Checking Back In With Three Actors Trying To Stay Afloat During COVID-19 Shutdowns

Jarred Tettey (left)  in The Green Book at Ensemble Theatre, one of the last shows he performed in prior to COVID shutdown
Jarred Tettey (left) in The Green Book at Ensemble Theatre, one of the last shows he performed in prior to COVID shutdown Photo by David Bray
Back in March, as shows were canceled and stages went dark, I spoke with three Houston actors to get a sense of how they were coping with the Coronavirus shutdown financially, emotionally, and artistically.

At the conclusion of each interview, I asked if they’d be open to another check-in should the situation continue. While each actor said yes, it’s fair to say that at the time none of us imagined that 11 weeks later they would still be locked out from the work they loved, unable, and even possibly unwilling to perform. Without any certainty of what their future as a performer would look like.

Frankly, as the weeks piled up, it was a check-in I dreaded. All of us who love theater are deeply worried about the people that make up the community. We know they’re scrambling on many fronts. My expectation when I touched base again with Patricia Duran, Jarred Tettey and Brandon Morgan was that I’d hear stories of nothing but struggle. Stories that would break your heart.

But I should have realized, no one is better at dealing with uncertain situations than creative people. Especially theater people – some of the scrappiest and most resilient humans I know.

So yes, these three still have challenges. Some of them scary. But to my great relief and delight, each artist had found a way to remain creative and positive and hopeful for what’s to come.

Patricia Duran’s biggest stress at first was simply getting through on the phones for unemployment insurance. Unable to apply online due to some misinformation on her file, Duran spent countless hours every day trying to reach someone in person. Once that was settled and she was able to qualify for relief, the next thing to consider was health insurance. Duran’s Equity membership covered her until the end of June, but then what?

“Thankfully I believe I qualify to pay Equity until the end of the year to extend my insurance and that would be way better than anything else I could get on my own,” says Duran. “I had to go to the doctor in the midst of all of this and I have another appointment in June and I’m on pins and needles of, oh my gosh is my insurance going to run out?”

Her financials fairly secure at this point, Duran is starting to process the loss of shows she was to perform in. “Not working is very strange and a bit of a struggle for me as I’ve been working since I was a teenager,” says Duran who was hopeful back in March that perhaps she’d be able to return to the stage come the summer. “I was able to look into the future and say OK, I'm going to start rehearsal in August and pick back up where we left off, but that's been canceled. And now my August through October work is gone. I had an idea that I was going to be working until the end of December and that’s not happening anymore so yes, it's very stressful and a challenge, and I have to remind myself every day, it's not my fault, things are shifting in my life.”

Part of that shift has allowed Duran to return to a beloved way of expressing herself artistically. “I’ve always loved to write and funny enough it was my creative refuge growing up during a time when I felt alone and isolated. Like acting, it was a way for me to get lost in another world but express myself in a way where I felt seen,” says Duran. “The story I’m working on has been percolating for the last ten months, but I certainly didn’t have the time to devote to it as I do now. I may have lost theater jobs for the time being, but I am so blessed to have the time to devote to another creative passion of mine.”

Last we spoke, Jarred Tettey had been hired part-time to work as a House Manager at Stages, just one week before the theater shut down. While he did get the week’s pay he was entitled to, Tettey wasn’t sure if he could file for unemployment insurance because technically, he was still employed by the theater. However, once he realized that he qualified due to his hours being severely lessened, he signed up with little trouble.

The better news for Tettey has come in the form of actual work. “Stages at some point budgeted out so that they could give the four House Managers hired the week before shutdown eight hours a week, “says Tettey. Each manager comes into the theater one at a time and performs jobs such as rearranging storage rooms, assembling shelves, fixing and building things. And Tettey says those hours will be ramping up as people are allowed to come back into the building.

“I thank my lucky stars that I walked into Stages one day and asked about this job, because I don’t know about anyone else’s job or other theaters, but I feel like the leadership at Stages has been stellar,” says Tettey who praises the company’s inspiring leadership. “We were worried we’d be the first cut because we were the last hired and the least necessary as we can’t do our jobs from home the way others can. But instead, we’re being made to feel like a valuable part of the team.”

Tettey has also had reason to feel positive thanks to two recent auditions he took part in, one for the Alley Theatre and the other for Classical Theatre Company. “I do know that projects are still in the works”, says Tettey who is also hoping that he’ll once again be a part of the Alley’s production of A Christmas Carol. “I’m uplifted that people are still working and planning,” says Tettey. “You can’t stop the art, you can’t stop people from wanting to make art.”

Like Duran, Brandon Morgan is eligible to pay to extend his Equity health insurance, but the expense is just not something he’s willing to take on at the moment. “When I know I have consistent money coming in I wouldn’t mind paying every month so I could be healthy and live,” says Morgan. But for now, he’s solely relying on unemployment insurance which he describes as “sufficient.”

More problematic for Morgan is not being able to work. “I’ve been doing nothing and it’s making me stir crazy,” he says. “Before I was busy, I had rehearsal six days a week and then the actual show and now I’m losing my mind, I feel so useless.”

Well, not exactly nothing. In fact, Morgan has been keeping busy creating his own outlet to perform and keep his skills sharp with two of his good friends and colleagues.

“For years Joe P (actor Joseph Palmore) and I’ve been bouncing around the idea of doing a podcast”, says Morgan who explains that while the two are close friends, they never get to work together or be on the same stage. “Right after the city shut down I was talking to Joe saying now we’re never gonna get this podcast going. We can’t even get to the studio that we set up. I joked that we’re gonna have to do it in the corner somewhere and JP is like let’s do it!”

Instead of a podcast, they, along with actor Kendrick Brown, created an Instagram/Facebook Live weekly streamed show called Actors Quarantine Corner. Described as, “variety show meets Inside the Actors Studio", the Livestream features the trio performing and interacting with the audience.

“We do the show on Monday, and decide a theme for the week,” says Morgan. So far they’ve chosen everything from '90s TV shows to Pulp Fiction to Shakespeare to most recently the Black Lives Matter movement. “Then we start scrounging the internet for available movie/play scripts to perform and come up with questions to ask people. We also feature a writer every week and each week we ask a local playwright to send in work for us to perform. Our performances are still pretty cold, we’re not trying to learn the lines, it’s more like a first reading or slight improv kind of thing.”

The show has been running for about nine weeks now and has grown from about 12 people watching to more than 300 tuning in. Morgan says it’s the highlight of his quarantine. “For me, it's keeping me mentally sane. I may not be on stage but I know at least there are 300 people watching us live online. It allows us to be in theater without there being theater at all.”

You can catch Actors Quarantine Corner Live Stream on Monday at 9 p.m. CST on Instagram and Facebook @actors_quarantine_corner and you can see outtakes of these live shows on their YouTube Channel.
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Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman