The show must go on, even with Omicron

IN+CHARACTER+Swing+actor+Justin+Schuman+poses+in+costume+before+playing+one+of+several+roles+in+the+Jan.+7+production+of+%E2%80%9CTina%3A+The+Tina+Turner+Musical%E2%80%9D+at+the+Lunt-Fontanne+Theatre+in+New+York+City.+

IN CHARACTER Swing actor Justin Schuman poses in costume before playing one of several roles in the Jan. 7 production of “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” at the Lunt-Fontanne Theatre in New York City.

Meghan Wysocki ’22, Editor in Chief

As he climbed the steps from the subway stop on Eighth Avenue, Justin Schuman’s phone began to beep, incessantly.

Oh my god, I can’t believe this is happening.
What are you talking about?
Check the news.

And the news headlines of March 12, 2020 told all he needed to know: Broadway was shutting down for the foreseeable future. Weeks prior, his fellow cast members in “Tina: The Tina Turner Musical” had laughed at him for stockpiling water and Gatorade. But who got the last laugh now? Certainly not him.

“You know the image of the tablecloth getting pulled out from under a table?” Schuman said. “Picture that, except everything actually falls off the table instead.”

Nearly two years later, the table is just being set, albeit slowly. When the omicron variant of COVID-19 first was recorded in the U.S. on Dec. 1, it quickly established dominance in the Big Apple, where cases now top 90,000 daily. These case totals carry serious implications for Schuman. As a swing actor, he covers any roles whose actors are absent– and there have been many, especially in the past month.

“We ended up having to cancel several performances because of omicron,” Schuman said. “I tested positive and returned to the show on Jan. 1, where I thought I was going to go in and get resituated. This was absolutely not the case — I was pulled right on stage in a track that I don’t cover and had never rehearsed. In my role, I need a very speedy computer in my head. On any given morning, I have to open the right folder, double-click the file and download it into my brain. Otherwise, I could never do my job the way I need to.”

Actress and choreographer Nina White ’16 understands this chaos. Originating in the role of Teresa in “Kimberly Akimbo” at the Atlantic Theater Company, White said doing live theater at the current moment is “both wonderful and bizarre.”

“The pandemic made an already uncertain industry even more precarious, but everyone is grateful to be making art and grateful for the protection provided by vaccines and boosters,” White said. “I am so lucky to be employed at this time when so many people still are not, as the theater industry is limping its way back from pandemic shutdowns.”

Some of that hesitancy from the industry comes from the need to stay afloat, according to Grosse Pointe North alumnus George Abud ’08. Abud, who just returned to New York after a six-week run at the Old Globe’s “Ebenezer Scrooge’s Big San Diego Christmas Show” in San Diego, California, said the theater business is “completely different than it used to be.”

“It’s really hard to get people to come to the theater these days,” Abud said. “Producers also take even fewer chances than they did before, in terms of casting. They’re not as willing to take a bet on a new-name actor because they need their show to make money. There’s a lot of discouragement in trying to keep everyone going.”

Schuman agreed. Every week that passes with continued restrictions and shutdowns, he said, “feels like a punch.”

“Every day, another text or email comes out with a new version of the show,” Schuman said. “It’s tiring to keep up with all the information and to also stay very flexible. I feel a bit sad and heavy because we’ve been dealing with this for years now– in our own way, we’ve all internalized the pandemic.”

White noted that one of the positives of “Kimberly Akimbo” running during omicron’s spread is the opportunity for understudies to shine.

“We have a team of five actors who understudy the principal cast, which is atypical for an off-Broadway production,” White said. “Prior to COVID-19, it would be very rare for an off-Broadway theater to hire understudies, because runs are so short. Production has made a point to limit contact between the understudies and the principal cast to reduce the risk that both of the actors who cover a single role get sick at the same time.”

While COVID-19 created a catastrophe for the business, it did not shatter the need for expression, according to Abud. After losing momentum at the onset of the pandemic, Abud turned to a new area to channel his creativity: playwriting.“The Ruins,” written entirely by Abud himself, is currently being workshopped and developed in New York. The play features two young musicians, faced with days to live, and details their intimate reflections on life. Abud said much of the inspiration for the play came from his internal conversations in quarantine.

“The questions these characters ask themselves are things I often think about,” Abud said. “Being able to express something clearly, in a language of your own, is a fulfillment. I’m very blessed to say that I always feel like I’ve lived well, I’ve lived fully and I’ve lived beautifully. Like, if I get hit by a bus tomorrow– my wife gets mad at me for making this joke– if I get hit by a bus, I will have no regrets. I followed the center of my being. I am always trying to discover who I am.”

You can follow Justin Schuman on TikTok and Instagram at @justinschumanofficial and Nina White on Instagram at @iamninawhite.