Josh Drake was 800 miles from his usual theatrical home, Aladdin at the New Amsterdam Theatre, when Broadway shut down due to COVID-19 and his life changed. The actor had taken a leave of absence from the hit Disney musical to star in An American In Paris at Chicago’s Drury Lane Theatre, but the theatre announced it would be going dark hours after Broadway made its announcement on March 12, causing the opportunity to quickly come to an end.
“It was my first time playing a lead in a show full-time, so the experience was so special to me,” Drake explains. “It was a really fantastic show, so hearing that it was being cut short was devastating.”
Four days later, Drake was back in New York City, where he has been quarantining ever since. Like the many people who make Broadway come alive night after night, the performer’s life has become a reversal of what he has grown accustomed to since making his Broadway debut in Aladdin three years ago. Not only is the pace slower and more isolated, without an anticipated Broadway return date, Drake is left to navigate the pandemic without his usual routine or community.
“It’s such a mind shift. I’ve woken up every day with the mentality: ‘Nothing is for sure and nothing is promised.’ It’s a day-by-day thing. The best I can do right now is take care of myself and get myself in a good, healthy spot. Then I can invite the world back in."
That’s not to say that his days are spent inactive. The demands of an eight show week can be intense on both artists and technicians alike, and Drake has been taking the opportunity to recharge and develop his craft. Even though he is unable to be at his theatre, with the abundance of free time, the actor has spent the shutdown taking classes on other aspects of the entertainment industry, from directing to writing and more. ““When I’m in a show, I am fully immersed in what that lifestyle requires of me. I’m constantly trying to keep my body in shape, eating super well, doing as much as I can [to remain show ready]. With this time, I’ve been able to stop and get more education and explore skills that I love.
“It’s been helpful as an actor because it gives you a little more insight into what the other side [of the table] is doing and what their goals are. It opens up my arsenal and adds more tools into my box.”
Still without an outlet for this newfound knowledge, Drake has been pouring his creative energy into his other ventures: photography and videography. Now that health guidelines allow for small, distant production opportunities, he has been able to remain artistic, brushing up on the content he makes and his post-production skill, an outlet that has taken on a dual purpose. “For me, editing is therapy because I am able to put my focus on something else.”
Navigating the day to day doesn’t erase the larger questions and challenges that the theatre shutdown presents to members of Broadway industry. Especially with the end of the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance and a lack of jobs due to the economy, many artists and technicians are left to figure out their lives despite the uncertainty. “Everyone is relying on some form of art to keep their families and their lives going, to bring some joy into their households. I want to remind people: that’s us. That’s what we do and why we do it—to provide that happiness. Remember that we are people and there are livelihoods behind all of that. Most of the Broadway community lives in New York, where rent and mortgages are astronomical. The loss of that money is terrifying.”
In addition to the financial stress, unemployment can also be an emotional one. Drake is one of the many people turning to television, film, and theatrical telecasts to remain engaged and keep hope alive throughout the pandemic, which can be bittersweet for a performer. “Especially since Hamilton was [recently] released on Disney+, it made me feel how much I miss what I do,” the actor recalls. “I was crying in the first 15 seconds of the audience applauding. You don’t realize how much you rely on the normality of your life until it is not there. Seeing my friends every day and all of us getting together to put the show up with one common goal—I miss that so much.”
But for now, like a well-trained performer, Drake is actively responding to the circumstances ahead of him, taking it all in stride. “The arts are coming back. They’re not going to be gone forever. We’ll be back.”
Josh Drake is a New York City-based actor, photographer, and videographer. Visit Custom Ink to support his fundraiser for the Color of Change Education Fund.