These Drama Students Trained for Years. Then Theater Vanished.

Things got real the night the drama students reached Atlanta.

Truth be told, they should have seen it coming. There were the news reports. And the cancellations. And a bunch of them felt sick.

But still, this was showcase, a night they had prepped for all year. A night they would finally get to perform for agents and managers and casting directors, who might then agree to represent them, or invite them to an audition. A night that could set them up for success. Or not.

They anticipated an audience of two dozen gatekeepers from Georgia’s burgeoning film and television industry.

Instead, there were three.

The students, from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, performed anyway. The show must go on, and all that. But it was weird. And when it was over, it was really over.

“I remember walking out and feeling like, what the hell am I going to do?” said David Johnson III, a 23-year-old from suburban Detroit, who grew up playing football and basketball, but decided he wanted to be an actor after portraying Richard III in youth theater.

That night of the showcase was March 12, 2020. Hundreds of miles to the north, Broadway was going dark. Now the students’ world would too.

“You could see them trying to hold on to hope, but there was a sadness,” said one of the professionals who was there, Rhavynn Drummer, a casting director for Tyler Perry Studios, which has helped make Atlanta an important film and TV production hub. “So much that they had looked forward to was changing, instantly.”

Scott Zigler, the drama school dean, hopped onstage and told the students spring break was extended, classes were postponed, and anything beyond that was unknown.

There was one more thing Zigler had to do: tell Carlo Feliciani Ojeda, a directing student from South Florida, that the production of “The Odyssey” he was creating, featuring all 23 members of the class, was not going to happen.

“We got an Uber back to the hotel,” Ojeda said, “and no one spoke the whole ride home.”

Making a life in the arts was always going to be hard. But not like this. Over 16 months of pandemic and social unrest, the Class of 2020 would watch almost all stage actors lose their jobs and witness widespread layoffs at regional theaters. They would hear the footsteps of another year of young artists coming up right behind, and wonder whether there would still be room for them.

“I like to say that we got thrown to the dogs before we got thrown to the dogs,” said Johnson, who is back home in Michigan, driving for Grubhub.

“I call us the Class of Covid-19,” he added, “even though we’re the Class of 2020.”

Back to Childhood Bedrooms

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts sits on the grounds of a former high school in a quiet neighborhood a few miles outside downtown Winston-Salem, a onetime tobacco and textile town now trying to position itself as a tech hub.

The arts school was the nation’s first public conservatory when it was founded in 1963; there are no sports teams and no fraternities, but there is a professional backlot, three large soundstages and an offbeat mascot, the Fighting Pickle, who shows up for special events.

The drama program, which is all undergraduate, is the smallest at the school, and highly regarded — in an informal survey The Hollywood Reporter just declared it the fourth best in the world. Alumni include Anthony Mackie, Mary-Louise Parker, Joe Mantello, Jonathan Majors and Jada Pinkett Smith.

About 30 percent of the Class of 2020 was made up of people of color; about 60 percent qualified for financial aid (out-of-state tuition is $23,731 a year, which is lower than at many other drama schools; in-state is $6,500).

As their senior year evaporated, many students stayed in Winston-Salem. They had a few months left on their off-campus leases. Also, they felt intensely close to one another, and reluctant to leave.

They made their own rituals. In lieu of Beaux Arts, the school’s annual end-of-year party, they met in Washington Park, wearing masks and dancing by themselves on socially distanced blankets. In May, some held a farewell ceremony on the roof of a downtown parking garage, and felt guilty about hugging.

Then they scattered.

Most went back to wherever they had grown up, shelving plans to move to New York or Los Angeles, the two cities whose concentrations of arts and entertainment jobs would draw at least 75 percent of the program’s graduates in an ordinary year.

“Generally graduation feels like a launching, and it’s ‘See you in a couple of months!’ ” said Ana Evans, the class president, who instead of New York went home to Minneapolis, and then to Chicago. “That’s not been our case.”

Some came to cherish unexpected time with parents and siblings. Many saved money, since they weren’t paying room and board. In a year when the word “privilege” was much bandied about, they talked a lot about the privilege of having someplace safe to quarantine.

