Performing Past Pandemic – Interview with Artemisia LeFay

It was more than a year ago that the country first went into lockdown. Performer Artemisia LeFay (starring in the cabaret show “Ghosts of Weimar Past” in New York City) gives an inside view and a look back on the industry as she prepares to re-enter it after the extended pandemic pause.

Where were you when the lock down first started? What were your expectations?  

Oh, goodness, the pianist in the show (Renee Guerrero, also a fellow New Yorker) and I had just finished a series of performances for “Ghosts of Weimar Past” at the Adelaide Fringe Festival in Australia, and we were leaving the next day to perform in New Zealand when we got the announcement that they were banning flights into the country.  We figured it wouldn’t be too long before Australia did the same, so after a very stressful week of re-routing our flights and trying to get our money back for the ones we had already booked, we were on our way back to New York not a moment too soon— I mean it when we had gotten the last flights out of each stopover city.  

I expected the initial month or whatever it was of lockdown, but didn’t really believe it would be that short.  I think I went into shock at the beginning, it was a while until the enormity of the pandemic really hit me.  It was really chilling driving from the LaGuardia airport that day, seeing so few cars and people.  I remember how thick and palpable the aura of terrifying uncertainty was.  

How has the pandemic period changed your professional life?

I know I’m not alone in thinking this, but it truly felt like the pandemic took away everything performance wise.  I had just been starting to bellydance in restaurants, and many cabaret venues had started to take an interest in me and my show, but then I lost all that.  I got pretty depressed, and broke down whenever I remembered times on stage, but I think I got used to it.  Comfortable, even.  At one point I began pretending that I was attending a conservatory, where I would have ample time to practice music, singing, and dancing, and was fine as long as I didn’t think about the future too much.  I was fortunate enough to live with my parents, who are also musicians, and my jazz pianist brother, who was here taking his college classes online, so I was grateful to have that company— even though tempers often ran high with four performing artists under one roof with no outlet!  We began doing backyard concerts for the neighborhood, which they seemed to love!  But professionally, I was in a bit of stasis during the pandemic.

What significant changes did you notice in your environment? What changes did you notice in the people around you?

Our “bubble” was one of the extremely strict, “no-contact-whatsoever” ones, so  the interactions with the outside world were usually those with neighbors from a far distance.  I was used to going into the city multiple times a week for gigs, so it was difficult for me to adjust to being behind four walls most of the time.  Eventually, as my friends and family got vaccinated, I was “permitted” to take public transportation.  I’ve always been proud of how tough and community oriented the people of New York City are, and I remember, one year after the initial lockdown, my first time going on the subway again, how vehemently people were sticking to social distancing and masking; how considerate everyone was to each other.  People say that New Yorkers are often rude and standoffish, but I feel like the unspoken sense of community in this city is one of the things that allowed us to go from the highest hotspot of COVID-19 deaths, to one of the safest cities in the US.  

Tell us about your upcoming show, Ghosts of Weimar Past. Does this relate to the politics at present?

I’d always loved going to see the bands perform at steampunk festivals, so when the COGS Expo announced that they were looking for performers, I immediately sent them my information.  Thanks to an obsession with the movie “Cabaret” with Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey, I had collected a huge amount of authentic cabaret songs from 1910s-1940s Germany, so I decided to create a show based around it.  It was really different back then; the songs were different, I performed with only a phone recording, and the show was called “Weimarian Revolution”. 

As I continued to perform it around NYC and New Jersey, I realized that a lot of these songs featured Jewish and LGBTQ+ composers and performers, so I made THAT the focus of the show, because, quite frankly, I was not only impressed that Berlin during the Weimar Republic was so liberal and accepting of those communities, but that even though they were hit really hard by the Nazis, these people used their art to defy rising fascism. 

Another particularly relevant thing was that the Zwanzigejahre came right after a nation-wide pandemic— I hope that we have our cultural Renaissance! Like I mentioned, I was pretty damn desperate to be onstage during the pandemic, so much that it almost physically hurt.  You can imagine how surprised I was in the spring of 2021 that my favorite cabaret venue— Don’t Tell Mama, which is in the heart of Manhattan’s theater district— announced they would soon be booking shows! 

So, of course, at 4 AM I re-proposed my show to them. During the pandemic, I researched the music and historical period with a renewed passion.  I watched lots of silent movies and studied the movements of the actors, and even sewed a bunch of historical and historically inspired costumes to perform in!  I’ve always felt that this show had a necromantic quality, in that the audience hears the voices of the long-past performers, and is taken back in time, but as I’ve gotten to “know” the performers more and more through my research, their message of refusing to be compliant, or sticking to the political status quo, it’s been interesting to see how the show’s been evolving. 

It’s really important to not become numb to radical acts from the far-right (take the riot at Capitol Hill last January, or the attacks on Black Lives Matter protesters), because people back then being deadened to things like that helped the Nazi party get so powerful. History often rhymes, so that’s a big part of why I do this show. The stage is a magical portal that connects you to the lineage of performers behind you, and it’s my goal for the audience to feel that as well as me.

How long have you been performing / involved in media/entertainment?

As I mentioned, I come from a performing artist family, so my earliest exposures to it were being brought to opera rehearsals and babysit by the other cast members backstage as a wee child.  I’ve been in musicals since I was a child, and I don’t think the itch to perform ever went away.  Over the years, cabaret, burlesque, improv, opera, and belly dancing were added to the mix, and I feel like it’s this eclectic mix of backgrounds that’s made me who I am, both personally, and as a performer.

What did you miss the most during the pandemic?

There were so many things… I was really touch-starved, so I missed seeing my friends the most for sure.  Going to the city was another thing, as there are only so many things one can do in Yonkers, but as I think you’ve guessed by now, it was performing on stage.  It was quite disconcerting seeing how little help the government gave my performance friends who literally relied on that as their sole source of income.

When can we see your next work?

I will be reprising “Ghosts of Weimar Past” at Don’t Tell Mama this Pride Sunday (June 27th) at 3 pm— it is recommended to reserve your place ahead of time on the website, as the last show was absolutely packed. You can also stay up-to-date with further, future showings of “Ghosts of Weimar Past” on my Instagram (@artemisialefay) and official Facebook (Artemisia Official)— a website is in the works, too, but is not up yet.