Out of Work

I landed my dream job in a Broadway show, then Covid-19 shut it down

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This millennial's dream job was shut down by the pandemic

This is part of CNBC Make It's Out of Work series, where real people tell their personal stories of what it's like to be underemployed during the Covid-19 pandemic. This is the story of performer Chiara Trentalange, as told to Cory Stieg.

The Covid-19 pandemic has felt like a slow detachment from what life used to be. Life now makes it kind of hard to remember all of it.

But in my planner on Feb. 15, I wrote in big capital letters, "YOU MADE YOUR BROADWAY DEBUT TODAY."

Now I've had to realize, "You don't have your dream job anymore." I have to pinch myself every now and then and think, was it all a dream?

'I made it to Broadway'

Feb. 15 was a Saturday, and it was during the second week of previews for "Girl from the North Country," a brand new Broadway musical that features Bob Dylan's music and stars Mare Winningham.

I was a "swing" in the show, which means that I covered several parts in the ensemble, as well as a principal role, in case someone can't perform. A swing is one of the most difficult jobs in theater, because you have to be organized and have a certain kind of brain that can handle learning multiple parts at once.

Normally, swings don't perform so soon in a show's run, but I got to make my Broadway debut because someone in the ensemble had a medical emergency. 

I still remember walking to the Belasco Theatre on West 44th Street and Broadway that day. I was speechless. Seeing the marquee for the show and my name on the wall, took my breath away. "I'm a part of this," I thought. 

"When the time comes for us to come back, wherever and whenever, we're going to be ready," says Chiara Trentalange, standing near a poster for Broadway show, "Girl from the North Country."
Courtesy of Chiara Trentalange.

I know it's cheesy, but sometimes it's hard to feel proud of yourself — and I felt really proud of myself.

I performed twice that Saturday, and truly it was what I had been waiting for. It was a very surreal and exhausting day.

Covid-19 changes everything

In early March, as the show was getting rave reviews from The New York Times, The Hollywood Reporter and The New Yorker, news about Covid-19 started to dominate.

On March 12, the cast found out that Broadway was officially shutting down. We were in rehearsal at the theater when our stage manager told us.

When you look back, especially now, it seems obvious that we would need to close. But in the moment, we couldn't believe it. "No, not Broadway," I thought. "Not our jobs."

I remember walking out onto the stage and saying, "I'm just so mad." It had finally happened — I made it to Broadway. Then it was ripped out of my hands by this horrible pandemic.

I shed a few tears for a second, and then I got my belongings and threw away flowers that cast members had saved in our dressing room.

At the time, everyone thought we'd be back in April, so we were looking forward to that. But we slowly realized that was not going to happen. Right now, performances are suspended through Sept. 6. 

The number of people in the arts (like so many other industries) who are out of a job right now — it feels insurmountable. 

We all hit that unemployment train. But it definitely makes you think "Okay, what else can I do here? How else could I make an income?" I don't really know.

'I really believed I could make it happen'

Ever since I was a kid, I've loved to sing and dance. Musical theater was my path with no backup plan.

I majored in musical theater at Emerson College in Boston. Ater I graduated in 2014, I saved some money by waiting tables at home in Philadelphia then moved to Queens in New York City to start auditioning in the fall of 2015.

I really believed I could make it happen.

In the beginning, I didn't have an agent, so I would wake up at 4 or 5 a.m. to go put my name on an "unofficial list" for non-union actors auditioning for Broadway shows. I would have to wait around sometimes all day until the producers and casting directors had time to see me. Sometimes they wouldn't even make it to my name at all.

At 5 p.m., exhausted, I would go to my job waiting tables and bartending at a bar in Midtown Manhattan, where I would sometimes work until 2 a.m.

For years, I would drive in my car from the city to places like the Berkshires or Connecticut or Rochester, New York to take gigs at some of the best regional theaters in the country. By 2018, I found an agent who I love, and although things were going well, I felt like I was plateauing a little.

I'm 28, and as you get older, part of you starts to feel like: How long can I push? How long do I want this transient lifestyle? When is the 'big one' going to come?

Dreams deferred

In September, my agent scheduled an appointment for me to audition for "Girl from the North Country," which had played sold-out runs at the Public Theater in 2018, and London's West End in 2017. The Broadway production was announced in June 2019. 

I had to sing a song and perform a scene. It was a magic audition; it felt good, and I didn't have to try too hard to fit what they needed. 

Todd Almond and the cast of the Broadway show, "Girl from the North Country."
Photo by Matthew Murphy.

After three more callbacks, finding out I booked the job was surreal.

I was driving to a theater upstate where I had taken a job to choreograph a production of "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" when my agent called with the good news. "Landslide" by the Dixie Chicks was on the radio, and I was just sobbing in the car.

When I told my mom, she started crying and was overcome with pride, and my dad was beside himself. My boyfriend was just screaming on the phone, "You did it!"

I also got to quit my bartending job.

I don't want to say theater work is about the money, because it's not. But part of the great thing about getting cast in a Broadway show is that you work consistently and make a substantial paycheck, which I never really had before. [The minimum salary for actors on Broadway is around $2,200 a week, according to Actor's Equity Association, the labor union that represents American actors and stage managers.]

Not only was it incredible to wake up and go be with people who really love their jobs, but it gave me the the freedom to support myself in New York City and not worry quite as much about everything. I was able to make rent and buy a dresser that I desperately needed in the same month.

'I don't know what else I would do'

These days, I'm collecting unemployment. So much time on your hands can be stressful, I also have little projects going on, like making videos and playing my guitar. I've been doing yoga and meditation and trying to keep some routine to my days.

This summer I want to do things I wouldn't have been able to do otherwise. I want to go camping and hike with my boyfriend.

But to be honest, I don't have a set plan. 

The extra money that we're getting from the government is going to go away soon. So I'm thinking about what skills I could invest in now to make money in the meantime. I've heard people can take courses online to learn how to get certified to teach English as a second language, or I could maybe do yoga teacher training.

Truly, I don't know what else I would do besides performing, so we'll see how long this lasts.

I've been keeping in touch with the cast, and when the time comes for us to go back, wherever and whenever, we're going to be ready.

Hopefully we'll all ride this wave out, and get back on stage soon.

[The Broadway League announced June 29 that Broadway performances have been suspended through the remainder of 2020 due to Covid-19.]

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