Transcript, Episode 97: Omicron Dilemmas, Heroic Understudies, and Play in the Studio

Margaret Fuhrer:
Hi, dance friends, and welcome to The Dance Edit Podcast. I’m Margaret Fuhrer.

Courtney Escoyne:
And I’m Courtney Escoyne.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Courtney coming to us sans microphone today, since her travel plans were disrupted by COVID—along with what feels like most of the country’s.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yep. [laughter]

Margaret Fuhrer:
We are editors at Dance Media, recording together again the first time in quite a bit, actually. In this week’s episode, we will talk about how the Broadway world is coping with the latest COVID surge, and specifically about the choice the Mrs. Doubtfire team made to go on hiatus now in an effort to save the show in the longer term. We will salute the understudies and swings who are more important than ever these days, as the pandemic thins out the ranks of performers in musical theater and ballet and beyond. And we will discuss the significance of play in dance settings, because play can be such an important part of the creative process, but it often gets little time or space devoted to it for a variety of reasons.

Just a quick note, before we dive into all that: There is a shiny new episode of The Dance Edit Extra, our premium audio interview series, coming out this Saturday, the 8th on Apple Podcasts. We’ve got the wonderful Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell as our guest this round; she is just coming up on her one year anniversary as the artistic director of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago. She’s the first woman and the first person of color to lead the company. And she talked very candidly about how she has navigated the really significant challenges that organization has been facing, while also developing a vision for the company that looks forward without erasing its past. She was one of my favorite dancers at Ailey back in the day, so I was honestly a little starstruck talking to her! But she’s just the warmest, wisest, funniest person—we ended up having a great conversation. So I hope you’ll check it out on Apple Podcasts this Saturday. More info on that in the show notes as always.

All right, let’s get into the headline rundown beginning with, oh man, a major update to the Listicle of Sads.

Courtney Escoyne:
Just major multiple updates. So with this latest COVID-19 wave has come a volume of performance cancellations we haven’t seen in a while, largely as a result of breakthrough infections among cast and crews. Broadway has been particularly touch and go over the last few weeks, so bear in mind that this quick overview of where we are this week is likely to have shifted in the less than 24 hours between when we’re recording this and when you’re hearing it. Come From Away has canceled shows through January 6th, with plans to resume on the seventh. The Music Man is planning a return on January 6th, tonight, as you’re listening, after both Sutton Foster and Hugh Jackman tested positive. And Mrs. Doubtfire is at the start of a nine-week hiatus in an attempt to save the show, with plans to return in March—more on that in a bit. Jagged Little Pill unknowingly gave its final show in mid December. Ain’t Too Proud has announced that it will close on Broadway after a planned final performance on January 17th. [dog barks] My dog is very upset about these cancellations. [laughter]

Believe it or not, this is actually a bit of a brighter picture than the week of Christmas, when half the theaters on Broadway were dark for at least a performance or two, and while ballet companies were canceling Nutcracker performances or even the rest of their Nutcracker runs. I’m still updating Dance Magazine‘s timeline of COVID-related performance cancellations, so you can head there for more highlights from what Lydia has dubbed the Listicle of Sads.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah, we’ve linked that unfortunate but necessary document in the show notes.

Obviously it’s not just the big Broadway and ballet machines that are hurting right now. Three experimental performing arts festivals that are usually held in New York city in January, to coincide with the Association of Performing Arts Professionals Conference—they’ve all canceled their in-person offerings. The Under the Radar Festival, the Exponential Festival and the Prototype Festival have moved any events that are still happening online. And that’s a major loss for artists who make this kind of unconventional work, who’ve had a hard time coming back from shutdowns because even before the pandemic they were already so underfunded and under-resourced. And they often rely on opportunities that stem directly from these APAP month presentations. So it’s a big setback.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, I think that is a huge question in everyone’s minds right now, is what APAP is going to look like this year. Just because that does really set up so many companies for their entire year of…anything. Companies and artists.

