Mallory Gracenin improvises with strangers from a closet in her Brooklyn apartment. Marisha Wallace sings entire concerts from her London flat. Big Sam Williams blasts a mix of funk, jazz, rock, and hip-hop down his driveway in New Orleans while beckoning an unseen audience to dance with him from their living rooms. 

"This is the new norm, so get used to it, baby," Big Sam purred into the microphone at a recent Facebook Live event. Although the on-going health crisis will keep stages dark for the foreseeable future, the adage adopted by seasoned performers remains the same – the show must go on. 

Offstage and online

At the end of April, a survey conducted by Americans for the Arts found that nearly two-thirds of artists and creative workers became fully unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the vast majority experienced income loss. Broadway's shutdown, initially expected to last 32 days, has been extended to 2021. Pollstar estimates that the live music industry will lose almost $9 billion in revenue if stages remain dark through the year's end, which looks increasingly likely. Even in the UK, where Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced theaters could start reopening this month, the earliest major theatrical production scheduled to resume indoor performances doesn't begin until October

The internet is now the final frontier for entrepreneurial performers trying to adapt to the times. Some have turned to platforms like StageIt, Topeka, and Twitch to monetize their content, while others are giving away their work gratis on Instagram, Facebook, and YouTube.

"It is remarkable that in the midst of this crisis creative workers are facing, they're making art at an extraordinary rate, often for free, because they know their communities need it right now even at their own hardship," said Robert L. Lynch, President and CEO of Americans for the Arts, in a recent statement

Funking up a New Orleans driveway

"This is all we do," says Big Sam Williams, the lead singer and trombonist behind Big Sam's Funky Nation. "There is no side job; no other hustle." 

When the majority of his band's upcoming gigs fell through in March, Williams, who supports his wife and two three-year-old sons, set up an iPad to film a series of concerts on Facebook Live. Once audiences began to grow, he invested in a new camera to enhance the viewer experience.

Big Sam, a consummate showman who usually invites audience members to dance with him on stage, now jumps and gyrates alone while his band grooves a safe 6ft away. "But it's my driveway – in 100-degree heat," notes the Louisiana-based artist. "It was so hot out there one day, I burned my mouth on my mouthpiece." For the following live stream, he purchased a tent.

In addition to online performances, Big Sam released a new single, No More Shakes, marking his first foray into self-recording. "This is new water for me," he says of his recent endeavors. I have no idea what I'm doing, really. I'm figuring it all out as I go."

Artists like Big Sam are no strangers to the hustle; ephemerality is the nature of the business, and ingenuity is the key to success. But the now-ubiquitous live stream isn't always enough to keep performers afloat. "When people tune in, hopefully they feel generous and are able to give [tips] because that's all we have coming in," he says. "We never know what that's going to be." 

Turning a London flat into a recording studio 

As a performer, "you are the product and CEO," says Marisha Wallace, a recording artist and Broadway veteran who recently starred in the West End production of Waitress.

"You have to be thinking – this part of my business is shut down, so what other facets of my business do I have to build up?"

Wallace – who was set to play Motormouth Maybelle in the West End revival of Hairspray this spring – is now busy teaching virtual masterclasses and crafting new songs for an upcoming album. She even performed a 45-minute concert for the Royal Albert Hall from her living room.

A woman smiling into the camera in her living room
Since the pandemic began, Wallace has started doing performances out of her living room © Courtesy of Marisha Wallace

Not all performers have found the same amount of success. Most West End actors don't qualify for unemployment benefits, either, and Wallace has watched former coworkers get jobs at grocery stores and care homes since the pandemic began. "I feel kind of betrayed by the government," she says in defense of fellow industry professionals. 

At the end of May, Wallace released a soulful rendition of "Tomorrow," from the musical Annie, and donated 100% of the profits to Broadway Cares and MAD Trust in support of struggling theater artists in the US and the UK. The single soared to number two on the UK charts soon thereafter.

Wallace, the ultimate multihyphenate, recorded “Tomorrow” from her living room, released the single independently and edited the accompanying music video herself. Still, there are some things the most impressive DIY entertainers can't do without a team. 

"'I miss the camaraderie of a cast," Wallace says. "I never realized how much I get hugged on a daily basis, and how many hugs I give out." 

Flirting with foreigners from a Brooklyn closet

Self-sufficiency may be the most crucial asset for artists stuck at home. "During quarantine, the only person who's in your way to creating content is you," says Mallory Gracenin, who performed in the immersive theater experience Sleep No More before New York City theaters closed in March. 

After the city issued stay-at-home orders, Gracenin converted a closet in her apartment into a stage space for an interactive one-woman show she produces on Instagram Live. Shimmering strips of aluminum foil and tinsel cover the back wall; a large curtain fastened shut with gaffer clamps hides her clothes. 

"I've always appreciated that when you put on a show, it takes a full ship of people to make that happen," says Mallory, who is now both captain and crew for her performances. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by agirlnamedmallory (@agirlnamedmallory) on

Gracenin's online presence landed her a role in Eschaton – another immersive theater piece, but with a virtual twist: all the performances take place via Zoom. The nightclub simulator, conceived as an in-person performance but redesigned for life in lockdown, provides Gracenin "a limitless experience when it comes to being connected anywhere in the globe," she says. 

As one of the show's hosts, Gracenin spends most of Eschaton flirting with an array of audience members. On any given night, she might wind up chatting with people from the US, the UK, Brazil, and even Japan. 

No matter the international reach, Zoom can't replicate the electric connection forged between a performer and a live audience, and one of the greatest struggles Gracenin faces as a closet-bound entertainer is loneliness. "I think we're all struggling with a certain amount of loneliness," Gracenin says of life during the pandemic. 

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Mallory Gracenin performing in

A new beginning for performers 

Although Eschaton is a theological term that means "the end of the world," the virtual theater experience feels like the birth of a new type of entertainment. According to a recent report by StreamElements and Arsenal.gg, live stream viewership grew 99% in the past year, and while a return to theaters is inevitable, platforms like Twitch and Zoom are here to stay. 

But computer screens can't replace proscenium arches. Virtual performances are a medium all their own, and the most successful live streams – including Gracenin’s performance in Eschaton – are crafted specifically for the realities of the internet. Performances trying to reproduce the communal energy of a stage show often feel clunky, awkward, and out of sync with the times. 

The pandemic has turned into a Darwinian experiment for performers, and those able to adapt are most likely to survive the coming months of uncertain employment opportunities. 

"If you have some blind faith in yourself that you can make some things work, you can," Gracenin says encouragingly. 

It helps, of course, if you've got a polished act, a stable WiFi connection, and enough people who will pay to see you perform in a closet.

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