Artists Thrive During the Pandemic
By: C. Rose Widmann
Originally Published: July 23rd, 2021
This article is part of The Current’s “Throwback Thursday” series.
In March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world as we know it to a halt. With performances, galleries, museums, festivals and local businesses closed, the industry of the arts seemingly disappeared overnight. In April 2020, when overall unemployment was at its highest, over two-thirds of the entire entertainment industry was unemployed, according to NPR. It seemed like the arts would be lost, but then something incredible began to happen: bit by bit, the arts worked their way back into the spotlight.
It started with short Zoom performances, where celebrities and local artists alike provided recorded entertainment during shelter-in-place orders. Broadway shows like Hamilton and Aladdin united on Zoom to perform hit songs from their musicals while other professional performers took to platforms like TikTok and YouTube to record content to lighten people’s quarantines. Hamilton dropped on Disney+ in 2020, making the hit musical accessible to people from their couches. The demand for digital entertainment has been higher than ever, which has impacted the entertainment industry in a wide variety of ways. Both current students and alumni of Michigan State University were interviewed on how the pandemic affected their employment and creative pursuits.
The MSU Department of Theatre has remained active during the pandemic, putting on a virtual season through the 2020-21 school year. Other performing arts groups on campus, such as Roial Players and Second Stage Productions, also moved into the virtual realm to accommodate state and campus health directives. Community theaters around Michigan are also moving into the digital realm to continue a sense of normalcy throughout the pandemic. MSU Alumni and current students alike have dug deep into their creative cores to weather the pandemic, creating new opportunities for themselves to stay afloat until the world returns to normal.
Maxie Froelicher (they/them/theirs), a 2018 MSU graduate, moved home to Midland, Michigan, post-graduation to save money and plan their next move. Then the pandemic struck, and plans went out the window. To stay creative, Froelicher participated in “Shakespeare & Chill” from March-December 2020 with the Midland Center for the Arts, which featured a weekly read of an abridged Shakespeare play that was then recorded and streamed online.
“I’ve done quite a bit since graduation but it’s all been volunteer work,” Froelicher said. “Around here, work is mostly volunteer even in ‘normal’ times. I’m stuck at McDonald’s for the time being, but I’m hoping to be able to somehow move to a bigger city that has paid opportunities.”
Even alumni who are located in bigger cities are making changes to stay afloat. Camille Thomas, a working actress in New York City and alumna of MSU Department of Theatre, has been using digital platforms to stage her own one-woman show “yOU CaN TAke ouT a PArEnT pLUs lOaN,” a project that has been in the works since her sophomore year at MSU. “It’s really rewarding to see this project come to fruition,” Thomas said. “I’ve staged a private reading, a public stage reading and a more polished version with Women’s Theatre Festival and am having it performed as an audio drama in March.”
The digital landscape of the pandemic has connected her with opportunities that would otherwise be difficult to be a part of due to distance. Thomas devised and performed in “Who’s There” at the New Ohio Theatre in New York, a collaboration piece between artists in the U.S., Singapore and Malaysia. She is also in a collaborative class between Broadway Advocacy Coalition and Columbia University called Theatre of Change where artists, activists and law students look at ‘Artivism’ and prison abolition. ‘Artivism’ is a term coined in the late 1990’s that refers to using art as activism, something that has gained momentum with the Black Lives Matter movement and the rise of social media as a necessity for artists.
Thomas isn’t the only MSU Theatre Department graduate creating digitally during the pandemic. Evan Phillips is living in Atlanta, pursuing a career in theater, film, television and voiceover. His experience during the pandemic has been marked by digital creation. “I was originally pursuing a career in graphic design before changing my major to theatre, but I never thought that I would ever have to use my computer skills again when I decided to work towards a career in acting,” Phillips said.
The transition to online mediums for performance posed a large challenge for the performance industry, according to Phillips. “It seemed like a lot of theaters were having difficulties with adjusting to platforms that were built for communication rather than performance. But those limitations had this side-effect of making artists have to think outside of the box to turn those obstacles with Zoom into a more immersive and digitally enhanced theatrical experience that isn’t often seen live on stage.”
Phillips has been working on bringing sensory-friendly shows for neurodiverse audiences to digital platforms so that children on the spectrum can engage with theatre. “I was really inspired by all the creative workarounds that directors and artists were coming up with for their digital productions,” Phillips said. “I would like to take all of the lessons I learned from performing online and use them for the development of more theatrical productions that could really benefit those who wish to engage socially through theatre again but aren’t able to due to the current safety guidelines.”
