The sun is shining, the days are longer, and another flood of theatre graduates are pouring out into the world. Excitement for what’s to come floats through their minds, while nerves heavy as rocks sit in pitted stomachs.
Only one year ago, I was one of those very students. After spending an entire school year online, performing in shows over Zoom, I couldn’t wait to get out. Graduation and the anticipation of entering the industry had me bursting at the seams: I desperately wanted to actually do something within the field I love. My eagerness to escape my fourth year overshadowed facing the reality of what lay outside the comfort of my undergrad.
School lays out all the opportunities for you. Between emails, classes, friends, posters, professors — the list goes on — it’s nearly impossible to miss out on an opportunity. Upon graduating, I had hope that what many called the “real world” would feel quite similar to my university experience. I pictured a cycle of three stages: discover audition, attend audition, get cast or not. A fairly simple, repetitive process.
At least, that’s what I thought.
Instead, my positivity (some might say naivety) got the best of me, and I was disappointed to learn about the lack of opportunities available to myself and my peers upon graduating. Although I had no experience in the industry prior to the pandemic, my understanding from those who do is that auditions were always hard to find. Add in a pandemic where shows are scarce and networking has come to screeching halt, the challenge has only become greater. But now, even as the pandemic is ebbing (sort of) and theatre is gradually returning to full swing, I can see the difficulty of navigating the industry without the full constraints of COVID.
General auditions are the norm for only some theatre companies, and they usually require a prerequisite — a headshot and resume, some kind of special skill, a letter of intent, and/or a questionnaire will determine your advance to the audition, or, in many cases, not. In my experience, the only auditions that involve walk-ins or self-tape submissions belong to Fringe shows and the increasingly rare open call. In 2022, it feels like the most challenging part of entering the industry is even finding the entrance.
I spoke with four friends to share a variety of the perspectives, experiences, and opinions of pandemic graduates. Diego Blanco Galindo (he/him) is a queer Latino artist who graduated from a general theatre program in 2021 like myself and has been navigating the theatre industry since. Asenia Lyall (she/her), a 2022 graduate with a performance concentration, will be continuing her education with a Master of Fine Arts in scriptwriting and story design in the fall. Brandon Pereira (he/him), a queer, mixed-race artist and 2020 theatre performance student based in Toronto, graduated just as the pandemic entered its initial sprint. Finally, Desmond Lazar (he/him), another 2022 acting graduate, is ready to enter the industry having just completed his directorial debut in May as a part of the 2022 Terra Firma Festival.
Diego entered the industry with certain expectations of networking opportunities; however, the pandemic put his hopes on hold.
“All the shows [in the pandemic were] through Zoom… you watch the show and like, that’s it,” he explained.
“There’s no interaction: you cannot go to the director and introduce yourself, there’s not that [opportunity] of marketing yourself. Then, once theatres started to reopen… [they] couldn’t have a lot of people inside. So, you know, they just contact the same people that they know. And it’s a very small proportion of people [who] get rehired.”
So what can we do in response to the pandemic inhibiting artists from connecting? Even for artists who feel the need to seek out any scenario, small as it may be, to take a chance in developing relationships, it means always having to be on top of your game: follow all the theatre companies on every social media platform, pay attention to every single post, read every listing and theatre-related article in detail. I personally feel pressure to not only maintain regular and consistent contact with my network, but to expand it to include every mutual friend or colleague I meet. Introductions have started to feel like high-stake scenarios rather than casual opportunities to pursue friendships and meet industry folks, which would be the ideal situation.
In 2022, it feels like the most challenging part of entering the industry is even finding the entrance.
Stress and fear appear to be common threads for recent graduates as they venture outside of school’s comfort. Asenia, versatile in her passions for academia as well as creating from the both the tech booth and the stage, described the feeling of being an “outsider” due to a lack of connections.
“Applying for jobs feels risky and nerve-wracking, especially when so many people are eager to get out there and back into theatre after the pandemic,” she noted.
“I haven’t really put myself out there for acting opportunities yet: there’s a sense that you need to make yourself aware or know the right people to get a foot in the door, and that’s intimidating.”
While there’s no doubt theatre grads faced similar difficulties when entering the industry pre-pandemic, there is a different attitude now that theatre is re-emerging. When the pandemic began, Brandon kept coming back to the same thought.