And in much, much, much happier news, over at Boston Ballet, Chyrstyn Fentroy has been promoted to principal. She was a standout at Dance Theatre of Harlem before joining Boston’s corps in 2017, and rose steadily through the ranks, becoming a second soloist in 2018 and a soloist in 2019. So a massive congratulations to Chyrstyn. This is so exciting. I saw her do one of their Forsythe programs a few years ago and was just… She was my favorite, hands down.

Margaret Fuhrer:
She’s a star.

Courtney Escoyne:
It’s not surprising. It’s so well deserved.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. Oh, it’s so good to see her just flying at Boston Ballet.

Actually, a lot of Boston-related news in this rundown. So, Peter Stark, who is currently associate director of Boston Ballet II and head of the men’s program at the Boston Ballet School, is leaving that job to become the president and director of Philadelphia’s Rock School for Dance Education. He’ll actually be the Rock School’s first new director in 35 years—he’s succeeding Bo in Stephanie Spassoff, that regime. Stark was previously the director of Tampa’s Next Generation Ballet, which a ton of really talented dancers came through. Very curious to see how he’s going to shake things up a bit in Philly.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah, definitely a changing of the guard there. And taking over at Boston Ballet II, as Stark leaves, is Joan Boada, who is currently the artistic director at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington DC. So the appointment itself isn’t exactly surprising, but the timing is, given that he’s only been at the Kirov Academy since the fall and will be headed to Boston in June.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. The game of ballet director musical chairs continues.

Here’s yet more dance leadership news. Erin Fogarty, who for years has been the co-producer of the Dance Against Cancer Benefit, has joined GALLIM, Andrea Miller’s GALLIM, as executive director. And part of her role there will be helping to facilitate the company’s new initiative to support BIPOC dance artists. So congrats to Erin—that feels like a good fit.

Courtney Escoyne:
That does feel good. Curious to see what happens there.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
And the second cohort of Disability. Dance. Artistry. residency program recipients has been announced. X, Sonya Rio-Glick, Ogemdi Ude, Larissa Velez-Jackson, iele paloumpis, Elisabeth Motley, Elisa Hernandez, David Lee Sierra, Anna Gichan and Alison Kopit will each receive a combination of financial, production, and marketing support as well as studio space and mentorship through this Dance/NYC program. So congrats them. Really excited to see what comes with this.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, here’s some news that broke just before we started recording. Chris Evans might be playing Gene Kelly in a new, as-yet-untitled film. The project is based on an idea that Evans also conceived. It’s about a 12 year old boy working on the MGM lot in 1952, who creates an imagined friendship with Kelly.

Last month we found out Tom Holland, aka Spiderman, would be playing Fred Astaire. Now we’ve got Captain America as Gene Kelly. I don’t know how to feel anymore. What are we doing? Who’s next?

Courtney Escoyne:
I mean, to quote Rogers: The Musical, “I can do this all day!” [laughter]

It is worth noting, right now, it’s more rumors and whispers that Evans is playing this role. He’s on as a producer. It hasn’t been officially, officially confirmed, but it could be interesting. I mean, he has been kind of itching to get to do something where he gets to dance for several years now. Definitely came up in some Captain America press tours.

Margaret Fuhrer:
He did train as a tap dancer.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

