Live theater has long been a place where anything could happen. But nothing could have prepared us for the COVID-19 pandemic, which halted Broadway in its tracks. Now, the Great White Way is officially suspended until 2021. As a 33-year-old Broadway performer currently wallowing in my parent’s Indiana retirement community, I’m heartbroken.
Five years ago, I was a college dropout, injured from a skating accident, uninsured, working a minimum-wage skate shop job, and living in a deteriorating Crown Heights apartment.
Then, in the spring of 2016, I got a brief gig working as a skateboard instructor for the Chicago tryout run of “SpongeBob SquarePants.” Based on the cast’s poor skating, I was encouraged by the creative team to audition if they ever had a Broadway production. I studied a show bootleg, enrolled in musical theater classes, and trained myself to become a skating triple threat.
Fortunately, a year later, Nickelodeon announced SpongeBob was finally headed to Broadway. In the summer of 2017, at age 30, I booked my first professional theater job: performer and skate captain of "SpongeBob SquarePants, The Broadway Musical." As a fanboy of the cartoon dating to its inception back in 1999, when I was 11, to say that I was thrilled was an understatement.
I was instantly catapulted into the world of Broadway actors, where, as a member of the Actors' Equity union, I finally received health insurance, a 401K account, a great resume credit, stable pay, and the comradery of veteran performers I admired. No longer would I busk around Times Square on my skateboard, with a boombox and tip cup, exhausting myself for hours just to refill my MetroCard.
The musical was harder work than I’d imagined. I demanded perfection of myself as our principal skater and was easily upset when I didn’t land a noteworthy cool trick in our show: a rolling handstand on two skateboards. It was my personal signature move. Any mistake frightened me into thinking I’d lose this once-in-a-lifetime job.
But live theater comes with its surprises. As one Saturday night’s sold-out show near Christmas came to a close, I got ready for my final curtain call, when I was to grab my skateboard by a wheel, cranking the entire unit in circles and spinning my axe wildly.
My uncontrollable energy exploded as I ran down to the taped mark and wound up my board. Crank after crank increased its overall danger lever. I bowed and before my spine hit that 45-degree angle, I felt a release.
Uh, oh. The board shot out of my hand and boomeranged downstage toward our conductor in front of me. I tried to grab the flying weapon. No luck. Tripping on my costume, I fell to the floor. Ovation cheers stopped. The audience gasped as I raised my head to see the sight of every stunned patron’s mouths agape. Had she not been in the presence of a sold-out crowd, the conductor might’ve climbed on stage and stabbed me with her baton.
“I almost killed someone on Broadway. I’m going to be fired,” I thought.
After the show finished, I apologized to our conductor in tears. Thankfully, she was only startled and forgave me. Every veteran in our company reassured me this was the territory that came with performing live theatre. Get used to it.
The Broadway production of SpongeBob closed in the fall of 2018, but a televised spectacle of our bubbly musical in late 2019 allowed it to live on. At the start of 2020, I booked my next theater job on a cruise ship and rented out my decrepit old apartment for the months I’d be gone. But two weeks into rehearsal in March, COVID-19 shut down our production right before we were due to board ship and sail out. Roughly 40,000 cruise employees reportedly are still stuck at sea. In hindsight, our cast got lucky.
Now I have no job, no actor’s insurance, and no Plan B. I had finally gotten my big break, and now, everything stopped.
But our theaters and our industry are still doing what they can, with online theatrical experiences, concerts and more. New York’s theaters opened their doors to protestors in the wake of George Floyd’s murder, offering water and shelter. More important, the Antonyo Awards debuted, a celebration of the best of black theatre talent.
Shutdown be damned. Broadway’s here to stay, baby. I can’t wait to skate back on stage.
Kyle Matthew Hamilton, a professional skateboarder and entertainer, is developing SHUT, a skate-themed animated series.
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