Anyone trying to make it as an actor, dancer, musician or artist knows they've chosen a tough and unpredictable career path.
A young person in the middle of the country, far removed from the opportunities on the coasts, faces even more hurdles. Now, add a global pandemic -- one that shut down live performances around the country for more than a year and decimated critical internships, apprenticeships and training opportunities for aspiring artists.
While nearly every type of student has been negatively affected by the pandemic, upper-level students in performing arts fields have taken some particularly painful blows.
I talked to a group of students working toward bachelor of fine arts degrees at Southeast Missouri State University in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, about how the pandemic has thrown off their early career trajectories.
J'Nae Howard, a dance major finishing her junior year, qualified for two intensives -- one with a dance company in New York and another in Chicago -- that were supposed to have taken place last June. They were postponed a year, and now have been postponed again. When her in-person classes were canceled last spring, she didn't have access to a studio, so she tried to do her ballet, jazz, aerial and modern dance classes at home by moving furniture around. When the weather cooperated, she looked for even surfaces to dance on outside.
"For one project, I created a dance film around my house," she said. She is adjusting to dancing while wearing a mask, and says she is worried about the opportunities she won't have before graduating next year.
Cleo Watkins, a junior majoring in theater design and technology, had an internship last summer with the Colorado Shakespeare Festival that evaporated. Nearly every summer stock theater season was canceled last year, and many are just now making decisions about this summer. Watkins has decided to remain in Cape Girardeau this summer, working at a fast-food restaurant and helping with high school performances when she can.
"I'm a little more worried for my early career," she said. Summer stock theater is critical to gaining experience and making connections that lead to employment after graduation. Juniors and seniors, in particular, have lost those chances.
"As musical theater students, you want to get one professional show under your belt before you graduate," said Anastasia Novak, also a junior at SMSU. "We've lost our competitive edge right out of college."
Hollynn St. Clair, a senior earning a musical theater degree, would normally have spent the past few months auditioning, but she hasn't felt safe traveling for the scarce opportunities that are available. She had planned to move to New York or Los Angeles after graduation, but now she's going to spend another year working a local retail job, trying to save money and hoping the industry rebuilds.
"It's kind of given me a pause on my life," she said. As she works and waits, she's been thinking about where she wants to go, what she really wants to do and how she will grow as an artist until it's safer to audition. St. Clair has had conversations with friends who are rethinking their intended career paths altogether. She plans to do workshops and readings from home and continue looking for Zoom opportunities, and may try to produce her own work while she regroups.
"A lot of it is fighting down panic," she said. "Once you graduate, you lose a lot of internship and apprenticeship opportunities because they are only offered to students."
It would make sense for theater, dance and music companies to reconsider that restriction for the students whose opportunities were shut down and whose classroom instruction was compromised.
These students knew the odds when they decided to pursue a career in the fine arts. But they could not have imagined that their elusive dreams would get this much harder to catch.