Linnea Scott, who majored in theater at an arts magnet high school in Denver, found herself living in what had been her little sister’s bedroom — her sister had taken hers. She wrote, did yoga and hung out (outdoors) with high school friends. “I remember having this intense feeling,” she said. “Did the last four years even happen?”

The scramble for some kind of work, some kind of income, was full-on. Abigail Holland, an aspiring director, took a job at an animal hospital. Patrick Monaghan, while making comedy sketches to post online, is doing construction. Chase Dillon, always a bit of an entrepreneur, trades cryptocurrency.

“I’ve been doing accounting work,” said Emma Davis, back home in Boca Raton, Fla., “which is hilarious, since I have a B.F.A. in acting.”

Nannying, more in demand during a pandemic when many schools went virtual, became a popular pursuit. Scott had a 5-year-old and an 8-year-old under her care in Denver, while Kate Pittard looked after six kids in Brooklyn. “I’ve been sculpting with clay, painting, dancing — things I thought I was quite terrible at,” she said.

Health risks and shifting local protocols led some graduates to cycle through jobs. Trey Fitts, who as a senior had starred as Melchior in “Spring Awakening,” worked at Target, but quit after his stepfather got Covid, and started driving for Grubhub; Johnson switched to Grubhub after working in landscaping and driving trucks.

“Nothing is going on in the industry,” said Jon Demegillo, who is teaching Shakespeare at a summer camp. “What am I going to do with this degree?”

‘A Radical Reimagining’

By early last summer, five members of the class of 2020 were holed up together in Arkansas, where Gabriela Slape’s family had a lake house.

They had been isolating from the world, swimming and cooking and trying not to get Covid. But, also, they were watching TV.

Protests that followed the murder of George Floyd were roiling the nation. Some of the students — now graduates — had joined demonstrations in Winston-Salem; now they wanted to do more.

Evans, the class president, sent around an email: Did anybody want to talk about what was happening?

The students on that lake in Arkansas did, and soon, connected by Facebook and group texts, about 18 members of the class had organized themselves into smaller book clubs. One group had a mission statement and rules of engagement about how to manage feelings of discomfort, for example, and outlining commitments to things like “interrupting white solidarity.”

“The biggest shock for me has been the lack of knowledge about the history of racism that a myriad of communities have faced,” said Deychen Volino-Gyetsa, the only woman of color (and the only New Yorker) in the class, who became one of the organizers, and who helped keep the conversations going as she moved back to New York and then to Vermont while working online in curriculum development.

The groups talked about current events, but also about structural problems in the entertainment world they were hoping to penetrate, and beauty standards at school and — using prompts from Ijeoma Oluo’s “So You Want to Talk About Race” — about cultural appropriation.

“To graduate in this moment is altering,” Holland said, “and if you breathe with it and you let the moment change you — and we should let the moment change us — this was monumental.”

At times they considered their differing recollections of shared school experiences. “It’s really disappointing that we, the white students, didn’t make space for these conversations sooner,” Scott said, “and I’m so grateful that they are happening now.”

Sam Sherman is among the graduates who have tried to put their ideals into practice. Back in D.C., he got involved with the Reclamation Project, which seeks to shape a more equitable theater world. “It’s going to take a radical reimagining, and I want to be part of that,” he said.

Monaghan, once again sharing a room with his brother in Little Silver, N.J., opted to help produce two nights of theater in nearby Red Bank.

“I knew I wanted to do art that showcased voices that weren’t mine, of people that didn’t look like me,” he said. “So I went to an N.A.A.C.P. meeting, and the first thing somebody said was ‘I want to do a night of theater.’”

From ‘Law & Order’ to ‘The Odyssey’

Jasper Keen, finally done playing chess, smoking cigarettes, and talking about the meaning of life on his Winston-Salem porch, got into his grandmother's Camry and drove 24 hours straight home to Santa Fe, N.M.

His first job, as a host at a teahouse, wasn’t great — there were a few too many altercations with customers about masks. Then, after an unsuccessful battle with the state over unemployment, an immersion in photography and a job at a mezcal bar, he got a lucky break.

He reached out to five New Mexico-based talent agents. Three never got back to him. One rejected him. But one took him on, and he was on his way.