And we are ending on a sad note today. New Orleans bounce rapper Johnny Watson, known as Josephine Johnny, has died. He had a trademark dance in the early two thousands that was popularized by everyone from the New Orleans Saints football players—who dat?—who did them during their end zone celebrations, to none other than Beyoncé. Watson was just 45 years old. New Orleans is definitely feeling this loss.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So, moving into our first discussion segment today, which is about Omicron—because it is hard to think or talk about anything else. As you heard at the beginning of the headline rundown, every part of the dance world is suffering as cases surge yet again, but we wanted to focus our discussion on Broadway for a minute, since most Broadway productions are operating on a very narrow razor’s edge. If the show can’t go on, if a show is not performing every night for a near capacity house, it will usually have to close pretty quickly. And shutting the whole of Broadway down again does not seem like it’s in the cards—the Broadway League said as much at the end of last month. So what can be done to keep these shows alive through Omicron? And are there options that take into account not just the financial health of the production, but also like, hello, the bodily health of the performers who have to go out there every night? We wanted to talk in particular about the approach of the musical Mrs. Doubtfire, because it’s an unusual one, and there’s been a lot of discussion on social media about its upsides and downsides and complexities.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. So as you mentioned at the top of the episode, Mrs. Doubtfire is going on a self-imposed nine-week hiatus, beginning January 10th, with plans to resume on March 14th. Producer Kevin McCollum told the New York Times that if they didn’t make this call, the show would have been forced to close within three weeks as it ran out of money after canceling 11 shows during the usually busy and very lucrative holiday season. And this of course is not to mention audience members canceling their tickets as cases get worse. So in practical terms, this means that the show is laying off the 115 people employed for the production for this period, though McCollum has said that he’s committed to rehiring those who wish to return in March. So the idea is, okay, we enforce a break now so we’re not having to cancel shows and pay people through those canceled shows so that the show itself can survive. And hopefully it will be a better situation in a couple of months as spring is arriving.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. It doesn’t sound like happy news, and yet—it’s intriguing news, I’ll say that much. We’ve talked again and again about the problems with the whole “show must go on” mentality. And yeah, part of that is a cultural issue inside of dance and the performing arts, the idea of suffering for your art, doing what you love at all costs, all that. But part of it is also this systemic issue that affects not just the performing arts, but the entire US labor market—this idea that the bottom line matters more than the people doing the work. Like, the show must go on because the money’s got to keep coming in.

One of the interesting things about this Mrs. Doubtfire plan is that it’s that rare instance in which what’s best for a show financially might actually be aligning with what’s best for performers from a safety standpoint. So from that perspective, if the pause to stay alive model does ultimately deliver on its promises, if it keeps the show going, it might be something to be considered elsewhere.

I mean the caveat, of course, is that what’s good for the performers in terms of safety is not good for them financially, because nobody’s getting paid while the show is closed. So I guess the ideal real scenario would involve some kind of payment for them beyond unemployment. And of course there are multiple other podcasts that could be made, that already had been made, about how the government could offer a better safety net here. But yeah, lots to consider.

Courtney Escoyne:
I think the other interesting thing at play here is oftentimes whenever a show goes on hiatus for whatever reason, talking about the before times, the question would kind of be like, okay, so these artists are maybe going to go and book other things in the meantime to make up this pay gap. Are they going to still be available to come back if something pauses, if there’s a break? And now we’re in an interesting situation where it’s like, well, is there even other work to get right now?

Margaret Fuhrer:
…any work to be had? Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
So yeah. I don’t know. I think maybe the hope and the dream is that like, Hey, we rehire everyone in nine weeks and we run a really long time and everyone makes the money they need to make. And it all works out in the end and everyone’s still safe and happy and healthy. But…shrug emoji.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I don’t know. Yeah. In the end, is it better than soldiering on as more and more of your cast gets sick and more and more of your audience disappears?

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. It’s complicated. And a number of shows are closing permanently. Ain’t Too Proud, Jagged Little Pill, Waitress. And it’s a sad fact, we’ll probably hear more.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. That list keeps growing, and it’s a sad one. Yeah.

Obviously this is a really complicated and fraught situation. We’ve linked to the New York Times coverage of the Mrs. Doubtfire plan specifically in the show notes.

Next up today, we have a topic that is very much related: an ode to the understudy. Because understudies and swings have always been, to use a hoary old cliché, the “unsung heroes” of musical theater and ballet and basically any corner of the dance world that is well-funded enough to have them. (And the corners that are not, well, that’s a story for another episode.) But as omicron has spread, they’ve been saving the day over and over again in a way that’s…I don’t know, made people sing about them? They’re no longer unsung? I’m trying. [laughter] Anyway, it’s nice to see these incredibly hardworking people get some recognition, for starters. And I mean, these jobs are high stakes even in non-pandemic times. So you add a very contagious virus variant to the mix and…that is a heck of a lot of pressure.

