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This Labor Day, These Workers Are Trying to Stay Afloat


This Labor Day Weekend is unlike any other in recent memory: Broadway and most of the city’s live performance venues have been closed for nearly six months; museums have only recently begun to reopen; and unemployment reached alarming levels in April.

The coronavirus pandemic has ravaged all parts of the economy, and culture workers are among the hardest hit. Yet some have managed to keep their jobs — and even thrive — while others are still struggling or have pivoted to new roles. Now more than ever we wanted to reflect on those people who have devoted their lives to the arts in some fashion. They’ve soldiered on, amid the shutdown, to create some semblance of normalcy — whether recommending a book, securing the grounds of an iconic cultural institution or entertaining children. Here are some of their stories. — Nicole Herrington, Weekend Arts Editor

Phil LaDuca, 65, founder and creator of LaDuca Shoes in Manhattan

Before the pandemic halted live performance, LaDuca Shoes was, in the words of its creator, Phil LaDuca, “ready to explode on the scene.”

His flexible character shoes, which grace — and save — the prized feet of Rockettes as well as Broadway dancers and actors, were to be seen in an array of productions this year, among them “The Eternals,” the Marvel film whose release date has been moved to next year, and Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Cinderella” in London (pushed to next March). Also on the horizon? “The Music Man,” with Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, on Broadway.

Speaking recently from Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife, Fon, his voice was a mix of wonderment and dismay. The day that Broadway shows were shuttered, the couple were in New York for the opening of the new musical “Six.” He had designed the boots for the six actresses who play the ill-fated wives of Henry VIII.

“We were two hours away from the red carpet for opening night when I received the call,” he said. “Fon and I were desperate to get out of New York — we heard rumors that they were going to stop flights. I was doing my Kurt Russell-Snake impersonation from ‘Escape From New York.’”

But while LaDuca did indeed escape, he hasn’t stopped working. In the early days of the quarantine, LaDuca Shoes offered dance classes on Instagram Live. “I always want to stay positive,” he said. “We did it out of love for the community.”

He added: “I went through a two-week period of funk and depression. And then I said, no, we’re going to fight. Let’s not sit on the sidelines!”

The classes ended in August — dancers, he said, have many more options now — and the shop, on 45th Street between 10th and 11th Avenues, has reopened for fittings and pickups. This summer brought a significant change at LaDuca Shoes: the LaDuca Palette, which features four new colors to accommodate more skin tones. He said the inspiration came from the Black Lives Matter movement, following the killing of George Floyd. He said it made him reflect on his own white privilege.

LaDuca, who arrived in New York from the South Side of Chicago in 1979 with a pair of suitcases and $800 in his wallet, had no help in the creation of his footwear and shop. The movement made him question “would a Black kid from the South Side of Chicago have had the same opportunities as me?” he said. “My answer is no. It made me realize I wasn’t doing enough.”

And LaDuca’s aim is to do everything he can for dancers. He was one himself. A year after he moved to New York, LaDuca was dancing on Broadway in Agnes de Mille’s “Brigadoon.” Multiple injuries — his own — led him to start LaDuca Shoes about 20 years ago.

His favorite story involves a young woman from North Carolina who was in town for a Radio City Rockettes intensive. She left the shop with the Roxie, a hard-sole tap shoe LaDuca designed for the Rockettes, and the Alexis, “because you need to bevel,” he said, referring to the signature pose. “The Rockette bevel is what it’s all about.”

She returned a year later — and announced that she was a Rockette. “That, to me, is what LaDuca shoes is,” he said. “I’m just concerned with how I’m going to keep evolving and helping dancers.” GIA KOURLAS

James Fugate, 65, co-owner of Eso Won Books in Los Angeles

It was the second week of the shutdown in March, and James Fugate, the co-owner of Eso Won Books in the Leimert Park neighborhood of South Los Angeles, was recovering from the flu. He thought it could have been Covid-19, but he couldn’t get a test to confirm. Paul Coates, the founder of Black Classic Press (and father of Ta-Nehisi), had organized a Zoom conference for hundreds of Black booksellers and publishers to talk about how they were going to keep their businesses alive in the pandemic. Fugate joined, but turned off his audio so no one could hear him coughing.