Ryan Duda, who graduated from MSU Department of Theatre in 2018 with Phillips, returned to MSU to pursue an M.A. in arts & cultural management. “One of the main reasons I came back to school was because I would have the chance to work on developing a musical written specifically for young audiences with autism. I’m proud to say we developed a virtual version of the musical ‘Soda Pop Shop’ and will be performing it throughout the spring,” Duda said.
“Soda Pop Shop” is a sensory-friendly theatrical experience for neurodiverse audiences, the second of its kind devised at MSU. The first project,“FARM! A Musical Experience,” was performed locally in 2017 and toured to special education programs in 2018 and 2019. Now, the “Soda Pop Shop” recording can be viewed for free on the MSU Department of Theatre website and YouTube. Sensory friendly theatre is vital for accessibility in the arts and classroom enrichment for neurodiverse children. Projects like “FARM!” and “Soda Pop Shop” are based on the pioneering multisensory, participatory models by Oily Cart and Trusty Sidekick, performance organizations dedicated to creating sensory-friendly arts experiences.
Even in the face of progress, the digital landscape has highlighted the need for institutional changes to accessibility in schooling. “Is school the same? No. Do I think learning online is the right thing to do? Yes,” said Duda, who has become more aware of the gaps in accessible education while in grad school and creating digital content. “I do think this giant shift has helped us realize inequities in the educational system that have always existed but now are too big to ignore. My hope is that once we return to a sense of normalcy, many of the changes made to make learning more accessible and graceful stay.”
Duda also spoke about graduate school during a pandemic, and several other alumni echoed his sentiments, citing the digital grad school experience as “insanely busy” and “rewarding, but so exhausting.”
“Grad school during a pandemic is… Well, no one has experienced something as complex as this before,” Duda said. “I started after everything moved virtual, so I am only basing my differences off of my undergraduate experience. It is nothing short of inspiring how educators have pivoted so quickly to serve their students virtually, and they deserve a million times more praise than they get. Students deserve praise and grace too because many are learning in ways that they never have before, while facing unique, personal challenges brought by the pandemic.”
Educating in new ways isn’t limited to just schools and universities; it’s also meant that extracurricular resources have to adapt to the digital sphere. Recognizing a need for enriching digital curriculum, a group of MSU College of Arts & Letters graduates banded together early on in the pandemic to create OnLive, a production company for children’s theater workshops on Zoom. The goal was to create content to entertain kids in lockdown, giving them digital space to create and express themselves.
Creator Emily Clark said, “OnLive Theatre is something I dreamt up when I got furloughed. It changed my spring and summer in the best way, and I’m grateful for being a part of it with Taylor and Isabella.” Taylor McPhail, who runs the production company By/For Productions, LLC, wrote the script for the project, and then Clark, McPhail and fellow alumna Isabella Stenz helped teach the workshops.
“We ended up holding workshops on improv, playwriting, acting and more! It was great to work with kids and get to create something despite not being able to be together in person,” said Stenz. Stenz is currently in graduate studies at University of South Carolina, pursuing a Master of Arts in teaching for theatre education. “It was also a great way for us to get teaching and directing experience.” She also spoke on returning to theatre for the first time since the pandemic began; she will be acting in UofSC’s production of “You On The Moors Now” by Jaclyn Backhaus. Stenz says she is “nervous but excited” to return to the stage for limited-seating performances.
Courtney Way, another MSU Theatre alumna, has already been back onstage for a production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde in October 2020. Actors rehearsed over Zoom, then rehearsed for a week in person before moving to the main stage for dress rehearsals and filming so that the play could be released for digital viewing. Actors wore clear mouth shields, and the entire production was staged to observe six-foot distancing between all participants.
“It was very different,” Way said. “We were so far apart but still needed to connect to each other for the play, and then with filming, we had to combine film and theatre acting techniques.” Way is pursuing a master’s in drama therapy at New York University, something that she said has been difficult because of the increased hours online. But the digital landscape has also given her opportunities that might not normally be possible due to distance.
Alongside another member of her cohort, Way is tackling the issue of licensing for drama therapy, which is only a recognized license in a few states. Therapists wanting to work in other states need to pursue additional licensing in order to practice, which is a costly barrier to tackle.
Way is also an advocate for d/Deaf and Hard of Hearing artists and has been able to present at conferences over Zoom that might not otherwise be possible. Additionally, she is educating members of MSU Theatre on d/Deaf and HoH culture for upcoming projects via Zoom, an opportunity to reconnect with familiar faces at MSU while also furthering education on accessibility. While digital communication does present a significant barrier for accessibility, Way is hopeful the pandemic will create opportunity rather than hinder it.
