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Broadway workers navigate a year without live theater

Before the shutdown, Broadway was primed for its spring season. Nik Walker had recently taken over as lead in “Ain’t Too Proud” and was getting into a groove with the role. Nikki Renée Daniels had performed in nine preview performances of “Company” and was continuing to refine her character, Jenn...

Before the shutdown, Broadway was primed for its spring season.

Nik Walker had recently taken over as lead in “Ain’t Too Proud” and was getting into a groove with the role.

Nikki Renée Daniels had performed in nine preview performances of “Company” and was continuing to refine her character, Jenny, during rehearsals.

Gian Perez was preparing for his Broadway debut as Kevin in “Sing Street,” which had just moved into the Lyceum Theater to begin tech rehearsals.

But when Broadway was ordered to close, all of this came to a standstill. Since then, the actors, stage managers, directors, ushers and countless other workers affected have been trying to navigate through this undefined middle period and the mental and financial challenges that come with it.

At “Company,” the days leading up to the shutdown had been a frenzy of preparations for the show, as well as a ramp-up of safety protocols. These measures ranged from increased cleaning of the theater to the end of stage-door greetings, alongside questions like, “Is it still safe to kiss my scene partner?” “Ain’t Too Proud” had gone through similar protocols and cast members had begun taking precautions such as touching elbows instead of holding hands in the prayer circle before the show.

The night of March 11, “Company” cast members received vitamin B12 injections as a preventative measure before what would become their last show of the year.

At first, some cast members welcomed the pause. It gave Perez an opportunity to return to Ann Arbor, Mich. to visit his girlfriend and see out his final year at the University of Michigan.

Daniels had gone straight from the Chicago company of “Hamilton” into “Company” rehearsals. She saw the initial four-week break as a chance to reset and move into her new apartment.

“I was like, ‘Oh, this will be great. I’ll have a month to get unpacked and reacquainted with my family and get us a little bit settled in our new home, and then here we are,” Daniels said. “We’ve definitely gotten quite settled in our apartment.”

As the shutdown lengthened, rest turned into restlessness and a need to pivot. For many Broadway workers, that meant exploring other passions or finding new ways in which to continue practicing their crafts in order to make ends meet.

After going through weeks of physically demanding rehearsals to prepare for “Ain’t Too Proud,” Walker has used quarantine to write stage plays and screenplays. He’s also been teaching text analysis courses to actors at New York University.

“I’m very grateful that I’ve really been able to keep it in the pocket, at least in terms of creating art and teaching art and doing what I love,” Walker said.

In addition to caring for her two children, Daniels has been performing in virtual concerts, including a solo show broadcast from Birdland Jazz Club, creating demo recordings, and teaching voice lessons. The virtual events have helped expand her repertoire — and have helped out a bit financially, though not at the level of a Broadway salary — but still felt lacking for Daniels, a longtime theater performer.

“The most important piece is the audience,” Daniels said. “I mean, you know someone is watching it, but you don’t know who or what they think.”

Cherie Tay, assistant stage manager of “Hadestown,” has now expanded her already wide range of hobbies to encompass voiceover work, tech consulting — including helping actors optimize self-tape setups — photography and volunteering with Be An Arts Hero.

These activities have kept her busy, but also provided a sense of purpose and resilience against the backdrop of continued Broadway closure announcements and the toll of the pandemic.

“The feeling of the unknown, the feeling of dread, the feeling of seeing people who have dedicated their entire lives to this industry having to struggle to float, seeing people in our community lose their lives because of this,” Tay said. “I think those were more overwhelming than the announcements.”

Moving through the pandemic, with an eye to Broadway’s reopening, has also surfaced questions on what protocols will be in place to ensure the safety of casts and crews, alongside the ever-present question of when casts and crew can return to work.

To combat the unease and continue their camaraderie, the casts have tried to stay connected virtually.

Perez, who has been living with his family in Florida, has continued to work on his own musical projects and share his music virtually with his castmates, who are now based around the world. During the musical’s run, Perez and other cast members would often play together during lunch breaks or after the show.

“We joke about how we’ve been able to collaborate more musically since the shutdown than while ‘Sing Street’ was happening,” Perez said.

There’s an active text thread among the actors who play the Classic Five Temptations in “Ain’t Too Proud.” That cast, in particular, has seen each other more than most thanks to a series of in-person performances, including the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center.

And many of the cast and crew members have returned to their theaters to retrieve belongings — in an eerie experience for Daniels, the set used in the last scene of “Company” was still on stage when she last visited in May 2020.

But none of this can replace the feeling of being on Broadway and the desire to return to doing what they love.

“I cannot tell you from the bottom of my soul how much I miss this,” Walker said. “I miss it with everything I have.”