The coronavirus pandemic may have shut down the stage for professional actors and theater students, but with the help of Zoom, the show will still go on.
On Friday night, over 300 guests tuned into a live-streamed performance, called “Defying Quarantine,” to watch students between the ages of 8 to 18 show off their vocal and acting chops from the comfort of their homes. The young performers, donning full costumes and makeup, belted show tunes from top Broadway musicals.
The first virtual show is the culmination of preparation through “Broadway From Home,” a new Zoom-based online program that offers workshops ranging from scene study classes to dance and audition education sessions. Professional actors have participated through guest lectures to teach and offer advice. Classes take place five days a week and admission ranges from $19 to $39 per workshop, with some of the proceeds going to The Actors Fund and City Harvest.
The idea for “Broadway From Home” was inspired by co-founder Harley Harrison Yanoff’s Summer Theater Workshop in Weston, Mass. After his catering company Topnotch Events went from hosting 100 events to zero in a matter of days, Yanoff was left pacing around his apartment, wondering what he should do next. He started playing around with Zoom functions and devised a solution that would help both kids out of school, and actors left out of work during the Broadway shutdown.
“The crazy thing right now is that because of the nature of the world of Broadway and performing in general, whether you’re a Broadway actor or TV/film actor, everybody has time right now and everybody wants to do something with their time,” Yanoff told Variety.
What was intended to be a one-time online workshop garnered enough interest for Yanoff and actress Tess Primack to expand. After three weeks, over 250 kids worldwide had signed up. Since its iteration, performers from “Hadestown,” “Wicked” and “Frozen” have enlisted as industry guests. Television and film actors like Molly McCook (“Last Man Standing”) and Brandon Flynn (“13 Reasons Why”) have also participated.
In most cases, students are pre-assigned scenes and songs to work on. Yanoff and Primack use the Breakout Room function on Zoom to create virtual side-rooms where smaller groups are given some focused time with the coaches, and the next day, they come back into the main group and give their polished performances.
The founders have noticed that students are making new friends, wanting to continue their friendships after their virtual session is over.
“Kids are like ‘We really miss school, we really miss connecting with our friends’ and so many of them say ‘Ok we need to exchange phone numbers, I feel like I know you, I feel like I’m friends with you,'” said Primack. “Kids are making connections with each other from all over the world which has been really exciting to see.”
McCook, who wrapped up this season of “Last Man Standing” early due to the pandemic, participated in “Broadway From Home’s” inaugural television workshop. She said she didn’t even realize that the young actors were strangers.
“I assumed that they were all buddies and this was just something that they do during quarantine because they can’t hang out at each other’s houses,” said McCook. “To see that even the internet is connecting kids is very special.”
The overwhelmingly positive response has encouraged Yanoff to continue “Broadway From Home” even after the crisis is over, if students continue to show interest.
“We’ve been hearing from a lot of parents who are asking ‘Will this continue after?’ The answer to that is ‘absolutely.’ While this was built out of quarantine, we’ve discovered that there’s definitely a need for this,” Yanoff said. “Your typical theatre program is not going to include Broadway actors and professional TV/film actors, so you’re definitely getting something a little different out of it. I do believe that this is going to really flourish even after that.”
Through the uncertainty and isolation, Yanoff has found a way to lift his spirit by helping others find joy.
“While I’m sitting in a chair more than I ever would have wanted to, I’m so excited every day I wake up which is the most insane thing to hear right now,” Yanoff said. “I’m getting these emails from parents saying ‘You are saving my kid’s life right now, you guys are giving them a reason to wake up, thank you so much for this’ and that’s all I need.”
(Pictured: Harley Harrison Yanoff)