After the Theater Graduates Left Without a Stage

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I’m a theater reporter for The New York Times. But there was very little theater for over a year.

So what was I doing? I write, at least in part, about people who have lives and livelihoods. was overturned due to the closure due to the pandemic.

means actors, of course, and the fans too. But I’ve also been intrigued by what widespread layoffs and the absence of productions will mean for aspiring theater performers, almost since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. That’s what prompted me to report Article in Sunday’s newspaper It’s about a group of drama students who graduated last year from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

Over time, I was able to speak to 22 of the 23 drama students in the class of 2020, and they reminded me that I love journalism and artists so much – they were open, generous, and self-aware, and sometimes unsure about how to think about what this strange and unexpected time would mean for them. And the article apparently resonated with readers, for which I am grateful.

I started telling the story to the culture editors of The Times last summer. Then, in January, guided by this year’s annual what-to-do meetings, I moved it to the top of my wish list.

But how to proceed? I started by reaching out to a number of leading drama programs in New York and around the country and talking to educators and students about what’s happening in the class of 2020. I was just trying to clear my head about what a story could be. look like.

While we were collecting the news, my editors and I continued a discussion we had over and over: breadth versus depth. Was it the best way to continue writing extensively about the most interesting alumni from various programs, or to delve deeper into a single program that might apply to the larger universe?

Once we decided to focus on one class, it was time to choose a school. This is a type of multiple choice question that does not have a single correct answer. We wanted a reputable program but maybe it wasn’t one of the schools in our backyard and we wanted a group of students with a variety of backgrounds and a variety of pandemic experiences.

The University of North Carolina School of Fine Arts appealed because it met those criteria, and after speaking with the program’s dean, communications director, and a few students, I felt I would find the level of sincerity in me. can make a story successful.

As with most of the work I’ve done over the past year, the reporting was largely by phone – students were scattered all over the United States, one in England, one in Australia, and others on the go most of the time. But I had the opportunity to meet some of them.

In May, I made my first reporting flight to Winston-Salem since the pandemic began to tour the campus and attend the 2021 kick-off where class of 2020 members were invited, and they both participated. (One bonus: Gotta see what it is Fight Pickles, looks like the school’s mascot.)

I visited with three members of the class. David Ospina, now a real estate photographer, met me for a cold brew coffee on a very hot North Carolina morning; Lance Smith showed me his mother’s apartment during the pandemic, where she was making music and auditioning for self-recording; and Sam Sherman joined Mr. Smith and me at a picnic table on campus for information the morning after it started. At dinner with the dean and a few faculty members, I learned more about the school’s programs and how it has fend off the pandemic.

It’s been great to start reporting face-to-face again. This only leads to better conversations and richer material and I am very grateful to all students for their thoughts. Sitting with Mr. Smith and Mr. Sherman, one memory sparked another – the student production of “Pass Over” they were working on, the alumni panels they attended, the books they read and the survival jobs they took, and the dreams they tried to hold on to. “I look forward to being in a room with people, playing with each other, having fun and being silly, seeing what works and maybe making a breakthrough one day,” Mr. Sherman said. Mr. Smith agreed. “I miss being in it,” he added. “I miss doing.”

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