The event spurred a flurry of marketing for readers around the country to support Black-owned bookstores, especially now that they couldn’t shop in person. “Suddenly we started getting 25 orders a day, and that really helped,” Fugate said in a masked interview in late August, in the back office of his store on Degnan Boulevard.

But that boost was nothing compared to what was to come. On June 3, a week and a half after the police killing of George Floyd, Fugate posted a notice on Eso Won’s website, apologizing for having fallen behind on filling the “overwhelming amount of orders” they’d received that week. “We never anticipated anything like this,” he wrote.

Soon they were receiving 400 orders in a single day; “I thought, it’s going to take two days for me to get all those done,” he said. By the next day, there were 1,200 more. “Oh, no, no, no,” he thought, “there’s no way.”

In Los Angeles, Black-owned bookstores are few and far between. Besides Eso Won, Fugate said he knew of only two others: Malik Books in nearby Baldwin Hills, and Reparations Club in Mid-City — both predominantly African-American neighborhoods. “We’ve always had a cross-section of Los Angeles come to our store,” he said. “Our growth is in part due to our long record.”

Most foot traffic still consists of South Los Angeles locals, but lately the majority of pickup orders are being placed by white customers from all over the county. “There are some knuckleheads around here who are upset,” he said. “They’re like, ‘Why are all these white people coming here?’”

This Labor Day closes out a summer that saw the greatest period of growth in the store’s 30-year history. Fugate has been a bookseller all his life; he discovered his passion for the industry as a teenager, in copies of Publishers Weekly borrowed from his local library in Detroit. Now in his 60s, Fugate still processes and fulfills every single online order himself. (“Sometime in June I said, ‘Stop answering the phones. We cannot.’”)

But Fugate is grateful for the stress, and for his customers, who’ve by and large been understanding of the inevitable delays, and even lost transactions. He said he’s “disturbed” to hear other bookstore owners complaining about the increased demand. “If you went from doing 20 orders a day to 200 orders a day,” he said, “just be happy.”

He also credits the American Booksellers Association for having developed a bulk ordering program to help stores like Eso Won handle higher sales volumes. Not all Black booksellers feel welcome “around all those white people” in the A.B.A., he said. “But to me, you want to be part of that bookselling community.”

Since reopening Eso Won’s doors on June 1, Fugate and the bookshop’s co-owner, Tom Hamilton, have been worried about the virus; but Hamilton lets in only a few customers at a time, and asks that they wear masks and use hand sanitizer before entering. Store hours are now noon to 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday, but the owners are there much longer: from about 7 a.m. (sometimes earlier) until 5 p.m.

“Since the pandemic, it’s like nothing we’ve ever seen,” he said. “We have so many books, but they all seem to be selling.

“I think that’s going to continue for some time,” he added, referring to both the steady flux of orders in his inbox and the civil rights movement that is at least partly fueling them. “This isn’t going to stop.” LAUREN CHRISTENSEN

Baseera Khan, 40, a Brooklyn-based artist who will be in residency at the Kitchen this fall

The artist Baseera Khan decided to film a cooking series for Instagram called “Apocalypse Cooking” in the days after New York began sheltering in place.

The videos were decidedly tongue-in-cheek, almost parodying Instagram as a medium (“look at all my toilet paper,” “I still have cute nails”), that provided viewers with easy-to-follow recipes.

“‘You don’t need fancy things to make fancy food’ was the theme,” Khan said in a recent interview.

On March 26, Khan, who uses the pronoun “they,” did a live cooking session on BRIC Brooklyn’s Instagram page. And then, that day, Khan started feeling the symptoms of Covid-19. Immediately after filming for BRIC, they started getting the chills.

“So April was dark for me,” Khan said, and much of their life came to a halt.

Almost overnight, the four art shows that Khan — who uses a range of materials to create installation, collage, sound and performance art — had lined up for the rest of the year, including one at the Atlanta Contemporary in Georgia and another at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Ohio, were canceled, postponed or left in limbo. And Khan said teaching positions evaporated. (In addition to teaching at the summer Masters of Fine Arts program at the School of Visual Arts, Khan also taught last year at Virginia Commonwealth University.)

With barely any money coming in and no health insurance, Khan resorted to rationing food. “I’d wake up in the morning and have coffee and a banana,” they said. “And then for a snack, I would have tea and an apple. I would wait until around six to make a proper meal. Then I would just go to sleep really early so I didn’t have to be hungry.”