In an effort to inspire creativity and opportunity, MSU’s College of Arts & Letters gave out 12 micro-grants to student creative projects in 2020 with another round of grants happening in 2021. The Dean’s Arts Advisory Council selected projects that addressed both the pandemic and the ongoing fight for social justice with the Black Lives Matter movement, which were all displayed in a virtual exhibit last fall. Winners received $500 to fund their projects, which ranged from podcasts and musical projects to film, music and studio art.
“[We] were curious about all the career artists during the pandemic,” said grant winner Jason Dernay, a B.F.A. acting major at MSU. “We wanted to know about their struggles, accomplishments, innovations and advice for other artists. We created ‘The Art of Adaptation’ to give artists a chance to tell their stories [in podcast form].”
Dernay and project partner Nate Davis, also an acting major at MSU, recorded 10 episodes of the podcast with the grant award, giving artists space to speak about how their creative pursuits have had to adapt to the pandemic’s ever-changing landscape. “The collaborative nature of it made me hopeful for the future of art,” Davis said. “Guests we interviewed brought their own great ideas about creativity during a pandemic.”
Creativity during hardship was a common theme among the projects.“Without creativity, imagine the lack of invention in the world; we would never evolve as a society,” said seniors Devin McKinney and Donte Smith, also grant winners. McKinney, a media and information major, and Smith, a film studies major, will be creating a film project that addresses the effect of the pandemic on community and use of social media.
“Involving myself in the arts is liberation,” said sophomore Sarah Whitaker, whose multimedia sound project aims to push the boundaries of comfort regarding the pandemic and the Black Lives Matter movement.
While many of the projects relate communal experiences, some grant winners chose to speak on the individual mindset and overall mental health during isolation, which has been a struggle for creative minds during the pandemic. Jake Gerard-Price performed a contemporary dance piece that encapsulated the feelings of isolation and confinement that early shelter-in-place orders brought.
“I want to encourage and remind people that exploration is still possible when confined in your place of living,” Gerard-Price said about his piece “Fractures & Folds.” Several other works addressed mental health in isolation, which has been at the forefront of many people’s minds during the long months of quarantining.
MSU Department of Theatre alum Daniel James addressed mental health and the creative mind in his recent album “Self Talk,” which is available to stream on Spotify. “The isolation was helpful for a lot of reasons; it gave me time to sit with each of the tracks and expand on them when I felt like something was missing.” James wrote, mixed and produced the entire album in his home during isolation, relying on himself and close friends for feedback on the songs.
Many of the songs include sections of James talking to himself (and the audience) in a positive way with a background of calming electronic beats. “As artists, I think we all suffer from a certain amount of negative self talk. We constantly tell ourselves things like, ‘Why try when other people are doing so much better than I am?’” James said. His goal with the album is to talk listeners towards a more positive headspace in the midst of chaos. Music is a creative passion for him at the moment, but there’s always room for expansion in the future.
Some artists have had to think outside the box and expand their toolboxes during the pandemic. Many have taken on things they didn’t expect during the pandemic, from starting their own businesses to year-long corps assignments or multiple part-time jobs outside of their industry.
Michala Peltz, a 2020 graduate of MSU Department of Theatre, decided to go into business with her sister. They run a digital production company called Digitalblue-ish that just wrapped filming on its first web-series. “It’s been a good experience, but hard too. The pandemic has given me the time and motivation to get this project going. We’re making sure we get to create the art we want but also that we are doing it in a safe way,” Peltz said.
“We wrote Zoom and FaceTime calls into our scripts to make sure we were following COVID-19 protocols and staying safe at every point, but one of the hardest parts of being digital is not working with other artists in person.” Peltz cited the lack of work during the pandemic as the reason for going into business for herself. She chose to run a production company so that she could also create work for other artists who weren’t working.
Heather Mahoney, another graduate of MSU Department of Theatre, took on a year-long assignment with Americorps as a college advisor, allowing her to exercise skills learned in her second degree in social policy. The assignment with Americorps has allowed her to move to the region where she wanted to pursue performing. It is financially beneficial while waiting out the pandemic, but the feeling of hopelessness is still hard to contend with.
“As an artist, the pandemic has been draining,” Mahoney said. “Ideas resulting with follow-through on projects [have] been a rarity as motivation is at an all time low. As an artist in college, I was always wishing I had more time to work on acting, comedy or other artistic projects, but now that time is abundant but overshadowed with one crisis after another, motivation to use that time has been difficult to come by.”