Courtney Escoyne:
There’s been various coverage in different publications, New York Times and Forbes have both done stories, talking specifically to understudies and swings about the difficulties of their jobs, especially in this moment. And not only are they doing the job of—like, as a swing, okay, I know eight different tracks in this one show that obviously all overlap and have similarities, but I have to know it backwards and forwards, and I might not be finding out that I’m going on until 30 minutes before a curtain because someone’s test result just came back.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Can you think of an analogous job literally anywhere else in any other industry?

Courtney Escoyne:
No!

Margaret Fuhrer:
“Hey we’re hiring you to cover six to eight different positions on our team. And we might ask you to do any one of them at like the drop of a hat.”

Courtney Escoyne:
“And you’re performing in front of people and it’s your responsibility to make them not miss anything.” I mean, it’s wild. But I do think it’s great that like in this moment they are getting shouted out more. And I think it’s been really cool seeing that appreciation.

And also kind of tying into a lot of stuff we talked about: Sid Solomon, he’s an understudy with The Play That Goes Wrong, and he told the New York Times that there’s something really great about knowing that I’m able to be the person who—I’m not making someone choose between their safety and their wellbeing versus can the show go on tonight or not. And there’s something very heartening in that, that makes me also go like, yes, it shouldn’t have taken us a pandemic to get to where we’re appreciating this function that exists.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah.

Courtney Escoyne:
Because that “show must go on” mentality is problematic even if we’re not in the middle of a global pandemic.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Right. Yeah. I don’t want to contradict everything we were just saying about the problems with that “show must go on” mentality, but since we’re currently operating inside a world where that is the prevailing mentality: I actually really appreciated the call out that the Actors’ Equity president did on Twitter, saying, Hey, the union is always trying to negotiate for more understudies and swings for each show, but employers tend to push back because they basically expect people to work while they’re sick or injured. That’s kind of baked into the model.

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah. They don’t want to pay for that many people. Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. I mean, there’s nothing to make producers sit up and pay attention like having to cancel a show because you physically don’t have enough bodies to go on stage. So maybe that wake up call will give unions some more bargaining power coming out of the pandemic. Here’s hoping.

Courtney Escoyne:
Gosh, here’s hoping.

Margaret Fuhrer:
So yeah. Let’s celebrate our swings and understudies. Let’s also support them!

Courtney Escoyne:
Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Anyway, lots more to think about here. In the show notes, we’ve linked to those stories that Courtney mentioned from Forbes and the New York Times.

So last up today, let’s talk about something unrelated to the coronavirus, please. Let’s talk about the importance of play in the dance studio. Dance Magazine recently published an article discussing how play is often undervalued in creative settings, which these days can tend to promote “seriousness” and “productivity” in ways that can squeeze out fun and spontaneity. And I’m putting both “seriousness” and “productivity” in heavy scare quotes, because playing can also be serious and productive! But the story talks to a bunch of dance artists about exactly why play is so important. And that’s one prong of a two-pronged discussion we want to have today. The other prong is, how can we create environments that allow dance artists to play? I mean, right now, getting the time and space that’s needed to free the imagination that way, that’s a luxury in dance. That’s not a given.

Courtney Escoyne:
And I know we don’t want to talk about COVID-19 anymore, but like I do feel like that was a luxury and not a given in the before times, and then in the now times, when play is actually maybe more important than ever in terms of just having a connection to your dance practice and having a connection to the joy and pleasure of it—because nothing looks normal right now, because of the current situation—it’s actually even less of a given that you will have space and time and opportunity to do that, or be given that explicitly.

