Turning the lights on for NY theater

The Winter Garden theater will host Broadway’s “The Music Man,” which is set to start previews in December 2021. Until then, the doors are closed and lights are off. Photo by Rachel Roberts

For the first time in six months, Jeff Croiter turned on the lights at New Jersey’s Paper Mill Playhouse Oct. 4.

Croiter, 48, has been designing lights in theater and live entertainment for more than 25 years. However, the Tony Award winner, known for his work in “Peter and the Starcatcher,” “Bandstand,” “Newsies” and more, had been out of a job since the coronavirus pandemic shut down Broadway and the entertainment industry in March.

That is until recently, when he picked up the gig at Paper Mill Playhouse designing the lights for a taping of an off-Broadway musical, “We The People.” It aired Oct. 24 on Stars In The House livestream.

It’s the closest Croiter has been to the theater since March, when he exited another off-Broadway show, “Whisper House,” following citywide shutdowns. His notepad and belongings are still at the 59E59 Theater, he said. He didn’t think he’d be out this long.

“I kind of quickly realized that maybe the summer was optimistic, but I was still very confident that by now we would be back to work,” said Croiter.

The shuttering of New York City’s theater industry has cost many actors their livelihood. But they aren’t the only ones suffering – those who toil backstage have also been out of work.

Now they will all have to wait even longer before the curtain rises. Broadway shows won’t return until next June, at the earliest, the Broadway League announced on Oct. 9. The league, a national trade association for the industry, declined to comment.

Waiting a total of more than a year for work will affect not only those involved in production, but also a city that thrives on theater and entertainment. In its last season, Broadway supported nearly 97,000 jobs from actors, stage managers and playwrights to ticket sellers, accountants and animal trainers. It contributed $14.7 billion to the city’s economy, according to a 2019 report by Broadway League.

“I don’t think people realize that creatives in Broadway or off-Broadway, for the most part they’re not millionaires,” said Casey Purcell, an agent for theatrical designers. “These are people who are working job to job just like everybody else.”

Two months ago, Purcell started his own agency, Purcell Management, after his former agency, The Rolfe Company, closed. With a smaller roster of clients, his reemergence in an industry that’s currently out of work has not been easy, he said.

Croiter and Purcell know theaters cannot reopen until it is safe for the audience and the thousands who work in the industry to return. The question is: What will it take to bring everyone back?

Another lighting designer in the industry, Alex Fogel, is asking the same question with little hope for an early arrival.

This year would’ve been one of the best for Fogel, both personally and professionally. The 33-year-old was planning a wedding and had six to seven Broadway shows lined up, including “MJ The Musical” and “The Music Man.”

When the hammer fell, as Fogel describes it, he was working with an off-Broadway show, “Sing Street.” They were just about to bring actors and tech in when the shutdowns began in March.

“That was my last time in the theater,” Fogel said. “At one point they said, ‘Come pick up your stuff,’ several months later.”

The last seven months have been a waiting game for Fogel. He watched six shows turn into a tentative two that he could still plan on. “The Music Man” was supposed to open this October and was originally postponed for the spring. Now, it’s set to start previews in December 2021 and open in February 2022, according to the show’s press announcement. “MJ The Musical,” a show that was originally set to open in July 2020, won’t begin performances until September 2021 and has not set an opening date, according to a statement from the musical.

While his work in the theater is on pause, his role as a lighting designer is not.

Fogel has been crafting a software program, “Careful Focus Pro,” which he intends to bring to touring shows when they return. The technology will be useful for fast tracking a designer’s process of emulating the lights at each venue, reducing the time needed to reconfigure each light, its position and its timing.

He plans on selling the software when there is a market for it, but for now, he’s job hunting and looking for ways to keep busy for another year.

He and his wife, Samantha, have been carrying on with her paycheck as a public school first grade teacher and also pulling from their savings, Fogel said.

“I’m lucky enough to have put away some money for what we thought was going to be a house,” said Fogel. “Now it’s for sustaining ourselves.”

Much like Fogel, Croiter has found ways to stay involved in the industry while being outside of it. He started producing and moderating a free webcast, 4Wall Sunday Roundtable, to foster conversation with other designers on how the pandemic has treated them.

It recently aired its 19th show on Facebook Live, inviting set designers from Broadway, off-Broadway, regional theatre, concert production and other corners of the industry to share their sentiments and realities. Though it’s not his typical theater gig, and there’s no paycheck included, work is work.

“So many people that I speak to right now are kind of resigned to what’s going on,” said Croiter. “For me, there was this disbelief and then sadness and anger, and now this is my reality. There’s nothing I can do. And I’m not alone, and there’s something reassuring about knowing that.”

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Rachel Roberts, an Arkansas native, is a student at Columbia’s Graduate School of Journalism. She graduated from the University of Arkansas, where she studied journalism, political science and French. She’s interested in covering politics, arts and culture. Twitter: @ratchelroberts

One Comment

  1. mphtheatregirl

    Even audience members are affected. It is frustrating and disappointing what is going on with theaters. Both on Broadway and Tours- I have to rely on Charlotte’s Blumenthal to see musicals. Musical Theatre is one of my biggest escapes- not having them isn’t easy to deal with

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