My Career Was Just Beginning When Broadway Went Dark

I have to believe I’ll return to Broadway

The Way We Work Now is a series chronicling how people’s lives and careers have fundamentally changed because of the pandemic.

Shanel Bailey, 22, is an actor who made her Broadway debut in The Book of Mormon in 2019. She spoke with Mai Tran about watching her promising career stall as Broadway remains closed.

I was in the show The Book of Mormon and I was an onstage swing and principal understudy. I covered the four ensemble females and understudied the lead role, and I also had a small part that was on stage every night throughout parts of the show. It’s a lot of hats sometimes, but that’s what keeps it fun and interesting.

When we shut down in March, I was literally on my way to a rehearsal. When I got to the theater, the stage manager told us to go home. They said it was just for a month, so if we needed anything we should come and grab it. If not, we could leave it there. So I got my stuff and went home thinking, “It’s a month. It’ll be fine, I’ll be back.” Now there are still things in the dressing room I haven’t seen in six months, and won’t see again for gosh knows how long. Initially, we all thought, “This could actually be a good thing,” because working each weekend can be really tiring. “Let’s just be safe and take a month off, and we’ll all come back refreshed and amazing.” But then that turned into an indefinite.

When it was the end of March or April, The Broadway League sent out an email saying, “Yeah, it’s not going to happen.” I always heard about extensions to the closures from Playbill, or Broadway World, or somebody on Facebook before I heard it from the higher-ups of our own union. They would extend the break for about three months each time. It went from being, “Oh, we’ll come back in April,” to “Just kidding, it’s September,” to “Now it’s January.” The last thing I heard from The Broadway League is that they’re aiming for a spring reopening in March, which will be a full year since the shutdown. I’m not holding my breath because that could change again too.

They were encouraging us to file for unemployment as soon as possible, but the unemployment situation was absolutely horrendous. It took me almost two months to receive unemployment when I had no money coming in. I’m thankful that I’m living at home with my mom because I’m from New York, so I don’t have to worry about rent expenses or maxing out what I can afford on groceries. I’m a lower-paid member of the company, but I know that other principals have talked about making more than four times the amount they’re getting from unemployment. You work really hard and you’re proud of what you’re able to earn from your work, so it was a really crazy thing to grapple with, thinking about people in the Broadway community who have kids, people who have mortgages and aren’t able to maintain their lifestyle.

Once I was able to finally get unemployment, I started looking for work and trying to see what audition would come by. There were none, so I just relied on basic unemployment and applied where I could. I was doing a lot of self-tapes, and I did a monologue workshop online to try to meet casting directors. I was also just taking the time to keep my own artistic juices flowing, to stay sane, and stay connected to the arts in some way. I was singing a lot, I started a YouTube channel, and I was taking a lot of Instagram dance classes.

It feels very scary because I was just starting to get my footing. It was my first job and then the rug got pulled out from under me, which is how a lot of people feel. I know a lot of kids who graduated and had just signed yearlong leases in New York, ready to do this New York thing, and then two months later they have to go back home because they can’t afford to be here. Joining the Broadway community is already intimidating enough because you’re around all these sets and these people who are so talented and really know what they’re doing. I was excited to keep establishing myself as someone who could run in the circle, and it’s like, “Well now what do I do? I worked so hard. I did this thing. I made it on Broadway.” And now it’s nowhere to be found. It’s scary to know what’s coming next and to know what will be waiting there when we get back.

I’ve also been watching a lot of people whom I consider to be royalty, the ones I really look up to and respect, with the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement. It’s been really empowering to see so many veterans come forward and take a stand, and make remarks and lead the way. It feels like we’re breaking the silence — everyone’s been taught to keep their heads down and do what they need to do to advance themselves, and now we’re taking a second to realize that’s not working, and it’s actually counterproductive to the goals we’re trying to set. It’s been a unique wake-up call in reminding me that I have more power than I think I do, in terms of advocating for myself and what I will and won’t accept in the future.

I have to have hope that art is what keeps people going. People love to see it as some displaced luxury that’s unnecessary, but art is what keeps people happy and alive and thriving, and New York isn’t New York without art and theater. The two have to coexist. It was scary to watch all these other shows closing, like big shows. Frozen is closing — how is that humanly possible? And it made me think, “Oh God, who’s next?” But our company has been really great about saying, “Hey, when we’re back, you’re back, if you want to come back.” I think they want to keep the same company, and I hope they do. I haven’t heard anything different.

I’m really excited. I can’t wait. It’ll feel like debuting all over again, the first time I’m on stage and feeling the audience around us. To hear an audience laughing with you, crying with you, cheering with you, that’s something that is very unique to theater. I think it’s something we all miss. We’re like Tinkerbell, we need applause to live. The community is what it’s really about. I can’t wait to just be around the actors I work with, and just be back in that space. It’s one of a kind.

writer based in new york

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