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Broadway’s closure exposes its sway on the economic ecosystem

Transcript

Judy Woodruff: Prior to the pandemic, Broadway was booming, breaking box office records in 11 of the last 12 years.

But curtains haven't risen since March, with deep personal and financial impacts. By one count, Broadway is directly responsible for nearly 100,000 jobs in New York City alone. And, as a leading attraction for people who travel to the city, it has an economic impact of nearly $15 billion.

Jeffrey Brown is back with that report for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Rousing music and thrilling energy, soaring language, and high drama. Broadway is all that. But now it is closed, and the pandemic has exposed how much more there is to it.

Kate Shindle: I don't think most people think of actors, for example, as the middle-class workers that the majority of us are. They also don't really think about the arts and entertainment industry's impact on the economy.

Jeffrey Brown: Kate Shindle is an actor whose credits include the national tour of "Fun Home." Now she's an out-of-work actor who also happens to be president of the Actors' Equity union, a non-paying job, by the way, dealing closely with an industry in crisis.

Kate Shindle: Look, making a living in our industry, being a professional actor or stage manager, is one of the hardest things you can do, even on a good day. It's an incredibly unstable and unpredictable way to make a living for so many of us.

But when it stretches on past a year, which it's about to, I think there's a very real possibility that a lot of people will leave the business, because they're not exactly sure what they're waiting for.

Rashaan James II: I'm a song-and-dance man. I have worked all over the country, a few national tours. I have gotten to work here in New York at Lincoln Center. The career was great, until it wasn't anymore.

Jeffrey Brown: For years, 37-year-old Rashaan James II did what actors and dancers have always done, work when they get gigs, supplement their income as waiters, bartenders and doing other odd jobs.

Rashaan James II: I was an alcohol slinger. I would stand inside of liquor stores and give tastings, and I got a percentage of the bottles that I would sell.

Jeffrey Brown: With that work also gone, James turned to even odder temporary jobs, working for the census, then as a poll worker, and now, to his immense surprise, as deputy campaign manager for a friend running for City Council in Manhattan.

Rashaan James II: Who I am is being redefined every day, because now someone asks me, well, what do you do? It's like, oh, I work in politics.

So, in that way, I'm redefining myself and trying to find avenues to make sure that, every time I feel like I'm getting into some sort of slump, I find a way out of it.

Jeffrey Brown: While most of us focus on what happens on stage, commercial theater is an enormous ecosystem, playing out largely behind the scenes in places like this.

John Kristiansen: We're the department that's really good at putting our heads down and getting the work done. We don't really make a fuss. We don't want to be noticed. We want to make sure that we facilitate the relationship between the designer and the performer.

Jeffrey Brown: John Kristiansen's 20-year-old company makes the costumes for Broadway shows and performances of all kinds. It's highly specialized, made-to-order work, performed by skilled artisans.

Kristiansen laid off all of his 52 workers and, with little work, has less than a third on hand now.

John Kristiansen: When it started to become terrifying was when things were happening, like Disney closing "Frozen on Broadway" because it was too hard to open it up again. And we started to see this shift in trying to get people to talk to us, figure out what to do for our people, who are my family.

Jeffrey Brown: Now Kristiansen has joined more than 50 other shops to form the Costume Industry Coalition, fighting for their very survival.

Lin-Manuel Miranda: These costume shops are all small businesses.

Jeffrey Brown: The group released videos with celebrity testimonials and demonstrations of all that goes into the making of a costume.

John Kristiansen: The people that are doing the beading, sewing the garments and putting the thread in, it's a lot of people that are doing this, each one very important. We need to make sure that they're -- they make it through this.

Jeffrey Brown: It's one of many relief efforts. Since last March, The Actors Fund has given $18 million in emergency financial assistance to more than 15,000 people.

Man: My insurance is running out at the end of March.

Jeffrey Brown: And holds Zoom seminars like this for those whose insurance has run out.

In December, Tina Fey hosted an NBC special, "One Night Only: The best of Broadway," that raised more than $3 million.

And the coronavirus relief package passed by Congress in December included $15 billion for Save Our Stages, aid for venues from small clubs to Broadway theaters. Others help in their own ways.

When the long-running TV show, "Law & Order: SVU" resumed production in September, executive producer Warren Leight announced he would hire as many unemployed theater actors as possible, more than 30 so far.

Warren Leight: We were aware that people were losing health insurance on Broadway. People are -- it's been a tough time. We just thought, let's not fly people in from other cities. Let's not look to -- so much to the TV acting pool. Let's try and keep the local Broadway pool that we have always relied on. Let's help as much as we can.

Jeffrey Brown: Plus, Leight says, his show benefits from the talents of suddenly available top Broadway stars. Several, including Tony Award winner Adriane Lenox, have played judges.

Warren Leight: Judges need a certain kind of authority. And if you can hit the back wall of the Winter Garden, you can handle arraignment court here.

Jeffrey Brown: Of course, there are only so many judges, even on the "Law & Order" franchise.

The real questions, when will Broadway return, and what will it look like?

Charlotte St. Martin: We have had no revenue for nine months now. We most likely won't have it for another eight months. We are the first industry that went out and will be most likely the last one in.

Jeffrey Brown: Charlotte St. Martin, president of The Broadway League, the trade group for commercial theater in the U.S., says Broadway faces unusually daunting challenges.

Charlotte St. Martin: Broadway is a very, very expensive business. We looked at socially distancing, because the state was asking us to try.

And the most seats we could fill in the biggest theaters was 27 percent. And we need 75 percent for most shows to even break even.

Jeffrey Brown: For now, St. Martin and others say the focus must be on sustaining the people and the work they do that make up this great American industry, so there will be an industry to return to.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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