F. Michael Haynie was starring as Olaf in the national tour of "Frozen: The Musical," when all cast and crew were called to an emergency meeting in March 2020. They had been on the road, and were getting ready to stop by their third city.
"All of a sudden they were like, 'Hey by the way we're going to take a couple weeks off for this thing, and go home, like move out of the theater,'" he recalled. "We all learned when we showed up that morning. We all packed up our rooms. I packed up my dressing room in the show, and we were like, 'We'll maybe see you in a couple weeks in San Diego.'"
He rented a 2020 Toyota Sienna and drove across the country, eventually moving back to his parents' house in Macon, Georgia, After spending the requisite 14 days in quarantine, Haynie spent months living in his moms' basement, waiting for performances to resume.
Many in the theater community expected to be put on pause during the pandemic for a couple of weeks. But since the lights went dark on Broadway on March 12, 2020, they have not come back up.
There's a glimmer of hope on the horizon. With vaccination levels increasing and coronavirus cases decreasing, performances are slated to return in September. Until then, many performers and crew are participating in smaller productions or other performances that have been able to maintain social distancing and other COVID-safe protocols at this time.
Haynie is currently starring on Broadway At the Drive-In's production of "The Blues Brothers" in Radial Park as Elwood Blues. The outdoor hybrid performances allow attendees to watch classic movies from the comfort of their own cars or picnic tables, and see live song and dance numbers choreographed to what is going on in the film. As restrictions ease, the productions have grown more elaborate.
"I haven't sung in like a year," Haynie explained. "I'm not one of those people who sits at home and sings all the time. So it's been a very nurturing process for all of the actors and all of the realtors for so many of the projects that are popping up right now. We're just excited to get out there."
Broadway At the Drive-In at Radial Park is the brainchild of Jeremy Shepard, who started the cinemersive experiences in October 2020. The venue, which is in Hallet's Point in Queens, was previously a vacant lot that had been scheduled to be developed into apartments. His team took over the warehouse for practice and set building, and built a stage right on the waterfront.
Before the pandemic, Shepherd's company handled event production including those for Broadway premieres. He was one day from opening "Six" on Broadway when the shutdown happened.
"The connection between an audience and performers needs to continue even in the time of Zoom calls and streaming content," Shepherd explained. "So there's a lot who need work, and I am one of those people included. And I'm glad we can provide an area for that to happen."
Broadway At the Drive-In has featured many movies ranging from "Phantom of the Opera" to "Selena" to "Purple Rain," but "The Blues Brothers" holds a special place in Shepherd's heart.
"That was one of my favorite movies growing up as a kid. Also, you know we've gone back in time with the Blues brothers running from the cops and chasing down Nazis," he said. "They're here for everybody. They're champions of really great music."
Charity Angel Dawson, who plays Aretha Franklin in the performance, was getting ready for the fourth preview performance of "Mrs. Doubtfire" on Broadway when the shutdown happened.
"At first I was like, 'Might as well vacation,'" she said ."'No skin off my back. Praying for everybody and wishing everybody well.' You know this thing is going to fly over. Then it really started to sink in what exactly we were dealing with."
During the pandemic, performers like her had to find other outlets for creativity. She started a vegan soul food pop-up named Who Trying To Get A Plate?, relying on her childhood passion for cooking. Others, like musical director Emily Marshall, found small gigs here or there, but no long-term consistent work. Marshall was working on a show in London when the performance pause happened, and flew back to the United States with toilet paper packed in her suitcase.
"You get so excited about having the opportunity to play music with people again and present a show, but you knew that things were still not open," Marshall said. "So it was hard to have that, and you want to appreciate every moment of it. But then it was still sad for it to be done."
Others like actor Brian Charles Johnson, who plays Jake Blues, left the city. He and his fiance moved in with his parents in Buffalo, New York to save some money. He just returned back in May to start rehearsals for "The Blues Brothers" performances.
"It's been a year, a very strange year for sure for everyone, but especially for entertainers," Johnson said. "Just kind of the limbo of not knowing when we're going to be able to get back at it. To do it at this venue is so awesome."
Dawson is also glad to be back to rehearsing in person and putting on a show.
"If somebody's comfortable with a hug, you get a hug," she said. "It's totally different from being on a virtual platform. We made it work, and I'm proud of artists for making those pivots, but there's nothing like being together in the same space again, singing and making art together."
While it's not quite Broadway yet, performances like these allow the theatrical community to get ready for things to return back to normal.
"This is going to be actually like a warm up for the artistic world to start," said co-artistic director Waldemar Quinones-Villanueva. "The audition process I'm sure it's going to be a little harder, but that's going to push us to actually step it up and actually be the best that we can."
They are confident Broadway will return better than ever.
"I believe that New Yorkers and Broadway and art, it's resilient you know," Dawson said. "And art is eternal. It's endless. And so I feel like those things pair together, and people are itching for it."