He got cast in a web series and a radio play at the Santa Fe Playhouse (the artistic director is a School of the Arts alumna), and then by Meow Wolf, an arts collective, to perform in a video installation. (“They painted me gold and put me in a leotard and I was filmed doing some alien movements.”) He landed an indie movie called “Reconquest.” (It’s about the outbreak of a virus on a college campus. His character dies.)

And this summer he had what Netflix calls “a small, but memorable role” in “End of the Road,” a film shot in New Mexico that stars Queen Latifah as a widow targeted by a killer during a cross-country trip.

Breaking into the entertainment industry during a pandemic has been nearly impossible for much of the class. The cancellation of in-person showcases took a toll — although the school helped students put together a virtual showcase, only half the class wound up with agents, down from about 70 percent in a normal year.

But a few members of the class have landed short-term projects with notable companies. Sean Stack was in the ensemble for an audio production of “Row,” a new musical which the prestigious Williamstown Theater Festival, unable to perform in person, made for Audible. Fitts performed in a streaming play, “POV: U Run Joe Biden’s TikTok,” as part of an annual new talent festival at Ars Nova, a well regarded Off Broadway theater.

Monaghan landed a Butterfinger commercial. “I got shot in the face with whipped cream,” he said, “and I went home.”

Most successful of all has been Ainsley Seiger, who in February, after nearly a year of taking long walks, playing video games, and sending in self-tapes from her childhood bedroom in Cary, N.C., was cast as Jet Slootmaekers, a tech-minded task force member on the new NBC series, “Law & Order: Organized Crime.”

“I’ve never worked on a set without masks and Covid restrictions and testing,” she said. “So it’s certainly strange, but it’s not not-normal for me, because I have no normal yet.”

Although most class members are still hoping to find their way in the arts, the pandemic has prompted some to reassess. “In school you think it’s a straight line, A to B to C, but then real life happens,” said Daniel Hiro Taylor, who, worried about getting stuck and running out of money at the start of the pandemic, went home to Sydney, Australia, where he started working in e-commerce. He no longer expects to pursue acting as a career.

David Ospina, now shooting real estate photos in North Carolina, is also increasingly uncertain. “My dream is to go on an audition and get offered a crazy role on TV or film,” he said. “But acting is not my be-all, end-all. If I do it, I’ll do it, but if not, it’s not going to destroy me.”

Ojeda, the aspiring director, has decided to pursue further education. He made an abrupt move to London, where he is wrapping up his first year at East 15 Acting School, where he just assistant directed a student production of “Twelfth Night.”

But he’s not letting go of “The Odyssey,” which his alma mater has offered to stage, with him as director, if and when he’s ready.

Last year, his plan was to work off a popular adaptation by Mary Zimmerman, the Chicago-based director, which Ojeda reimagined with an immigration theme and set in Venezuela, where he was born; the production was devised via workshops with his classmates and was to star Demegillo, who was born in the Philippines, and Volino-Gyetsa, who is the daughter of a Tibetan refugee.

Now, many months and miles from Winston-Salem, he’s rethinking and refining, and looking to strengthen his voice.

“I didn’t want to use someone else’s story,” he said, “so I started writing my own adaptation, about how I was feeling in 2020 and 2021, and, after the murder of George Floyd, about what it means to be a person of color in the theater world.”

Commencement, Delayed

One morning about seven weeks ago, Lance Smith got up at 8. He wrote in his journal. He went for a swim. He watched funny videos. He started rereading “Ruined,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Lynn Nottage. He ate a bowl of cereal. And he meditated.

Then he did something he wasn’t sure he’d ever do. He put on a cap and gown and marched in college commencement exercises.

Since there was no in-person ceremony last year, the School of the Arts decided to invite the Class of 2020 to the 2021 commencement. Almost all the drama graduates declined: It was too expensive to return to Winston-Salem; they didn’t want to feel like extras in someone else’s celebration; they had moved on.

But Smith has lived his whole life in Winston-Salem. He spent his final year of high school in the School of the Arts drama program, and then stayed for college. In a leap of faith, he moved to Los Angeles at the height of the pandemic, but there was no work to be found, and after three months, out of money, he moved back into his mother’s apartment.

She was not going to miss the chance to see her son at his graduation; his grandmother, his sister and his nephews would come, too. “He worked so hard for it,” his mother said. “My boy gets to walk across the stage.”

