On Thursday, March 12th, the morning after the N.B.A. suspended its season and Donald Trump banned travel from Europe, the actor Emily Cass McDonnell was in rehearsals for an upcoming production of Annie Baker’s play “The Antipodes.” In the play, a group of people sit around a table brainstorming for a project, the exact nature of which is never fully defined. In the last scene, as an apocalyptic storm brews outside, the group’s leader arrives and calls the whole thing off. That Thursday, the finale took on an oracular significance when, weeks into rehearsal, McDonnell and the rest of the cast learned that, due to safety measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus, their show was being cancelled.
McDonnell did not question what needed to be done, but did wonder whether the shutdowns would last. At first, members of the cast discussed whether they might perform the show with lower audience capacity, or live-stream it. They considered reading the script through one last time, but some of the actors felt that it would be too painful, and others had to make arrangements to get back home. A member of the creative team begged the producers to wait to destroy the set, just in case. “I think some people really believed it would be two weeks,” she told me, when we spoke on the phone a few days later. By the next morning, it was clear that even a gathering of the cast would be irresponsible.
New York’s performing-arts scene has taken hits before—after 9/11, during the recession that began in 2007, after Hurricane Sandy—but its elimination for an indefinite period of time is unprecedented. On March 11th and 12th, Governor Andrew Cuomo, of New York, forbade all gatherings of more than five hundred people, and Broadway and Off Broadway theatres were shut down. The cancellation of theatrical runs, musical tours, comedy shows, club nights, film screenings, book launches, and political fund-raisers quickly followed. The night of Monday, March 16th, when bars and restaurants were officially closed, the calendar had been wiped clean. I have seen small clusters of friends lose their jobs in the past, but last week, when dozens of friends and acquaintances saw their livelihoods evaporate in a matter of twenty-four hours, was different. Requests appeared online: if you could afford to eat the cost of your ticket, consider it a donation to the theatre. If you couldn’t go see the musician live, buy her album on Bandcamp. Night clubs started Venmo accounts for their bartenders and bouncers. Independent bookstores, where readings had been cancelled, offered discounted shipping to people who bought new releases. The world seemed to bifurcate into people who still had jobs (for now) and those who didn’t, with the former anxiously looking for ways to cover for the latter, who were now scrambling for new sources of income, any income. On my social-media feeds, one musician I know offered virtual cello lessons; another offered virtual reiki consultations. People who produce sound events advertised their services mastering music. People put their musical equipment up for sale. As in most cities, the arts scene in New York is inextricably linked to the service and event-production industries, and the loss of creative livelihoods has been compounded by the closures of bars, restaurants, and coffee shops, and the cancellations of weddings, conferences, and other large events. Day jobs and night jobs disappeared at the same time…
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