Something that I thought was really interesting that the writer of this story for Dance Magazine, Meredith Fages, said is the buzzword “rigor” has become synonymous with integrity. And that statement got me to sit back in my chair a little bit, because it’s so true. And we don’t even think about it, but it’s this idea of—kind of the overworking mentality that comes with dance training, and I think also comes with a professional career, that if you are not working as hard or in some cases as smart as you can be at all times, then you aren’t really serious about this. You don’t “deserve” to be in this industry. And while there is a level of rigor that has to come with training and a level of rigor that has to come with creative work and putting work on stage and producing it also in a lot of ways, once you take play and fun out of the equation, it’s kind of turning us into content creators. Which, I have whole rants about like the whole idea of the commodification of art practices into something that can be quantified by basically Silicon Valley bros. I hate the term “content creators,” just for the record, telling everybody this. And I feel like there’s a relational thing here.

And I think play is so important, right? Because it just allows you to say, okay, what happens if this, and how much more artistic freedom can we find in that, and how much more freedom in your technique can you find with that? And… Yeah.

Margaret Fuhrer:
And rigor is not at odds with play. You can have a studio environment that’s both rigorous and playful. That’s the best kind of environment!

One of the things I liked best about Meredith’s piece was that it drew a really direct line between the loss of play and the development of burnout. When you forget about the inherent joy of dance, you’re much more likely to become disillusioned and just exhausted by it all, because it is hard work. And I don’t think that’s an especially profound connection to make, but I think it’s one we often forget about.

Courtney Escoyne:
Well and oftentimes the practice itself of showing up in whatever your daily practice is, there is a repetitiveness to it and there’s a reason for that. But I think once you… There is a point where it can become very robotic and monotonous and it starts just being a task that you have to get through, whereas a playful approach allows you to find something new in it, maybe something joyous. We hope.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yeah. So how do we allow artists more time and space for play? In the Dance Magazine piece, Kayla Hamilton pointed out that marginalized communities in particular have far fewer opportunities to explore play. People of color, disabled people, they are not allowed, basically, to take as many risks. They’re not given as many chances to show their vulnerabilities. We have to work on changing those kinds of expectations for starters.

But more broadly speaking, it is, like so many things, often a money question. And Courtney, I know you have thoughts about that.

Courtney Escoyne:
Oh God. Where do I even start with my thoughts about… See: every episode of this podcast. Yeah. [laughter]

I mean, that’s the thing, right, is that, if you are paying for a certain amount of studio time and you are also trying to, if you’re a choreographer, trying to pay your dancers in a way that is reflective of their value and all of these things and funding is tight, it is super understandable that you want to maximize the amount of time that you have in the studio so that everything you’re doing is working towards whatever the final performance or presentation that you are doing is going to be. It makes complete sense that that is the mindset.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Productivity. Yep.

Courtney Escoyne:
Productivity! But if we can find a model that funds having time to create without expectation of a final product or have lengthier creative processes, it does open up room to explore and play. And that in turn is going to create richer, not just rehearsal environments, but hopefully eventually richer practices and richer work that improves everything.

But also we spend most of our time in the studio, y’all. We should be able to get, to have time to play in the studio. Why did we all start and keep doing this in the first place? Because it’s fun!

Margaret Fuhrer:
I know. Yeah. I know. And it really all comes back to this idea that we keep coming back to about the process being as important as the product.

We included this article in our lineup today to bring a little lightness to the episode, and we ended up going sort of deep and dark anyway.

Courtney Escoyne:
Honestly, when you said when we were planning the episode, you were like “Maybe for a lighter note, this?” And I just kind of sat back and I’m like, this is going to come back to: nope. Okay.

Margaret Fuhrer:
Yep. Our play got too rigorous. Or maybe just the right amount of rigor? I don’t know. [laughter] Anyway, we’ve linked to the Dance Magazine piece in the show notes. I really hope you can give that one a read. All right. That’s it for us this week.

Thanks everyone for joining us. We’ll be back next week for more discussion of the news that’s moving the dance world. Keep learning, keep advocating and keep dancing.

Courtney Escoyne:
Mind how you go, friends. I’m going to go play with my dog!

Margaret Fuhrer:
She was so good for the last half of that episode. Just chilling back there. [laughter]