So when he got the invitation, he agreed to go. And when Sherman, his best friend in the class, happened to be visiting from Washington, they decided to attend together. They were the only 2020 graduates to take part; the names of the others were announced as a list scrolled by on a video screen.

The ceremony was outdoors, at a minor-league ballpark, to reduce the risk of spreading the virus. Much to Smith’s delight, the speaker was Stephen McKinley Henderson, an alumnus who had starred in “Between Riverside and Crazy,” one of Smith’s favorite plays, in New York.

“Our purpose as artists is not to lift ourselves,” Henderson said from the podium. “It is to lift the art and thereby lift us all.”

Smith is determined to be such an artist. Every day, he does voice warm-ups, stretching and text analysis — imagining how he would prepare for a role. He’s been auditioning by self-tape, and composing and singing R&B and hip-hop tunes at a computer in his bedroom.

“I’m trying to stay ready,” he said, “so I don’t have to get ready.”

The morning after commencement, Smith and Sherman sat at an outdoor table on campus and reflected on being the only members of the class to show up.

“I think there was a deep, irrational, part of me that felt like I was looking like a loser — that feeling of still being in the same place a year later,” Sherman said.

Smith had a similar worry: “I remember feeling like the old guy who won’t stay away.”

They reminisced about their student production of “Pass Over,” a searing play by Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu about two Black men fearful of being killed by police; Sherman directed, and Smith and David Johnson starred. They are ever more committed to acting, once that becomes possible.

“It feels like I have this thirst that needs to be quenched,” Smith said.

Sherman used a similar metaphor, but terser: “I feel like I’m starving.”

‘It Was So Easy to Pick Back Up’

On the final Sunday of June, Trey Fitts and Katelyn Kelley, who are not only classmates but also a couple, met Sherman, Slape and Volino-Gyetsa in Greenwich Village, ready to check out New York Pride. They had slushies and arepas at a street fair, danced in Washington Square Park, and ducked into a bistro for a drink.

Nothing extraordinary, but that was what made it special. After more than a year of “What now?,” they were all living in New York City. “It was so easy to pick back up,” Fitts said.

The Class of 2020 is ready to push the reset button. Seven of them are now in New York, and more are on their way, eager to discover whether they can reclaim the life they thought they would have a year ago. The university has promised that they can participate in the next round of in-person showcases, whenever that may be, but many of them are ready to get going now.

Sherman arrived just two days before that get-together, prompted by friends who needed a roommate for an apartment in Ridgewood, Queens. He packed up the family Subaru, and his parents drove him up from Washington. “Now I’m on my own,” he said.

Like the other new arrivals, he immediately set out to find a way to pay the bills. He printed 50 resumes at FedEx and walked through the Bowery and the East Village, asking restaurants and bars if they had any openings.

He’s also starting to draft emails to anyone he knows in the arts, eager to resume acting. He already has one likely opportunity: Both he and Evans, the class president, are hoping for a fellowship at Lincoln Center’s education department come January; they had been chosen for the program last year, but it was suspended during the pandemic.

Pittard was among the first of the North Carolina students to arrive, making the move from Lynchburg, Va., last September. “I could not stand being home, and my parents knew it, and I knew it,” she said.

So far, so good — after 10 months of nannying, she was chosen for a Disney television talent showcase; she will perform material written for her, and get six months of mentoring by Disney executives. And she’s been hanging out with Seiger, who wrapped the first season of “Law & Order” in mid-April.

Fitts and Kelley, who rode out the pandemic at his parents’ house in Wake Forest, N.C., arrived in early June, driving their belongings in a 15-foot U-Haul to an apartment in Stuyvesant Heights, Brooklyn, that they had found online.

Among their first decisions: converting a small room with good natural light into a makeshift studio, with light blue photo paper on the wall, a tripod and a ring light, so they could record each other for TV and film auditions.

They both accepted jobs as personal assistants; he is also working as a server at a burger place, and she is selling upcycled clothing. As they finally finish assembling furniture and unpacking boxes and begin exploring New York, they can feel the pandemic slipping away.

Asked how old he is, Fitts takes a moment to recall that he’s now 23. “There’s been a whole forgotten year,” he said.

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