A puppet musical exploring the private lives of New York City’s rats, rodents, and mice. A tarot-inspired stage show incorporating electronic dance music and ‘90s R&B. And a podcast musical about an impromptu road trip taken by two teenagers, one of whom is vision impaired.
These are just a few examples of work that one group of NYU musical theater students has produced during their year in quarantine—together.
When the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly shut down in-person classes in spring 2020, the students in NYU Tisch’s Graduate Musical Theatre Writing program were devastated about losing their tight-knit community and the magic that comes with in-person collaboration. And while many students successfully navigated the shift to remote and hybrid learning during the year that followed—department chair Sarah Schlesinger notes that the program has thrived, with students finding long-distance collaborators and renewed inspiration while remaining physically isolated—one group of ten students instead decided to recreate the on-campus experience through forming a creative quarantine pod in a three-story townhouse in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood. There are 14 residents in total, including three architects and another student in NYU Tisch’s Game Design program. To keep everyone safe, the group has implemented strict COVID protocols and refer to themselves as “Fauci’s disciples.”
Fourteen artists living together under one roof sounds like the premise of a reality TV show, but there’s been surprisingly little drama. Impromptu singalongs are the norm. Family dinners and game nights provide a sense of stability and comfort. And while some writers and musicians have understandably struggled to create during this time of intense grief and isolation, these students say the past year has been one of the most prolific periods of their lives. Collaboration is a cinch when you share a wall with your writing partner and can yell out an idea for a lyric and immediately get a response.
Though it’s been disheartening to see New York’s stages dark for so long, the students say they have enjoyed the unexpected opportunity to experiment and reimagine what theater will look like in a post-pandemic world. They hope that communities like theirs will be at the forefront of reshaping the medium in the future.
NYU News spoke with six second-year Graduate Musical Theater Writing students residing in the townhouse—Sam Norman, Eliza Randall, Erica Molfetto, Katherine Hazdovac, Spencer Grubbe, and William Karras—about how they found their unique piece of New York City real estate, the perks of living in a multilevel home recording studio, and how they found joy during a challenging year.
How did the 14 of you find each other?
Katie: It started at the beginning of our program when we spent a year together, all day, every day, creating art and falling in love with each other as a group. As soon as we went into lockdown people were thinking: Is there a way we can keep this going?
Sam: We not only work together, we socialize together. We are each other’s friends in New York. This is the gang. And it was pretty heartbreaking to split it up and be in different parts of the world, collaborating remotely and not being able to see each other. So initially we were looking for a way of setting up a commune maybe in upstate New York. But most people wanted to be in Brooklyn.
How did you find this townhouse?
Sam: A bunch of us lived together already in smaller pods. Our pod was looking for a place to move because we had been living in Manhattan close to Tisch but suddenly, the location wasn't important anymore. The best place we found was a seven-person downstairs apartment with three levels total. We got so excited by that and asked Eliza and Will if they wanted to join us. We later found out that the upstairs apartment, which was not actually on the market at all, was potentially up for negotiation.
Erica: It was totally broken down though. There were shattered windows and people hadn’t lived there for three years. It was a real fixer upper. I've never encountered that in a rental property before. But I saw this amazing ecosystem that my friends, the “downstairs people”, as we refer to them, had built. And their realtor—who was a drummer for my favorite band way back when—was like, “you know, this upstairs unit is available. I don't know what the state of it is. Let me find out.”
So because there was no lock to the upstairs apartment, the realtor broke in with a credit card, walked up, and said, “Wait down here. Let me just make sure there's nothing weird up here.” And he came back and said “I have never quite seen an apartment like this before. Are you sure you want to see it?” And I'm like, well, you set such a great scene, now I almost have to. And so we walked up the stairs and all of a sudden I saw this beautiful alcove, stunning light coming through the windows, and one broken window.
So I took it upon myself to find Katie, another classmate from Turkey, one other NYU student who I found through Craigslist, and three other people who are not artists in the program. The downstairs people moved in and we moved in upstairs maybe three weeks later. It was a very, very fast turnaround. In the midst of a pandemic, I realized just how important it was to live with people who share your world view.
We weren’t ready to give up the community we had built.
How has living together helped you through this pandemic?
