Following Theater Graduates Who Were Left Without a Stage

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I’m the theater reporter at The New York Times. But for more than a year, there was very little theater.

So what have I been doing? Well, at least in part, I’ve been writing about the people whose lives, and livelihoods, have been upended by the pandemic-prompted shutdown.

That means actors, of course, and fans, too. But I’ve also been intrigued, almost since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, by what the widespread layoffs and absence of productions would mean for aspiring theater artists,. That’s what led me to report the article that appeared in Sunday’s paper about a group of drama students who graduated last year from the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.

Over time, I was able to talk to 22 of the 23 drama students in the class of 2020, and they reminded me of so much that I love about journalism, and about artists — they were open and generous and self-aware, and sometimes uncertain about how to think about what this strange and unexpected time would mean for them. And it seems like the article has resonated with readers, for which I am grateful.

I started pitching the story to The Times’s culture editors last summer. Then, in January, prompted by the annual what-do-we-want-to-do-this-year meetings, I moved it to the top of my wish list.

But how to proceed? I started by reaching out to a number of leading drama programs in New York and around the country, and by talking with educators and students about what was happening with the class of 2020. I was just trying to get my head around what a story might look like.

As I gathered reporting, my editors and I resumed a debate we have over and over: breadth versus depth. Was the best way to proceed to write in a sweeping fashion about the most interesting graduates from a variety of programs, or to go deep on a single program that could stand in for the larger universe?

Once we decided to focus on one class, it was time to select a school. This is the kind of multiple-choice question for which there is no single right answer. We wanted a well-regarded program, but maybe not one of the schools right in our backyard, and we wanted a group of students with a variety of back stories and a range of pandemic experiences.

The University of North Carolina School of the Arts appealed because it met those criteria, and I just had a gut feeling, after talking with the program’s dean, its communications director and a few of the students, that I would find the level of candor that might make a story succeed.

As has been true for much of my work over the last year, the reporting was largely by phone — the students have scattered, with one in England, one in Australia and the others all over the United States and often on the move. But I did get to meet some of them.

In May, I took my first reporting flight since the pandemic began, to Winston-Salem, to tour the campus and attend the 2021 commencement, which members of the class of 2020 were invited to attend, and two did. (One bonus: I got to see what a Fighting Pickle, the school’s mascot, looks like.)

I visited with three members of the class. David Ospina, who is now working as a real estate photographer, met me for cold brew coffee on a very hot North Carolina morning; Lance Smith showed me around his mom’s apartment, where he’s been making music and self-taping auditions during the pandemic; and Sam Sherman joined Mr. Smith and me at a picnic table on campus to debrief the morning after commencement. And over dinner with the dean and several faculty members, I learned more about the school’s programs and how it had weathered the pandemic.

It’s been great to start reporting in person again. It just leads to better conversations and richer material, and I’m so grateful to all the students for their thoughtfulness. As I sat with Mr. Smith and Mr. Sherman, one memory prompted another — the student production of “Pass Over” they worked on, the alumni panels they attended, the books they’re reading and the survival jobs they’re taking and the dreams they’re trying to hold on to. “I’m starving to be in a room with people, playing with each other, having fun and goofing off and seeing what works and maybe having a breakthrough one day,” Mr. Sherman said. Mr. Smith agreed. “I miss being in it,” he added. “I miss doing it.”

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