For Theresa Buchheister, the buildup to a show night at The Brick, a small independent theater in Williamsburg, always followed a pattern.
As the venue’s director, Buchheister, who uses the pronoun “they,” would make sure there was enough beer and toilet paper to make it through the evening. They’d prepare the stage lights, make themself presentable, and then, about 30 minutes before opening, inevitably wonder: Will anyone show up? Will too many people show up? Is the L train being weird?
“You’d become activated in a way that’s really exciting,” Buchheister, 39, said on a cold February evening.
The Brick is empty on this night. Water from a leaky roof slowly drips on the dark corridor leading to the stage. A year has passed since Wallies, a comedy about two FBI agents who fall in love with a couple of anarchists, packed the theater for three straight nights.
It was the first weekend of March 2020. The risers were full. People sat on the floor, on the stairs, on the catwalk, and even in the small tech booth where Buchheister ran the lights.
Now, a year since New York stages shut down, The Brick has become a temporary storage room for other theaters and companies, many closed or disbanded – all while The Brick itself struggles to survive.
While venues plan a gradual reopening in April, there is also talk of careers evaporating. Still, for Buchheister it’s been a year of intrepid experimentation. For Meredith Waddy, a Black technical director from Harlem, it’s been an opportunity to reflect on his own past. And for P., an immigrant Brazilian actress and director, it’s been the confirmation that she belongs to New York City. This is a story on how three off-off-Broadway theater workers have endured.
Beyond the edge
“I came to New York ready to rock,” said P., an actress and director who arrived in 2016 from Brazil and prefers to be identified only by her first initial because she’s currently applying to extend her O-1B visa, which grants a temporary working permit.
For the next four years, she worked as a babysitter, a bartender, an English teacher and even a salesperson, pitching automatic cash machines to local businesses around Brooklyn and Queens. It was all to support her career as an artist.
Then, early in 2020, her luck began to shift: one after the other, shows started calling her. P., 39, felt ready to become a full-time theater worker: “And, finally, when I was right there, COVID hit me in the face,” P. said.
She didn’t get the virus, but the pandemic shattered the off-off-Broadway scene, which, already hand to mouth, was particularly vulnerable. The solidarity within this world of part-time actors, directors, playwrights and backstage artists struggling to make art while making ends meet helped generate outpouring of support. The same day that theaters in New York closed last March, the Indie Theatre Fund, a grassroots non-profit that supports small venues and artists around the five boroughs, was already organizing to deliver rapid $500 microgrants to independent theater workers.
“We do know that our artists live on the edge on a good year,” said Randi Berry, the fund’s director. “We can’t afford to have one missed paycheck.”
As the shutdown dragged on, the aid, while welcome, was never going to be enough.
Meredith Waddy, a technical director with more than fifty years of experience, had always managed to cobble together a living, but weeks after the shutdown, he was forced to move from Harlem to a less expensive, shared apartment in Brooklyn.
He still made his way back to Harlem, the neighborhood where he grew up and has lived most of his life, only now he was there to visit the food pantries at the Salem United Methodist Church and at the Salvation Army.
First he went to the pantries once a week, then twice, and eventually, when things got hardest, even three times. “We needed to be near where the food was, so we could eat,” said Waddy, 73, a Vietnam veteran who has around one thousand Uptown shows on his résumé.
Still, in some ways, Waddy was lucky: he had a monthly Social Security check of about $1,400. He also got an $11,000 one-time loan from the city in May to sustain his six-member company of technicians. By early April, the Small Business Administration had established the Paycheck Protection Program – the same fund that helped Buchheister temporarily cover the salaries for staff and actors at The Brick.
As an unemployed immigrant with a temporary work visa, P. had fewer options.
After working off-the-books at a liquor store, she found a job at a design company that had pivoted to produce face shields. In June and July, P. produced between 850 and 1000 face shields a day on ten-hour shifts but never considered leaving the U.S.
“I knew that unfortunately Brazil would be in a worse situation,” P. said, holding back tears. “I’ve been through so many things in New York… I believe in New York.”
‘Nothing, nothing, nothing to do’
Spring gave way to an eerie summer. The weeks dragged on, postponements became cancellations, and Buchheister struggled with the ethics of fundraising.
Asking for money in the middle of a pandemic felt wrong; they told the theater’s board that if they couldn’t figure out how to make it through the next few months, then maybe The Brick should close for good.
By early summer, The Brick was running on insurance claims and emergency grants; Buchheister started considering fundraising.
Then, on May 25, George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, sparking nation-wide protests.
“I couldn’t, in good conscience, fundraise when people were going to jail and needed the money to get out,” Buchheister said. “I found it to be completely morally impossible to do.”