“No one’s going to be investing in emerging artists anymore because they have to make the money back, and emerging artists are a gamble,” he noted.
“I just remember thinking… They’re not a sure thing. You’re going to cast your big names when you can. The opportunity for emerging artists is going to completely go away because they’re going to bank on these big Toronto names to fill the seats.”
As theatres began to respond to the pandemic in varying ways, his opinion shifted.
“Shaw [Festival] did a workshop for just emerging artists and they took in like, 120 people, and they had auditions,” he said.
“[Canadian] Stage was doing their generals and all these grants are coming out now for emerging artists. I feel like it’s not as daunting as I originally thought.”
The battle now faced by Diego, Asenia, Brandon, Desmond, and their peers is the sheer number of graduates that have accumulated during theatre’s down-time.
“I’ve been trying to keep track of the grant world and I feel like there’s a couple that are specifically targeted towards emerging artists,” Brandon explained.
“Every year, there are 10,000 more students coming into the industry. So, if there’s five grants available for emerging artists… since  there’s now [30,000] more people trying to get the same [five grants] you are.”
“There’s three years of full graduates,” Diego summarized, “and I feel like we’re a lot of fish and there’s not enough sea for us to navigate.”
With this analogy of too many fish in a small pond, many graduates are feeling the overwhelming pressure to strive for perfection when auditioning, interviewing, or appealing to agencies. In some cases, it’s the practitioners themselves who created this atmosphere.
“The level of hustle you need to be putting in is extreme… You need to be going to all the events, you need to be emailing all the right people, you need to have your acting perfect every single time, you need to be making great impressions,” Desmond said, describing the advice he received when entering the industry.
“You need to be doing all of the things all of the time, and only then will you have a chance of success. It’s a terrifying thing to say to a bunch of 22-year-olds who are just figuring out who they are as people, to say that you need to be perfect. And so that’s been really scary. But I’m, I’m hoping that there’s room for us to just be people too.”
For emerging artists, it feels as though even a slight fumble could invite an immediate exit. Despite that stress, Desmond noted that there are many extraordinary artists in the industry who have curated healthy, necessary conversations, and propped a door wide open for artists of all kinds. He has hope that will continue to give recent graduates the space to simply be people in the industry as well.
“I think of all the artists that I really look up to, and I don’t get a vibe of perfection,” he said.
“I get a very human energy coming from them… I think at the end of the day, being a good person and being true to yourself is really the end all, be all.”
Although fear may inspire one’s drive, the mindset that Desmond holds is that the combination of optimism and motivation can conjure a lot of beautiful art. At the moment, many recent graduates are pushing forward with that mentality. As a result, we’re seeing a plethora of original work and experimentation from young minds. I spoke with Desmond about his current plans and his vision for his future.
“[My] first goal is to get an agent to begin working more professionally, but I also really want to keep creating my own work and not be beholden to others to give me work,” he said, smiling.
“Directing this play [as part of the Terra Firma Festival] has been fantastic. I’m in talks with [a friend] about him directing a play that I have written in the near future, which would be fantastic. I’m continuing to write things, continuing to put things together, continuing to grab a camera and some friends and go shoot a short film or something… making the stuff we want to see in the world, so that we’re not just waiting around for the phone to ring.”
For Asenia, the willingness to take risks and create one’s own work was born from a passion for the craft.
“We make theatre because we love the artform, and we can love storytelling even when it’s not in the format we’re used to or even when there are these intense obstacles and curveballs to work around,” she said.
The curves COVID has thrown are no mystery for recent grads. When schools shifted to online learning, big changes had to be made that impacted students even after graduation. As Brandon finished his theatre courses in 2019, he had the opportunity to experience Theatre Ontario.
“Every graduating class got to come to this conference and do something,” he told me. “A lot of people did monologues obviously, a couple people did songs… you just got to [perform] in front of artistic directors and agents and directors and basically all the important people in the industry that we would never get an opportunity to stand in front of regularly.” However, Theatre Ontario has since seen significant changes.