Every day, Khan said they would also try to register for unemployment benefits, calling the state labor department again and again with little success.

It wasn’t until June 1 that they were finally able to register.

“It was all a really horrific experience,” Khan recalled. “But then, at the same time, it felt familiar. Being an artist, you’re either inundated with people and social activity or you’re very alone. So there’s an oil-and-water to it. It did feel familiar to isolate myself, to be honest.”

In the summer months, Khan’s circumstances slowly started turning around.

This fall the New Orleans Museum of Art will screen a film of their performance last year at the University of Albany. Titled “Braidrage,” the work featured Khan scaling a rock- climbing wall that had been constructed with resin casts of the artist’s body parts as the “rocks” and a floor-to-ceiling thick black braid as the rope.

Khan also started selling prints of their work on Instagram. And, on Sept. 8, Khan will begin a six week residency at the Kitchen in New York, where they will draw on their experiences in isolation and suffering from Covid-19 to create artwork in the form of a TV show.

“I’m doing the best I can in terms of not worrying,” they said. “I don’t know any other way.” ALISHA HARIDASANI GUPTA

Elrige Shelton, 58, and Jervin Archibald, 46, chiefs of security at Lincoln Center in Manhattan

For the two chiefs of security at Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts, one constant in their lives before the pandemic was daily conversations with audience members as they patrolled the sprawling 16-acre campus.

Elrige Shelton, the late-shift security chief, remembers frequently greeting an elderly man who was a regular at the summer dance sessions known as Midsummer Night Swing in Damrosch Park. The man would always show up with a much younger dance partner, he recalled.

Shelton’s counterpart during the daytime shift, Jervin Archibald, can picture an older woman to whom he always said “good morning” when she was on her way to work. She would greet him back: “Good morning, have a good day!” He never learned her name, but she was a constant who disappeared when the pandemic shut down New York City in March.

There were the Lincoln Center patrons who would stop by just to chat about the plays or operas that they planned to see.

“Sometimes people just need someone to talk to,” Archibald said. “And you’re there to give them an ear.”

And then there were the harried ticket holders desperate to get directions for a theater before showtime.

“I couldn’t walk 10 feet without someone asking me a question,” he said. “Now no one wants to talk.”

The Metropolitan Opera House and Lincoln Center Theater haven’t hosted formal performances for more than five months, but the chiefs have been on duty the entire time, making sure the campus and its remaining population is safe.

Archibald, 46, who has worked in Lincoln Center’s security division for more than half of his life, starts his shift at 7 a.m., calling roll and getting his staff up to speed before heading out to patrol the campus.

Shelton, 58, who has worked there for more than 25 years, takes over at 3 p.m. and stays until 11 p.m., when — during typical times — audience members are usually streaming out of the various theaters after a ballet or concert or play.

Before the pandemic, Shelton took an hour-and-a-half bus ride from his hometown in Pennsylvania to Manhattan; now, the bus no longer runs, so he drives instead. In March, when the pandemic was first bearing down on the city, he remembers that much of his job was making sure his security staff felt safe.

“At first it was a little frightening,” he said. “We didn’t want the staff to be fearful of coming to work.”

Then, he had to usher them through a difficult furlough period. As of July 1, out of Lincoln Center’s roughly 400 full-time employees, about 30 percent were on furlough.

For months, Lincoln Center’s campus was entirely shut down. Neighbors were no longer permitted to stroll around or sit by the fountain. The emptiness was hard for Shelton, who was used to monitoring crowds of several thousands before showtime and afterward.

Archibald, whose father worked as a Lincoln Center security guard for 14 years, drives in every day from his home in Brooklyn. Earlier this summer, people who lived nearby told him that they were desperate for the grounds to open again.

“I miss the patrons, I miss my co-workers,” he said. “I’m hoping for the day that we can all come back.”

Then, in the middle of July, a partial reopening: The outdoor space opened to the public. Instead of theatergoers circulating on the campus, the outdoor areas are much more family oriented now, Archibald said. There are people walking their dogs, children riding bikes, older couples strolling through the plaza. For a couple of weeks, playlists curated by Lincoln Center employees and institutions like New York City Ballet played from the outdoor speakers on the plazas.