Eliza: When the pandemic first hit, I was as depressed as it gets. A lot of us were. People were saying theater was going to shut down forever, and we were all sent home and separated and collaborating from different places. A lot of us were considering deferring.
When these guys approached me with the idea of moving in, it just felt so good, especially with all that pandemic darkness. And I hesitate to say it, but if anything good was to come out of the pandemic, it was this. This is probably one of the happiest times in my life. I feel like that's a weird thing to say right now. But finding a family here in Brooklyn has been a huge deal to me.
Sam and I are in rooms ten feet apart and we're writing a musical together, which makes life very easy and exciting. I have so many friends who are having such a hard time finding the creative juice to fuel them, and yet I have such an abundance of it here. Being around other people who are also working hard is a big deal for me. I hear Will recording drums downstairs and can ask Katie to sing something for me real quick—it's like having our own private recording studio. Sometimes I feel guilty telling people how good I have it right now because I know that's not the case for everybody.
The six of you are working in teams on your thesis projects. Can you tell me what you’re working on?
Spencer: Our program changed the guidelines for our thesis projects to accommodate COVID restrictions. We didn't have to write a stage show—the options became a lot broader. We could write a podcast or for an animated medium, for example. It’s been really cool to see people take the opportunity to try new art forms and explore any crazy, wacky idea that they have. And I think that's led to all of us inspiring each other in ways that I certainly don't think we would have had if things were normal or we weren't all living together.
Sam: Eliza and I are writing a podcast musical called Echolocation. You can just put your headphones in and click a button and listen to the whole thing. And it's not like a recording of something that was written for the stage. It was written to be a podcast.
Erica: William and I are writing a musical puppet show. It was originally an animated musical. We workshopped it and thought “what if we use puppets for now?” And we received really good feedback from a kooky video we made with mouse finger puppets. That definitely wouldn't have happened if we weren’t all living together. We had an arts and crafts night where we all pitched in to make the characters.
What has been the best thing about living together?
Sam: Well, things get really niche really quickly. We had a group screening of The Music Man a couple of weeks ago. We screen musicals all the time in the house. And, randomly, one of us will sing a line from a musical and 10 voices will immediately join in and sing the next line. But it gets even more niche than that when we start quoting each other's work. It would be really obnoxious for anyone else, which is maybe why having so many musical theater people living together works.
Eliza: I've had so many roommates in the past that weren't musicians or musical theater people and you try to be the best roommate you can and always use headphones. But here, I knock on a wall and yell ‘recording!’ and just do it.
Sam: On paper, I would expect this to be a train wreck. People are supposed to have artistic differences all the time. Many of the great collaborators through history didn't like each other—and they didn't like each other because they spent so much time together. But we have just not had that.
William: I feel like I'm learning more this year. The moment I have a question, I know that somebody has an answer to it. Everybody has a different skill set that's complementary and I think that's a plus of doing grad school at a time like this.
Eliza: That's so true! If I ever have a drum question, I go to Brooke. She was a drum major in undergrad. And Will is the jazz king. And Spencer knows all things electronic and is an amazing composer. It's better than Google.
Katie: There was something so special about being in the black box theater back at Tisch. It has a certain energy. But even though we miss that, at least the ten of us still get to watch each other's work in the same space. We have an in-house audience. It's really nice to watch people react to your work.
William: And lastly, this evening at seven o'clock we will go into the kitchen and make poutine. I'm from Quebec and it was just my birthday and my parents sent me five pounds of curd cheese.
Let’s be real for a minute. It must be difficult living with so many people! How do you navigate some of the more challenging aspects that come with cohabitation?
Eliza: We had a lot of wellbeing meetings to ask how everybody is doing—and how we're going to organize the massive amounts of recycling that we produce every week, where we put it and how on earth we're going to fit it in the stupid bins. We also met regularly to work out cleaning schedules. I've been amazed at how easy it has been to get 14 people all on the same page—or at least close to.
Katie: There's also a lot of hugging on a daily basis. People are really struggling with the physical isolation of quarantine. We do have to be pretty strict and we've had a lot of conversations about our personal COVID guidelines to ensure our group stays safe. But the fact that we can literally just hug, I think is huge. It really affects our well-being on a daily basis.