in new ways. Just yesterday, Deadline reported that Warner Bros Television’s casting department has created a virtual platform for students at the undergraduate, graduate and conservatory levels whose final years of training were interrupted or canceled by the pandemic. Flyer-invitations have been sent to about 400 schools requesting student headshots, résumés, and brief introductions. The casting department will then review all submissions, with a select group of applicants invited to submit audition tapes and meet with WBTV casting executives.
The WBTV initiative is the latest, perhaps most formalized approach to reaching performing arts students whose entries into the professional ranks are at risk of, at best, delay. Mark Scroggs, VP at Prestige Talent Agency, says he or his associates typically take in 35 or 40 spring showcases in New York and Los Angeles alone – “I’ve signed a lot of people over the years at college showcases,” says Scroggs, “and some have done very well” – and took note of the showcase cancellations that began arriving in early-to-mid-March. In informal discussions with a network of colleagues – agents, managers, casting executives – Scroggs found that many of them had, on their own, been in contact with the various schools. “I thought we should probably maybe organize this a little bit,” Scroggs recalls. His next email was to Gary Marsh, CEO and founder of Breakdown Services, an L.A.-based casting notice (or “breakdown”) service with about 700 agencies and management companies as subscribers.
“Mark and I were talking about where the students were at and how disappointing it must be for them,” Marsh says. “And I said, Well, look, we’ve been developing this program, Eco Cast [in which casting directors send invitations to talent reps or actors directly to solicit recorded auditions], and inviting schools could be a natural extension of that. Mark said, ‘Great, I’ll start talking to the schools.'”
The result was a coalition of about a dozen L.A. and NYC agents and managers working in conjunction with Breakdown Services to develop Virtual College Showcases, in which students self-tape their showcase performances for inclusion on Breakdown Services audition links. Scroggs’ group also is working with Acceptd.com, an East Coast college theater organization posting online showcases. Breakdown Services provides the service to schools free of charge, and Marsh says each participating school is garnering as many as 1,000 hits on their performance links.
Among schools that have posted showcases via Virtual College Showcases, with others planning to join, are Columbia College Chicago, Studio School Los Angeles, Case Western Reserve University/Cleveland Play House, American Conservatory Theater, Loyola Marymount University’s Department of Theatre Arts, Pace School of Performing Arts, UC Irvine, University of Illinois/Urbana-Champaign, University of North Carolina School of the Arts, University of Northern Colorado, University of Southern California School of Dramatic Arts, University of Texas Austin, Virginia Commonwealth University/VCUarts, Missouri State University and UCLA.
“What we’ve been hearing from casting executives is that they love being able to go back to the links and re-watch the tapes, and can really dig down and focus,” Marsh said. “They’re saying, ‘When Broadway re-opens, these [links] will be a great, go-to resource, there for us to reach out to students when we have a casting need.’ We’re so pleased that we’re in a position to do this for the students, for the schools, to connect with talent reps, the agents, the managers. It gives a sense of normalcy in a terrible time.”
Says Brian Dorfman, SVP Casting at NBC Entertainment, “We’re always looking for people that just have that thing about them that makes them special and also accessible, the ones that have that unique thing about them, something about who they are that makes them stand out.” Dorfman recalls once such moment, when he saw a 2011 graduate of the Yale School of Drama. A year or so later, Da’Vine Joy Randolph was a Tony Award nominee for her performance in Broadway’s Ghost: The Musical. She currently stars on Hulu’s High Fidelity.
Still, Dorfman says he and his staff are seeing fewer student showcase performances this year, virtual convenience notwithstanding. “I don’t think many of the schools were completely prepared to do it this way,” he says. “This is a new world for everyone, and I think all these programs are figuring it out.
“And, listen, to be honest, it’s not the perfect way to see a group of actors. It’s not the same as seeing actors live, obviously, but it’s better than not being able to see them at all. We just had a virtual meeting with an actress that we saw on one of the virtual [college] showcase links that we all responded to. We, collectively, liked her and decided to meet with her. But to be fair, we oversee casting at the network level, so we’re primarily looking to these showcases to see if there’s somebody that really pops in an early stage in their career, someone that feels like they’re going to be ready to be on a primetime series. Most of them [turn out to be] people that we can track for the future, but there’s the occasional person that you’re like, ‘This person’s going to book a series within six months.’ But for the most part, it’s really just making sure we’re seeing everybody that’s coming out of school just to see where those nuggets are.”
Showcases, of course, aren’t the only concerns, or maybe even the largest, on the minds of student actors these days. Hoping to join industries that won’t immediately be there to embrace or even reject them, performing arts majors were no doubt among the first students to get a sense of the bleak professional prospects and looming financial distress threatened by the pandemic.
Emma Hoersdig is a fourth-year undergraduate student at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. A native of the Columbus, Ohio area, Hoersdig has studied with Tisch’s Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute since her arrival on the New York campus. “I’ve been with the Strasberg studio my entire time at NYU, as I’ve wanted to be since my first day at NYU, because at the end of the [final] semester you get to perform an original piece written just for your group, which is usually 10 to 12 people, and you get to work with a playwright and director, and that prospect was really exciting to me. It would have been a brand-new piece. But that didn’t happen.”
Hoersdig and other NYU students received an email toward the end of their March spring break that classes would be conducted remotely for a few weeks – a measure that eventually extended through the end of the academic year.
“A couple of my friends and I started talking about it and how we were scared whether it would work at all. How we were going to do our scene work and our dance classes? Before we even started Zoom classes, we started talking about, like, will NYU refund our tuition? Because there’s just no way that Zoom classes will be the same caliber as our in-person classes. We’ve been here four years and we know how this works.”