While the chiefs are still missing their regular patrons and colleagues, there are new people — and animals — who are becoming familiar passers-by. Shelton said that he has gotten to know a huge German shepherd named Mr. Pancake. He often sees an elderly couple who told him how they miss the New York Philharmonic concerts.

“I consider myself a people person,” Shelton said. “So seeing the people come back, it relaxes me.” JULIA JACOBS

Caitlyn McCain, 23, artistic associate at New York City Children’s Theater in Manhattan

She has enjoyed the heroine’s spotlight in plays like Shakespeare’s “Cymbeline” and “As You Like It.” But lately Caitlyn McCain’s most visible role is not onstage but online, where she is simply Miss Caitlyn, the effervescent host of Creative Clubhouse Stories at New York City Children’s Theater.

“Covid definitely had me shift my mind-set a bit,” McCain said, “although I’ve always seen acting and my work with young people in applied theater and education as kind of equally important.”

When the city went into lockdown in March, McCain was appearing in “Five,” a touring musical from this company. She was also its temporary gala associate, helping plan a fund-raiser that was soon canceled. Instead, she began to work with Nicole Hogsett, director of marketing and audience development, on “how we were pivoting our programming,” McCain said.

The result was Creative Clubhouse, a web page of performances, reading recommendations, craft projects, singalongs and games. McCain, who had been an education apprentice at the theater while an undergraduate at New York University, proposed also developing Creative Clubhouse Stories, a series of livestreaming book-based classes for ages 3 to 8.

“Covid-related things is how we started,” she said. “We chose books that explored boredom, anger, anxiety — really big things that were probably coming up for a lot of little ones.”

In the classes, Miss Caitlyn reads a picture book, introduces a related activity and discusses the theme. After hearing “Ravi’s Roar,” Tom Percival’s story about a boy who has trouble controlling his inner (and here, literal) tiger, “one little human raises their hand and says, ‘It makes me angry that I can’t see my friends,’” McCain recalled. This led to helpful reflections on how Ravi tamed his own beast.

Although the story series is on hiatus until October, Creative Clubhouse features videos about each book. It also offers Start the Conversation, a resource for helping children deal with challenging subjects. The first installment, online now, covers race, racism and Black Lives Matter. It includes McCain demonstrating a stress-reducing exercise, as well as two videos she helped create: “You Matter,” for families of color, centers on Christian Robinson’s children’s book of the same title. “Black Lives Matter,” for white families, focuses on Anastasia Higginbotham’s “Not My Idea: A Book About Whiteness.”

“I wasn’t really interested in exploring ‘We all matter’ and ‘We’re all welcome here,’” McCain said. “That’s been done.” Instead, each video addresses specific concerns.

As artistic associate, a title she assumed on July 1, McCain is also developing digital programming connected to the theater’s virtual season. In October, the company will stream a 2015 performance of “A Band of Angels,” Myla Churchill’s adaptation of Deborah Hopkinson’s book about a girl’s encounter with her enslaved ancestor and the founding of the Fisk Jubilee Singers at Fisk University.

McCain said her goal was to give audiences “the ability to adopt another person’s point of view through their imaginations.” LAUREL GRAEBER

Andy Carluccio, 22, lead developer at Liminal Entertainment Technologies in Springfield, Va.

At the beginning of March, Andy Carluccio assumed that when he graduated from the University of Virginia he would pay his dues at a software company and only later try to find a job that combined computer science and theater, his twin passions.

“I thought the kind of work I’m doing now would be the kind of work I’d maybe do in five years,” he said in an interview.

But by the end of the month — after the pandemic forced performing arts venues across the country to shutter — Carluccio had been recruited by his mentor Eamonn Farrell to contribute his coding expertise to an online production of Caryl Churchill’s play “Mad Forest” at Bard College. He was also plugging away at his undergraduate thesis.

Along with Farrell, who was working as the show’s video designer, Carluccio was charged with reconciling the creative vision of the production’s director, Ashley Tata, with the capabilities of Zoom’s teleconferencing software. The success of that endeavor in April (the production was reprised in May to critical acclaim) and the skyrocketing demand for streaming content convinced Carluccio that he didn’t need to complete an office job apprenticeship before striking out on his own.

