At a time when most theaters remain dark, the virtual Helen Hayes Awards have functioned as both a reminder of the industry’s tenuous state and a symbol of the region’s talent and camaraderie.
“Every [virtual] session did have this sense of both collective grief and gratitude, and that at least we were able to be grieving and grateful together,” says Malinda Kathleen Reese, who claimed honors for lead performer in a musical for Olney Theatre Center’s “Once.” “Had that not happened, I think that would have been a real bummer.”
“I personally long for a time when we’ll be able to come back together safely to do the work,” says Gary-Kayi Fletcher, who won best lead performer in a play for 1st Stage’s “The Brothers Size.” “I didn’t realize how much I missed it until the other day, when the awards came around and I was just like, ‘Yeah, I miss being in a room with you all.’ ”
For the past six months, local actors have been awash in waves of uncertainty. The early days of the pandemic, in March and April, brought on brief postponements of productions. Soon, those postponements turned into long-term delays or outright cancellations. As summer arrived and social distancing measures remained incompatible with large gatherings, the first shows of the 2020-2021 theater season were pushed ahead or nixed as well.
Although the reopening of restaurants and the return of professional sports have restored some normalcy, actors are still grappling with the absence of both income and an outlet for their artistic passions.
“To those who want to feel and understand the experience that I have been living with for the last six months, I would ask them to call back to the first weekend quarantine started,” says Temídayo Amay, who won best supporting performer in a play for Round House Theatre’s “School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play.”
“Yes, restaurants are open now. Yes, we can go to the grocery store, and by God’s grace there is toilet paper. But when you come home and you don’t recognize how you’re going to be able to pay your bills, to take care of your loved ones — let alone if your loved ones are okay — that has not gone away.”
Amay was set to appear in Studio Theatre’s production of the musical “Fun Home” this spring before the pandemic delayed that show indefinitely. But the actor, who became the first nonbinary winner of a Helen Hayes Award since the awards shifted to gender-inclusive categories this year, has used pandemic downtime to pursue passions off the stage.
Earlier this summer, Amay shot and performed in a music video cover of Nina Simone’s “Four Women.” Amay also produced a video for Studio Theatre, in honor of Juneteenth, about the Black Lives Matter protests. And the actor has a short film in the works, as well.
“I recognize that some really strange and life-changing things had to happen in order for me to have the time and space to reformat my dreams,” Amay says. “But I’m also very grateful for the time that this quarantine has given me to do so.”
Several Helen Hayes winners share that glass-half-full sentiment. Reese, who also is a singer-songwriter, has produced a steady stream of videos on her YouTube page, which has more than 270,000 subscribers.
Fletcher performed in an audio play version of “Objects in the Mirror” for an Ohio theater company and has made extra cash as a standardized patient for Howard University’s College of Medicine, portraying health-care scenarios for students.
Billie Krishawn, who won outstanding lead performer in a play for Theater Alliance’s “Blood at the Root,” was prepared to star in Mosaic Theater Company’s production of “The Till Trilogy” before that project was delayed until next summer. Now, after dedicating much of her time and energy this summer to the push for racial equality, Krishawn is hosting weekly videos called “The SoSu Series,” in which she and her guests discuss inequities in the theater world.
“It wasn’t just about having the time to do the project, but it’s having the time to even realize you want to do the project,” she says. “What I’ve seen from the community is just different theater artists doing things that I had no idea there was an interest in. It’s beautiful.”
Despite those silver linings, many actors are facing the reality that they can only go so long without a steady income. “We have to find money, which means we have to find work,” says Krishawn, who notes that even becoming a waiter — a reliable side hustle for artists — now comes with the caveat of increased risk of exposure to the coronavirus.
While there is hope that a safe and effective vaccine will allow most theaters to reopen early next year, some performers are still wondering whether now is the right moment to leave a field that, even in the best of times, is unpredictable.
“The hardest part of the uncertain timeline is that there will be a lot of extraordinary artists, especially in regional theaters in the D.C. theater community, who won’t come back,” Reese says. “I know a lot of friends who are considering leaving theater for good just because of the instability and uncertainty being so laid bare by the pandemic.
“That’s heartbreaking because you grieve for all of the incredible work you could have seen them do.”