Initially, Hoersdig says, the discussion was limited to a group chat of about a dozen students in her drama class. One of them proposed the idea of a class strike if NYU didn’t take any action to help out financially (a year’s tuition for Tisch, with NYU housing, approaches the $80,000 mark). “The idea was that they would either have to listen to us all or fail us all,” says Hoersdig, “and if they failed us all that would make them look really bad.”
Students at other arts schools, inspired by the Tisch students, started similar drives and petitions, including the Yale School of Art, New York’s School of Visual Arts and the Maryland Institute College of Art in Baltimore, to little, if any, effect.
At Tisch, the students were informed by email in March that tuition refunds would not be forthcoming, and in a well-intentioned but rather bizarre twist that made national news, Tisch dean Allyson Green, a choreographer and artist, attached a video of herself dancing to REM’s “Losing My Religion,” a performance that was no doubt intended to express sympathy and solidarity but came off as, well, anything but. “Tone deaf” is how one Tisch student described the dancing video to NBC News, and soon enough the video was being parodied on social media (search “Tisch dean” on YouTube). “That’s me in the spotlight,” jabbed one commenter, “losing my tuition.”
Green later released the following statement:
The focus of my career as a performer, choreographer, and dance educator, and my most authentic mode of expression, has always been dance. In the video, I shared the song with which I have welcomed first-year students to the Tisch School of the Arts for the past eight years. It is a piece that – as I explained in the accompanying email – speaks to frustration and disappointment, and that helped see me through the loss of 30 friends to AIDS, another difficult period for artists.
What I meant to demonstrate is my certainty that even with the unprecedented hardships of social distancing and remotely-held classes, it is still possible for the Tisch community to make art together, and that all the artists in our school will find ways to remain closely connected even as circumstances challenge us. I regret it if my email left the reasons for my dancing misunderstood – although I will note that I have also received many positive acknowledgments – but its intent was surely neither frivolous or disrespectful.
“I am less optimistic now,” Hoersdig says, “and that sucks because I am a total optimist in life in general, but you know we’ve done so much and worked so hard to try and get them to even just start a conversation with us, and that hasn’t happened at all. We had our media moment, and that didn’t work, and none of our direct efforts to the administration are working. We started looking at the legal route and class-action suits and stuff like that, but a lot of students don’t agree with it or have a lot of concerns about it, and the leverage and the community that we had is going to fade really quickly with the semester ending.”
She added: “I try really, really hard to see the good in people, especially the administration at NYU, but I wouldn’t be surprised if nothing happens and if they never talk about it again, because they’ve given us no reason to believe in them doing the right thing. Which is disappointing, and it sucks that I spent these years giving them all of my money.”
Katelyn Kelley, Jon Demegillo and their fellow fourth-year students at University of North Carolina School of the Arts had already performed two showcases – one in Chicago, one in Atlanta – when, as assistant dean Krisha Marcano recalls, the news turned bad.
“By the time the class was on its way back to North Carolina from Atlanta,” she says, “schools were shutting down. I was literally getting on the plane to come back to North Carolina, with the whole school on spring break, we heard we’d not come back from spring break. The school was closed.”
As disappointing – heartbreaking, really – as the school shutdowns and graduation cancellations were for college seniors of every academic major, the loss of the year-end showcases for performing arts students was stinging. As Marcano notes, the graduating students “look forward to those opportunities to at least be seen in a small venue, with a small group of actors that they are comfortable with, in a way that’s crafted to say ‘This is how I want you to see me.’ The object is to be cast and to be hired, and to start creating a team that you’ll use going forward in your career.”
And if students – being, of course, students – can sometimes over-expect with regard to showcase results (part of being a professor, Marcano says, is fostering a balance between “the expectation and the opportunity”), this particular end-of-school tradition is an important rite of drama-training passage. “The showcase at the end of the four years is a coming out party,” says Marcano, “and who wouldn’t want a coming out party? Something that says, Here we are, the new talented people on the block, at your disposal. Here we are.”
For Katelyn Kelley, the coming out party was to have meant performing two two-minute scenes – one, a monologue from the Gregory S. Moss play Indian Summer, the other, with a partner, a gender-switched scene from the Fox sitcom New Girl, with Kelley taking the role of Schmidt (played on TV by Max Greenfield). “It ended up really well,” Kelley says. “I didn’t want to do something that agencies see all the time at these showcases, Streetcar or five versions of the same scene from Girls.”
Kelley performed the scenes at her school’s Chicago and Atlanta live showcases, but industry reps in New York and Los Angeles will, for now anyway, get the virtual alternative, a development the Marvel movie-obsessed young actress isn’t altogether unhappy about. “It will get in front of a lot more people with the virtual option,” she says. “So I think in a way, there’s a lot of benefit in being forced to look at things in a different way. I know that a lot of self-taping is going to happen anyway, and we all feel very ready for the new era. We’re trained for that.”
Still, Kelley, classmate Demegillo and other students have had to adjust both their plans and their expectations. “This wasn’t what I envisioned my last year to be,” says Demegillo, “and it’s still weird for me, to be honest, ending school this way, with most of the people in my studio [class] still here but we can’t gather and we can’t really properly say goodbye to the institution that we’ve been part of for four years. Not being able to do the showcases in New York and L.A. was definitely a shock, but thankfully the school had a plan to keep us pushing forward.”
Says Kelley, “We’ve had Zoom calls with industry professionals. I think six just this week. And as I’ve said before, this is a global pandemic, everyone is being affected, and we can’t just sit here like ‘My life is over, blah blah blah.’ If it means that my career starts a year later, that’s fine, you know? Obviously, audiences are not going to want to go to the theater anytime soon, and in the meantime, I’ll probably move back home to California and get a job and make some money so that when the industry does open back up, I’ll be ready to start. My whole class is going to be so hungry.”