According to Anya Wassenburg in an October 2019 article, budget cuts to the Ontario Arts Council and a lack of financial support to the organization put the Theatre Ontario at severe risk of closure, pending a vote from its members. A blog post originally from the Theatre Ontario website and re-posted on guelphlittletheatre.com noted that the vote that was to take place on October 26th, 2019; however, it was then tabled and rescheduled for February 2020 after strong support from the theatre community to forge on. Unfortunately, the organization voted to disband following one more festival, which was unfortunately cancelled due to COVID, explained Michael Erskine in the Manitoulin Expositor.
“I think getting rid of [Theatre Ontario] was a huge thing. That was absolutely horrible… The class after us didn’t get to do [Theatre Ontario],” Brandon said. Rather, classes years after him began working towards the Next Generation Showcase, which was an online event that used Casting Workbook, a resource to connect industry people, to share pre-recorded student performances.
Desmond, who participated in the event with his class in January 2022, believed it to be a success. “More people certainly got to see it because it was up for so long,” he said, referencing his own performance.
However, Brandon doesn’t believe an online showcase is comparable to an in-person event. “You can say you’re going to see 130 people that are emerging artists, but like, you can’t really see them over a camera… Until you’re sitting in a theatre actually watching this person, [you can’t tell] whether they have presence or not.”
Since that shift from in-person performances and learning opportunities to their online equivalent, Brandon has witnessed the negative impact on students. Specifically, he has focused his attention to the intersection of race and queerness in theatre throughout the pandemic, and issues stemming from there.
“The Black experience is really specific… and The Asian experience is so specific because of the pandemic. How do we help and hinder those cultures? How are we impacting Black people in a space? What are we saying? What are we doing? How are we acting? How are we reacting to what they’re doing?”
Brandon considered these questions as he studied from home. “You know, there’s so much that has to be thought about still… [but] not enough people were in a safe place to do that.”
With students studying from home, with limited or no access to privacy, discussions about these important issues were impacted by family members with outdated beliefs. Unwelcoming environments can be debilitating to those studying, and even more so to those who deserve to have open conversations that welcome them into a space. As one enters the industry, students may encounter setbacks in their understanding of social issues surrounding and involved in theatre, as well as how to deconstruct those issues and take progressive steps.
Many graduates are feeling the overwhelming pressure to strive for perfection when auditioning, interviewing, or appealing to agencies.
Desmond also felt the impact the pandemic had on his schooling, saying that “the red tape that went along with working in the confines of university was a lot of deadweight.” Moving into the industry and working on a festival in May that didn’t have to use school protocol when considering COVID measures was an exciting moment for Desmond.
“I’m so happy to be back in the theatre,” he said. “I was in a studio on Sunday and I almost cried. I was so happy to be back doing this thing again.”
Entering an industry can make a person feel giddy as much as fearful, especially when the industry is something they’re passionate about. I think back to how hopeful and eager I felt just last year, and that’s not something I want to lose. Positivity is a motivator that forces me to ask myself what my goals are and how I’d like to achieve them. Once my mind disappears into its rabbit hole of thought and wonder, I’m reminded of the hit the theatre community has taken. Although I would like to see changes and opportunities that offer a more welcome space to artists of all kinds, the pandemic’s impact on the theatre community has created universal difficulties for everyone.
“When the airplane is going down, you have to put on your mask first and then help the kid beside you,” Diego acknowledged.
“It’s kind of like the same situation in theatre… because how can you help someone if you don’t even know what to do yourself?”
Theatre can feel very exclusive at times, and it often piques discouragement. In moments where these feelings of negativity arise, we tend to fall on the excuse of saying “that’s just the industry.” I believe there is room to open doors enough so more people feel they have opportunities to engage with. There are theatre artists and companies doing great things for others, offering workshops or events, opening the door enough for individuals to try and get their foot in. But many opportunities feel beyond an insurmountable barrier, with no solutions in sight. Figuring out how to navigate in what often feels like an unwelcoming industry might take longer for those of us just entering the the professional sphere, and even moreso for those who have been setback for a year or two. Everyone goes at their own pace.
Young artists have continued to persist and re-forge their love of artistry both on and offstage. We’re grateful for the opportunities we have, and hope to see more in the future.
As Diego put it, “at one time, it felt so normal; now it feels like a blessing.”
You can catch Holly, Asenia, and Diego in Thy Name is Woman at the Hamilton Fringe through July 30, 2022. For more information, click here.