However, Mahoney’s experience gives her perspective on helping students who are in the same boat. “What has been rewarding about the service position is that while I am struggling with motivating myself, my students are struggling with motivation just as much, if not more. In my position, I am able to provide some outside motivation for these students.”
Other artists turned to multiple part-time pursuits or jobs available outside of their main industry to stay afloat. MSU Theatre alumni and professional performer Christopher Michael has worked at coffee shops, malls, as an Uber Eats driver and in undergrad research positions during the pandemic. He also does freelance photography and substitutes in for local dance instructors, always on the move to support himself.
“My weeks are jam-packed, but I’d rather be nonstop on the go and busy rather than sitting at home,” Michael said. He’s currently living in Naples, Florida, and is interning at the Gulfshore Playhouse. He’s also preparing to return to the stage in a production of “Footloose!” that’s rehearsing entirely outdoors with actors masked up and maintaining distance where possible. “I think the pandemic has reminded people of simple measures to keep themselves healthy that they should have been doing all along: washing/sanitizing hands frequently, staying home if you’re sick.” Michael remains optimistic about theatre’s return in the coming months.
Sara McKinley, an MSU alumna living in Los Angeles, is training dogs professionally to pay her bills. She moved to L.A. to work in film and television but found that the pandemic brought an end to the abundance of paying gigs and opportunities to network. Her current job is professional dog training, which has potential for future employment in the film industry. Working a steady 40-hour job has allowed her to budget for acting classes and supplies for self-taping auditions. “The unfortunate thing about working 40 hours a week is that I can’t justify taking time off to do any unpaid projects with how expensive rent and cost of living is out here, so I’ve been limiting my submissions to paid gigs,” McKinley said.
Acting jobs are scarce, especially without an agent, so McKinley’s goal for the near future is to submit to several agents that are accepting new clients, hoping to get her foot in the door. L.A. has changed a lot during the pandemic, but there are some opportunities for normalcy still. “I have one class that’s in person, which is almost unheard of right now in L.A.,” McKinley said. “The owner of the studio is a director who is currently working in the industry, so he was able to get our classroom ‘Safe Set’ certified so we could film our scenes in person. It’s very, very strict right now for all film projects.”
For the most part, she is optimistic about theatre and film’s return in the near future. “I think once we are able to be in large crowds again, things will eventually go back to normal. I can’t say how quickly, depending on how much money was lost in the industry, but I definitely have hope that things can get back to how they were at least to a degree.”
In the meantime, performing arts will continue to operate under unusual circumstances. Many artists have turned to TikTok to create content, though oftentimes limited by algorithms, community guidelines and the 1-minute recording limit. Drag queen, Maxi Padding (she/they), also an MSU Theatre alumna, blossomed during the pandemic and has found her space on TikTok despite its limitations.
“I’ve always wanted to be a performing artist,” Padding said. “My original goal was to become an actor, but I had a lot of trouble finding my place as a non-binary person in the theatre community. The drag community is by no means perfect when it comes to inclusion, but it’s so much more celebrated to really reach outside the box when it comes to expression.”
Padding’s TikTok account, @themaxipadding, has over 52.5K followers and features a variety of content, including a popular series of randomly-generated drag looks inspired by a similar trend. “I hadn’t seen a drag version, so I inventoried my whole drag collection from wigs to clothes to shoes. For the video, I create a look, selecting each piece by using a random number generator. Those videos definitely get the best response, other than my one viral video, and, like I said, I think people enjoy being taken along for the journey and then seeing if the result is any good or just ridiculous.”
When asked about the challenges of the app, Padding said videos getting reported for content violation has been a major problem, getting to the point where one of her live streams was cut short and her live privileges revoked. After a process of appealing the violation, they were restored, but because the algorithm puts content all over the app, it’s hard to control videos getting spam-reported. Being shadow-banned or getting content removed is a common complaint among users, especially creators falling on the LGBTQ+ spectrum.
But Padding will continue to use the platform to practice her skills while she waits for the performing arts to return full-force. “The pandemic has completely obliterated the nightlife industry, especially for someone like me who was just getting started in February of 2020,” she said. “I’m super proud of the growing that I’ve managed to do as a queen during the pandemic, I’m grateful for the few performance opportunities I’ve had and the following I’ve gained.”
TikTok is becoming a staple in the arts world, with projects even holding auditions on the platform. “I had to duet the individual TikTok for my role to audition! It was fascinating. All the subsequent work has been done over Zoom though,” said MSU Theatre alumna Katelyn Christine. “It’s for an entirely online production, so I weirdly feel like auditioning with TikTok wasn’t inaccurate to what the production will end up being.”
