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Experiments in Social Distancing: A New York City theater director works from home

By Aparna K. Paul

Sammi directing during one of her shows Photo courtesy of credit Jeremy Daniel

With the change in our collective reality, the Society will be talking to our alumni and share their unique experiences during this pandemic.

New York City has been the epicenter of tragedies from 9/11 to Hurricane Sandy and now, the novel coronavirus. The streets are barren. Restaurants are closed. All of Broadway and the world of theater came to a halt as restrictions enacted by Governor Andrew Cuomo tried to stop the spread of the virus.

STS 2012 alumna, Sammi Cannold’s off-Broadway play, Endlings, went dark the night after it opened due to coronavirus restrictions. All Broadway and most off-Broadway shows shut down, including hers, which held its final performance March 11, though originally scheduled to run through March 29. Sammi was recently named to the Broadway Women’s Fund Women to Watch list and continues to work from home. The 26-year old grew up in Westchester, and has been living in New York City since finishing graduate school in the spring of 2016. 

How has the pandemic impacted your life?

While the pandemic has certainly impacted my life (I don’t know anyone who can say otherwise), through it all, I’ve had food and shelter and I’ve been healthy, so I count myself among the very fortunate. That said, I’m a freelance theater director and both freelancers and the theater industry have been hit hard in ways that previously would have been unfathomable.

I was directing a show off-Broadway called Endlings that had to close the night after it opened to avoid the unsafe gathering of crowds, and I was supposed to direct an opera to open on April 2nd at Rose Hall at Lincoln Center, which had to be called off (at least for the time-being) for the same reason. The theater industry is one that relies on people coming together in person, so the pandemic is a very existential threat for our livelihood. And of course, freelancers work gig-to-gig. If a gig disappears, so too does your income. But again, I have basic survival needs and for that, I’m grateful. 

You live in New York, where thousands have the virus. Did you think about leaving New York?

I live by myself and have been extremely careful the two times I’ve had to go to the grocery store. So, for all intents and purposes, I don’t feel any less safe than in any other place on the planet right now. Of course, on a spiritual level, it’s deeply upsetting to hear about how our city is hurting. But in a way, I think quarantining in a city where you don’t have a backyard makes you feel like you’re in a bubble no matter where you are. So, while I’ve contemplated what it would look like to leave, it’s not something I want to do.

A scene from Endlings, which closed on the night after it opened due to coronavirus restrictions
A scene from Endlings, which closed on the night after it opened due to coronavirus restrictions
Photo courtesy of Sammi Cannold

What is it like there right now, day to day?

I have very little awareness of anything outside of my apartment. From my window and the roof of my building where I go to work out, I can see that the streets are very empty. But everything else I know about what’s happening in our city, I know from the TV or Twitter.

How are you keeping busy during the COVID-19 world crisis?

I’m trying to convince myself that every show that I was working on before the shutdown of Broadway and off-Broadway will come back and thus, as a director, that I need to continue to do lots of preparation for them. So, I’m mostly busying myself with that—it’s a lot of reading, a lot of research, and then sometimes, I try to get a head start on creating staging for some of the projects. 

Hopefully the opera I mentioned (Carmen) will come to be at another time. And then I have many musicals in various stages of development (a new musical and a revival) that are supposed to have productions in the next year, so while we wait to see when the industry will come back, I’m prepping as if I’ll soon have rehearsal processes for those and hopefully that’ll be true. 

How are you keeping connected with the outside world?

Mostly lots of FaceTime-ing with friends and family. I’m also addicted to Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and watching CNN, seeing how everyone else is doing and being information-hungry. I’m trying to pull back on that though as it doesn’t really feel healthy. 

How do you think the textbooks will describe this point in history?

That’s such an interesting question. In addition to describing the horrible toll that the disease took around the globe, I hope that textbooks explain how this happened in America. In other words, I hope they highlight the degree of unpreparedness and total irresponsibility of our federal government and how certain heroes, such as our governor Andrew Cuomo, saved the day as much as was possible. 

If you are interested in sharing your experience during the COVID-19 Pandemic, please email the Society Communications team at communications@societyforscience.org.

Spice bottles Sammi Cannold
“When I was a kid, my parents used to steal Tabasco bottles from restaurants so that I could put on little shows during dinner. They bought me some for my birthday this year as a joke, but now in quarantine and without live actors to work with, I’ve been using them as stand-ins to help realize numbers that will hopefully come to life on stage one day,” said Sammi. Photo courtesy of Sammi Cannold

Aparna Paul