Garen Scribner vividly remembers performing in a Washington, D.C., production of The Nutcracker at age 7. During the ballet’s famed party scene, he looked beyond the other kids on stage to the grown-up dancers of the Washington Ballet and glimpsed his future.

“They spoke different languages and they came from different places. And it was just a coming together of all these cultures,” recalled Scribner, now 36. “And there was something special about those people — they’ve been places and they’ve done interesting things.”

Scribner went on to launch his own professional dance career at age 18, spending a decade with the San Francisco ballet, then traveling the world with the Netherlands Dance Theater. He moved to New York City when he landed a role in the Broadway musical An American In Paris. And in the winter of 2020, he was in a Metropolitan Opera performance of La Traviata when he had to stop — not because of the pandemic, but because of a foot injury.

Watch Garen Scribner’s story:

“I actually had a surgery on my foot on March 7, 2020, just days before the shutdown. I was recovering with my foot up and everybody kind of joined me in quarantine,” he said.

The COVID-19 shutdowns took a particularly devastating toll on the performing arts. Nonprofit arts and culture organizations have lost more than $16 billion dollars since the start of the pandemic when, overnight, theaters were shuttered, and tens of thousands of jobs disappeared.

“When people started getting sick and theaters closed, and so many of them are still closed, it showed that vulnerability on a big macro level. You know, we had no security,” he said. “If our show closes, we don’t get paid that next week.”

Scribner’s injury, compounded by the pandemic, made his future uncertain. The career Scribner had worked toward since childhood had, essentially, quit existing — at least in its previous form. There was also the lingering question of how fully his foot would heal and if he’d be able to return to the physical rigor of professional ballet.

man on subway sitting with crutches next to a poster that has his face on it advertising the arts and dance
Garen Scribner on the New York City subway after his March 2020 foot surgery, posing next to a poster of himself.
Courtesy of Garen Scribner

But it did give him what calls “the gift of time.” Scribner used that time to pivot from the stage back to school. This fall he moved to Cambridge, Mass. where he’s pursuing a master’s degree in public administration at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“I actually had time to focus on putting my whole self into this application because applying to Harvard Kennedy School was no joke,” he said. “I can’t say that if I had been trying to do that while performing eight times a week on a Broadway show, or doing a television series, or whatever I would have been doing at the time, I would have been able to get here.”

He’s back on two feet and often zips around Harvard Square on his bicycle to better keep pace with a schedule crammed with classes, schoolwork and evening lectures on everything from climate change to Afghanistan. He’s gaining expertise in public policy that will set him up for a different kind of career.

His goal, though, isn’t a new industry — just to return to his old industry in a new role. He hopes his time on campus will prepare him to lead a dance company or other performing arts organization.

“I want to understand what human beings are facing right now because I believe that dance has a transformative power for people,” he said. “And so my interest is in how what I do connects with broader spaces in public contexts and how it can impact people for the good.”

Garen Scribner poses with a canvas backpack standing next to his bicycle while looking right into the camera, with a college quad of grass trees and students behind him
Garen Scribner on the campus of Harvard University in Cambridge, Mass., on Sept. 26, 2021.
Meredith Nierman

His industry is, as he sees it, at a crossroads. Along with shutting down live performances, Scribner says, the pandemic exposed existing inequities and barriers to access that have long plagued the performing arts world.

“There has been a reckoning within the community, for sure, on many levels,” he said. “It can’t just be, ‘let’s bring it back and bring it to where it was.’’ Let’s fix the problems,” Scribner said. “The two things have to be put together, so that when we rebuild, we rebuild more intelligently, more thoughtfully with a focus on more diversity, equity, inclusion and access, because, otherwise, these old systems are clearly not working. So if we’re going to rebuild it anyway, now’s our chance to kind of rise from the ashes.”

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