Throughout June, The Brick became a shelter and pantry for the protesters who marched nearby. After months of not seeing anyone, Buchheister joined the marches, and on warm nights, sat outside, talking for hours with friends and volunteers.
But through it all, they kept circling back to the same question: does anyone even need our art at a time like this?
Since March 22, The Brick had been streaming a live weekly show on Twitch, a platform mostly used by gamers. The initial aim had been to provide artistic escape.
“But it just felt wrong and impossible to continue in that same way,” they said. “We could not do a bunch of fun, celebratory art for Pride month. Nobody was celebrating. It would have been beyond tone deaf.”
With less than six weeks of funds available, The Brick continued streaming. “If we failed to survive as a space,” Buchheister said, “at least we were going to go down paying artists and supporting civil rights.”
For Waddy, the summer was one of anguish. He’d expected that things would have returned to normal by then, that he’d be working around the clock during the busiest weeks of the year, when concerts and plays sprouted all around the city. During the Harlem Week Festival the previous summer, he’d worked on more than a hundred shows. In 2020, it was just 10.
“We had nothing, nothing, nothing to do,” he said. He spent his days outside, sitting on the stoop in Brooklyn, under the sun.
He only left home to go to the food pantries in Harlem. The first time he visited the Salvation Army pantry on Malcolm X Boulevard, the desperation on the streets struck him. People who lacked homes or jobs took shelter and relieved themselves under the scaffolding across the street from the Schomburg Center.
“It was a whole other world,” he said. Looking for quiet and comfort, he took walks in Central Park, a place he had not visited in a long time.
Still on their own
At the start of autumn, clamor for urgent legislation to save small stages across the country grew to new levels.
The National Independent Venue Association – which had signed up 450 venues within three days of its birth in Minneapolis in April, at the height of the first lockdown – unleashed a campaign for the Save Our Stages Act, which aimed to distribute at least $10 billion to independent venues across the country. But all these efforts would take months to bear fruit.
For the most part, independent theater workers were on their own.
After a $10,000 injection from the Indie Theater Fund in the summer, The Brick had managed to stay afloat. But as nights grew longer and colder, emergency funds started to dry up.
Buchheister, who takes pride in never being bored, had to force the theater through a series of metamorphoses: it briefly became a storage room for an HBO production in the neighborhood (“They probably should have paid us more, I wish they could have.”). Then, an art gallery (”Artistically it did something, but financially, it did not.”) And, finally, the beneficiary of a virtual fundraiser hosted by Buchheister’s friend Sarah Natochenny, who voices characters in the Pokémon series.
This was in December, around the time that P. started receiving money from her mother in Brazil, a lifeline she’d never had to call upon since arriving in New York. After the contract at the face-shield factory, P. had returned to side gigs, but the income was inconsistent. “That’s when I really started to need help,” she said.
It was the regulars from a previous job at a small Brooklyn bistrot — the kind of place where you know everyone, she said — who offered work, sometimes as a babysitter, sometimes as a cleaner.
P. earned enough to cover basic expenses, while still saving up thousands of dollars for a lawyer to help her extend her visa. “COVID taught me that you have to live one day after another,” she said.
On December 27 the Save Our Stages Act became law, earmarking $15 billion for shuttered venues across the country. But as of mid-March, applications for the grant program had not yet been opened.
A year after shutdown, independent theater workers are still mostly on their own.
Waddy is hoping that summer 2021 will be better than the last. It could hardly be worse. In the meantime, he’s been earning some money by helping organize the New Heritage Theatre Group’s archive. Founded in 1964, it is the oldest Black nonprofit theater company in the city.
For Waddy, this side job has been an unexpected plunge into his own past, which is also the history of Black theater in New York. He was involved in the birth of the National Black Theatre in 1968 and the incorporation of the AUDELCO Awards for Black Theatre and Dance in 1973. He worked with Gertrude Jeannette, a mentor to a generation of Black actors in the city, and with George Faison, the first African American choreographer to win a Tony Award.
As for The Brick, the looming threat of bankruptcy and the delay in allocating city and state grants have not stopped it from producing.
In February, Buchheister was cleaning the theater, as if it were finally waking up after a long, cold winter – refocusing lights, cleaning dressing rooms and setting up risers for a new project, a live-stream multi camera performance. “If we had any money, then it would help,” they said.
In early March, the state said venues can reopen at a 33 percent capacity with a 100-person limit in April, but Buchheister is wary.
“We are not jumping on it,” said Buchheister. “We feel that is too early. There has not been enough time between other things reopening to really track if cases will spike because of it.”
In the end, one thing seems certain: stage artists will stay in New York. “Wall Street does not need to be here,” said P. “They can work from wherever they want. But theater needs New York. We need the venues. The artists, we’re going to be here. We’re going to make this city happen.”