“I saw the writing on the wall that this was my chance to jump in and do it now,” he said. “I figured I wasn’t even going to wait for the conferral of my degree.” By May, Carluccio and his business partners, Jonathan Kokotajlo and Nolan Jacobs-Walker, had Liminal Entertainment Technology up and running.

In the few short months since its founding, the company has facilitated hundreds of livestreams for houses of worship, high school and university groups, children’s theater organizations, Off Broadway productions and arts festivals from Carluccio’s basement in Springfield, Va. He is modest about his team’s role in these projects: “We think of ourselves sort of like virtual plumbers, routing audio and video across the internet from remote performers and technicians back to me to mix into a final livestream for the audience to enjoy.”

During the spring it was not a foregone conclusion that theatermakers would be able to successfully pivot from live performance to creating compelling digital content. There were serious technical hurdles to clear and relatively few resources that artists and producers could draw on to make the switch. Some despaired, choosing to try to wait out the public health crisis.

“I created this company because I was saddened to see both community and professional theaters cancel their shows and close their doors because they felt the task of performing online was an insurmountable challenge,” Carluccio explained. “I wanted to do whatever I could to make sure these works could continue and perhaps even thrive during a time when performing arts felt most needed but least accessible.”

The rapid evolution that online theater has undergone in just a few months has convinced the young technologist that the hybrid art form is here to stay. “There are things that can be done by weaving together collaborators and designers over decentralized internet that I think has opened up design possibilities and audience interactions and scale in a way that we’re not going to want to turn off once we’re finally able to gather in person again.” PETER LIBBEY

Kerryn Feehan, 37, a stand-up comedian in New York City

Before the pandemic emptied the streets of New York, Kerryn Feehan had her hands full. She was working as a writer for Paramount Network and performing stand-up comedy several nights a week.

After the city went into lockdown, adjusting to life without live comedy “was really depressing,” Feehan said in a Zoom interview. She kept busy with fitness and created a show on Instagram called “Cooking With Kerryn.”

“I made toast for the first seven episodes,” she said. “It’s stupid.”

Her first return to stand-up had its setbacks. In the early days of the health crisis, she participated in Zoom shows hosted by local clubs, telling jokes to “Brady Bunch heads” and viewers casually eating noodles on the other end of the screen. “Those were — interesting,” Feehan said.

She telecommuted for a few months before losing her job in May. Then she applied for unemployment benefits and took on side gigs.

Things started looking up soon after, though, as coronavirus cases in New York dropped and the city gradually began to reopen. Outdoor shows were cropping up in parks and on sidewalks, and Feehan was back onstage — figuratively.

Now she is performing almost nightly, with clubs like Stand Up NY (which holds performances in city parks) and an outdoor, pop-up comedy show called Take It Outside.

“While the conditions aren’t ideal, it’s better than nothing,” Feehan said.

Microphones often need to be sanitized, if performers don’t have their own, and there’s more pressure on the hosts to keep audiences engaged in between sets. The reactions from the crowd have also changed.

Watching a comedy show in a dimly lit club, where the spotlight is on the performer, allows the audience members more freedom to laugh at jokes others in the room may find insensitive or vulgar, Feehan said. “You laugh with abandon,” she said. “You don’t filter yourself.”

Remove the shroud of darkness, and people become more apprehensive. “That’s a challenge that has existed with every outdoor show, whether it’s during the day or at night,” Feehan said.

The adjustments can be quite humbling for veteran comedians, particularly those who have HBO and Netflix comedy specials under their belts and are now “performing on Orchard Street while a garbage truck goes by,” Feehan said.

Naturally, there is no shortage of coronavirus jokes. Feehan would like to move on from them, but for now, that is all life has to offer. (One for the road: “My dad is an essential customer at Home Depot,” Feehan said. “He’s never leaving.”)

Though she has consistent shows lined up, Feehan is aware that winter doesn’t bode too well for outdoor comedy. She hopes the city will find a way to accommodate socially distanced, indoor performances — whatever that may look like.

“The worst thing you can do is get rid of comedy shows,” she said, calling the art form public therapy that encourages people to laugh at the strange times we live in.

“Comics,” Feehan cheekily said, “are the frontline workers.” SARA ARIDI

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