North Bellmore resident Jared Zirilli said he believes the pandemic may be the hardest time of a theatre actor’s life. After the lights went out on Broadway last March to curb the spread of coronavirus, Zirilli, who portrayed Bruce Sudano in “Summer: The Donna Summer Musical,” did what many artists had to do during lockdown: adapt.
Before the pandemic took hold, Zirilli, 34, was offered a feature lead in a film-to-Broadway adaptation of Martin Scorsese’s 1977 film “New York, New York.”
“We had this incredible rehearsal in [the director’s] apartment,” Zirilli recalled. “We finished up . . . and she said she’d see me in a few days. I’m on the elevator in her building, I switch my phone back on, and I just see, ‘Broadway theatre closing.’”
Broadway announced it would shutter its doors on March 12, 2020, as concerns about the coronavirus dominated headlines. The decision came shortly after Gov. Andrew Cuomo and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio banned most gatherings of more than 500 people and required smaller venues to cut their capacity in half.
Like many others in his field, Zirilli was struck by a wave of surprise. “Really, it just seemed temporary,” he said. “And then within a couple hours, our casting director emailed us that the reading was cancelled for the time being. It was a real shock.”
Broadway initially planned to reopen for shows on April 12, 2020, but the city soon became an early epicenter of the pandemic. Until the curtains come up, “A real part of our artistic tank is just completely empty,” Zirilli said. “It’s that part of us that can only be fulfilled by live performance, and it’s completely shut down.”
The 2004 Sanford H. Calhoun High School graduate has been able to fill that void in a different way — by coaching up-and-coming actors online. Before the pandemic, Zirilli had hosted a handful of in-person, one-on-one coaching sessions with high schoolers hoping to pursue acting professionally. And while the shutdowns have put his acting career on hold, the sessions “translated brilliantly to Zoom,” he said.
Zirilli gained many of his more than 3,000 Instagram followers after his run on Broadway, so last spring he put out a call to ask if any of them were interested in taking an acting course via Zoom. Today, Zirilli leads virtual, one-on-one courses with up to 30 students per week from around the country and Canada.
The pandemic “has allowed me to completely stretch to students that I might not have been able to teach had it just been an in-person business,” Zirilli said.
Most of the participants are high school-aged students preparing to audition for BFA programs, Zirilli said. He also coaches some semi-professional actors that have booked commercial and television work. A couple of his students were recently accepted into BFA programs at prestigious institutions, such as New York University.
“We work on these pressure-filled BFA auditions, which can be a really nerve-wracking experience for a young actor on their own,” Zirilli said. “I’m there to shepherd them through it and say, ‘Here’s what you need to focus on, here’s something that’s not worth stressing about, here’s where you should focus your efforts.’”
Since many off-Broadway theatres have shut down due to financial difficulties, there’s more competition for on-screen acting, Zirilli said. And while television taping has slowed due to pandemic-related protocols, actors traditionally geared towards movie roles are pivoting to the small screen. “It’s made it tougher and more competitive for everyone,” he added.
Zirilli continues to work on “New York, New York” in modified ways, and recently attended a script reading on Zoom. Since working from home comes with a flexible schedule, he said, Zirilli is capable of balancing teaching and acting — if Broadway ever does reopen.
“That’s the best thing about this — it completely mingles with an active Broadway schedule,” he said. “Unless we’re up and running, I don’t have to do theater until 6 or 7 o’clock, so this Zoom business can continue alongside that.”
Slots for Zirilli’s virtual acting course are available, and he is currently accepting new applicants. Interested actors can sign up at www.jaredzirilli.com.