Christine lives in New York City as a professional actor, but the pandemic has afforded her the opportunity to record her EP Katelyn Christine, available to stream on Spotify. “It was definitely a challenge. I wrote everything myself, and not being able to collaborate with others was stressful. I spent many an hour recording a small piece of something and sending it to my best friend to get her opinion. But on the flip side, it was really freeing to have so much time to devote to my art, more than I’ve ever had consecutively.”
Having time to create is something that another musically inclined alumna of MSU Theatre is thankful for. Maeyson Menzel has been taking the time to work on her original musical content, and with the time the pandemic has afforded, she has been able to speed up her process. She’s also turned to social media to promote her content: her TikTok account @maeysonjoy features some incredible voice work, from original songs to insane vocal riffs and runs.
Menzel’s plan post-graduation was to move to L.A. and begin working, but the pandemic forced a change of plans. While waiting out the pandemic, she says she impulsively decided to pursue graduate studies for clinical mental health counseling, something she’s been passionate about but never threw her full weight behind. The change in plans brought her more time for her music and a career she didn’t expect.
Another source, who asked to remain anonymous, is facing a similar change in perspective. “Finding a job in theatre was already very difficult and stressful, even before the pandemic,” they said. “I commend people greatly who have been able to perform and create things during shutdown, but performing over Zoom just isn’t something I could do. So I’ve been feeling really lost and unsure about my career since I don’t know when I could perform again.”
“Basically the one thing that’s kept me creating throughout the pandemic has been doing makeup. I’m considering shifting my career path to go to school for makeup for TV and film, which I never would have thought about if the pandemic didn’t happen. Doing makeup professionally has always been something I’ve thought about casually, but never thought I would pursue since I’ve always thought of myself as a performer. I never would have started pursuing a new career path if the world was normal.”
Their experience with isolation during the pandemic led to a complete change in plans and a new direction to go in once the pandemic is over. Change is a natural result of experience, and can be even more pronounced during a global disaster. Creative minds search for inspiration during dark times, which can even mean reconnecting to their creativity even if a person’s main career or major are not in the arts.
Sarah Dietrich graduated from MSU in May with her M.S. in entomology, but she uses creative projects to keep her hands busy. Some of her projects include restoring furniture and household items, crocheting and sewing masks. “Being able to work with my hands has been so good for my mental health,” Dietrich said.
Jenna Phillips, a recent MSU graduate who majored in advertising, started her own business selling paintings on Etsy, Instagram and Facebook after being laid off of her job in a restaurant last year. Her shop ReamDesignsCo features brightly colored abstract portraits and figures, projects that Jenna initially started to balance her own mental health but then evolved into a steady job. “I would say the most fulfilling thing about starting my own business during quarantine has been a sense of control in my life. I feel like everyone has been struggling with the unknown and being able to wake up to a positive purpose has been rewarding,” Phillips said.
Amber Anderson, an MSU alumna going to law school at the University of Michigan, started her Etsy shop KatsMewsings because of a surprise demand for her products after she showed them on social media. “I’d still be making [art] regardless because I love doing it,” Anderson said, “but it’s nice that I can share it with other people.”
Sarah Kuch, an alumna of MSU Theatre, also started her own art business. It began with painting to de-stress during the early days of the pandemic; then it expanded as she learned techniques from YouTube and practiced her art. She creates beachscapes and pet portraits and has enjoyed seeing her business grow.
“I’ve always thought, why not do it all? So that’s exactly what I’m striving for. Painting full time and acting on the side. No time like the present. Blessing in disguise for sure!” Kuch said. Her work can be found at sarahlynnefineart.com.
The combined experiences of these creative minds show that while the pandemic has taken its toll on everyone, it has also presented incredible opportunities to create and make an impact. Whether it’s creating new opportunities for children and neurodivergent audiences, connecting with artists across the world or pursuing personal projects with newfound time, artists have proven their resiliency in the face of the pandemic. The stories shared all speak to the need to create, the need to stay connected to one’s passions. It’s incredible how the art world collectively learned to create something out of nothing in order to thrive.
C. Rose Widmann (they/them) is a 5th-year senior pursuing B.A.s in English and theatre with multiple minors. This is their first semester with The Current, but they have been a contributor for HerCampusMSU since May 2020. C was most recently published in Otherwise Engaged: A Literature and Arts Journal. When not writing fanfiction or fantasy novels, C is competing for both the MSU club fencing and gymnastics teams. Insta: @C.rosewidmann