Columbia alums, faculty remain hopeful, despite Broadway shutdown

By Janelle Menard, Contributing Writer

Courtney Mack played Anne Boleyn in “SIX” on Broadway, at the Brooks Atkinson Theater. Courtesy/Nicole Kyoung-Mi Lambert

In early March, Courtney Mack made a post on Instagram commemorating the one-year anniversary of her audition for the American production of the musical “SIX.” 

After only a few minutes, comments flooded the post from fans of the show excited for its opening on Broadway.  

But there was one comment that caught Mack’s eye as foreshadowing of what would change over the course of that night and ultimately impact more than a year of her life. 

“[It was something] like, ‘Don’t you realize Broadway shut down?’” said Mack, a 2015 Columbia musical theatre alum. “And I’m like, what the hell?” 

Mack soon realized that it wasn’t a prank or poorly executed joke. On March 12, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo ordered all Broadway theatres to shut their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

As the virus waged on, the Broadway shutdown has been extended through May 2021. 

“SIX” was slated to open the night Broadway shut down after a month of preview performances. The show, which originated in England, is a pop-concert style musical about the six wives of King Henry VIII and their lives in relation to the infamous king.

The Broadway musical also features 2014 Columbia musical theatre alum Mallory Maedke. Mack and Maedke were understudies in the musical and both got to make their Broadway debuts during the show’s preview performances.  

Prior to the pandemic, Mallory Maedke played Jane Seymour in “SIX” at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts in St. Paul, Minnesota. Courtesy/Brett Beiner

“[The pandemic] was becoming the main daily topic at work, and we were working on every safety measure to ensure we could keep going until we couldn’t,” Maedke said. 

In the months following Cuomo’s initial shut down mandate, it became clear Broadway productions would feel the impact of venue closures for an extended period of  time. 

While Broadway still remains dark, some smaller theatres around the country have started to begin small performances with limited capacity seating and other common mandates like masks and social distancing. Television shows filmed in front of live studio audiences, such as “Saturday Night Live,” have also begun again. SNL audience members must take COVID-19 tests before entering the studio, go through a temperature check and wear a mask at all times.

“Masks and hand sanitizer will be an ongoing thing, and maybe rapid tests will be needed for rehearsals and show weeks until there is a vaccine that proves to work well,” Maedke said. “I think long lines and crowded audition rooms won’t be allowed—it’ll be appointment only.” 

Outside of the theatre, company members can expose themselves to COVID-19 in their daily lives and put the rest of the cast and crew at risk.

Because she lives close to the Brooks Atkinson Theatre, Mack said she is lucky enough to be able to walk home. However, she said fellow cast members have to take public transportation, increasing their chances of being infected. 

While Mack and Maedke were traveling the U.S. and Canada with “SIX,” Heather Gilbert, an associate professor in the Theatre Department, spent most of Fall 2019 juggling teaching with her work on the lighting design for the play “The Sound Inside.” 

“The Sound Inside,” directed by David Cromer, a former Columbia student, faculty member and honorary degree recipient, and written by Adam Rapp, is a two person play about a solitary Yale professor and a student she mentors. The play ran at Studio 54 in New York City from October 2019 to January 2020.  

“[Broadway is] a massive machine,” Gilbert said. “It’s a billion-dollar industry in New York, so the fact that they shut it down is really huge.” 

Gilbert, who teaches several lighting design classes at Columbia, was recently announced as a nominee for the Tony Award in Best Lighting Design of a Play for her work on “The Sound Inside.” She has also won a Drama Desk Award in the same category, and the play itself is up for six total awards, including Best Play. 

It’s a weird reaction, because my industry is shut down,” Gilbert said. “We have a government that does not care and is not helping artists. So it’s this mix of frustration and anger, simultaneously with being super excited. What this hopefully can do is propel us into other jobs that make us happy, or the opportunity to do this show again.” 

As of December, only four shows have permanently closed due to the shutdown, two plays and two musicals. Fifteen other shows were preparing to open during spring of 2020 and have all been postponed to 2021 at the earliest. Another four shows, including “SIX,” have not confirmed their return. Many actors have been involved with the charity organization Broadway Cares: Equity Fights AIDS, which has been using its proceeds to help out-of-work members of the theatre community.

“I’m excited for the energy in the room the first day we are back,” Maedke said. “I’m also excited for the first bass note that shakes the room once we are back in the theatre. Our show is so fun and epic, and I can’t wait for us all to witness the magic together again.”