Just a year after graduating from Penn State’s musical theater program, Talia Suskauer had landed her dream role.
Suskauer was in the Broadway tour of “Wicked” when the pandemic shutdown hit. She was playing a leading role as green witch Elphaba. Suskauer had been touring with the show for six months when she heard the news.
“Shocked. Shocking. I’ll never forget where I was. I was in my makeup chair getting my makeup done for the matinee show and it was like we were all checking for updates constantly and it was like okay Broadway is closed as of 5 PM and we were like, ‘Oh my god,’” Suskauer said.
Suskauer went home to Florida and has lived with her parents for the past year. She’s spent most of the pandemic coaching future performers online. She’s also performed in a few virtual events but said it doesn’t compare to live theater.
“As I’m setting it all up and singing into a camera it’s like ‘What is going on?’” Suskauer said. “There is no sense of connection like there is in live theater, you’re not looking into somebody’s eyes.”
Most theaters have been shuttered for more than a year because of the pandemic. That’s left Penn State trained performers and actors nationwide searching out other ways to support themselves.
Lauren Echausse is a 2019 graduate from the Penn State musical theater program. Before the pandemic she was auditioning for musicals in New York City. When the shutdown came, she left the city and moved back in with her parents in New Jersey.
She decided to pursue another longtime passion -- making healing gemstone jewelry. She opened an online business called “breathe easy beads.”
“You know, I think I was put on this earth to do more than just pass by and I know how happy the people feel when I make jewelry that they can give to others, and I know that the healings are really beneficial to the friends who I’ve done it for,” Echausse said.
The online shop has been open for four months and even landed her on a Shark Tank segment of the Rachael Ray Show.
Echausse did return to the stage in Florida in the musical “9 to 5” earlier this year. She heard about the opportunity from one of her customers who happened to be a director.
“So she said, ‘Yeah the Doralee dropped out’ and I was like, ‘I could do it,’” Echausse said. “And she was like, ‘What do you mean?’ And I said, ‘I went to Penn State for musical theater.’ And she said, ‘How did I not know this?’ I sent her videos from my Instagram and got the role two hours later.”
Echausse said it was strange to perform with face shields and little to no audience. But she loved the opportunity to be on a stage again. She said she’ll continue to perform if she gets the opportunity.
Richard Biever owns FUSE Productions in State College. He has an MFA in directing from Penn State. Biever says he hopes artists take this time to recognize that Broadway and live theater jobs aren’t the only options for a performer.
“It’s all a part of this being dependent on being hired,” Biever said. “I feel as theater people we are creative people and should be able to not be dependent on that.”
During the pandemic, Biever has switched to teaching online and outdoor classes. He also encourages his students to think about the production side of arts rather than just the performance side.
Broadway ticket sales reopened May 5 for shows starting this fall. But Biever thinks it will take time for the theater scene to fully recover.
“We will all celebrate when we can go back into a theater, I will too, but it doesn’t mean that everyone will be back at work,” Biever said.
Suskauer will get to return to her dream role. “Wicked” will be back on tour starting in August.