Cathy Venable, Broadway Conductor/Musician.
[Interview Date: November 12, 2020]
Wonderful Town, Curtains, Frozen, Sound of Music, and more.
Can you describe your thoughts and feelings on March 12, 2020? What was the week leading up to the day like for you?
My friend Ron, who is a conductor friend that I’ve known since I was in high school, was visiting me in Portland! And he had come to see me conduct the show, and I was supposed to conduct either the night we closed or the next night. So, he missed seeing me conduct Frozen, so that was a bummer. And I just remember thinking about this virus thing as this vague news item. And I didn’t have a full understanding of how massive it really was. I’m trying to remember when that guy came to the theater in Portland when he did the saging of the stage. He was a shaman or something, and it was a half hour before people were called, but I can’t remember if it was Portland. But he was coming to do some kind of ritual onstage, and we all watched. That was the first time I realized there was really something going on here. And we were talking about being careful and there was a night (our company manager) was saying, “We’re taking precautions and using hand sanitizer.” But the week before we closed; I didn’t really get that this was a big deal until a few days before, when people started talking about it. I wasn’t following the national news as closely as I should have been.
What was the week following March 12, 2020 like for you?
I stayed in Portland for two more days, since my friend was visiting. We did some sight-seeing, and I flew home to Tulsa and moved in with my sister, for what I thought would probably be a month!
Did you anticipate that Broadway and other theatre productions would be closed for this long?
No. I would add to that, I’m so disappointed that, because I didn’t think it would be very long, I left my flute with the orchestral instruments! Because we have these two cabinets where we can store our instruments between shows. Most orchestra members have alternate instruments, so I think nobody tried to take instruments home. I still don’t have it. They sent the trunks, but they aren’t sending all those instruments. But I borrowed a flute from a friend. And I, occasionally, do record things for our church service that we do online. So, I pulled it out to do some Christmas tunes the other day.
You have found a way to keep making music during this time through things like virtual concerts. Can you talk a little bit about how these projects were different than live concerts, and what challenges presented themselves, if any? How have these events helped you during this time?
Yes, so, my tenor friend, who was an opera singer that I met doing opera in Connecticut; from the beginning of the pandemic, he started doing these concerts on a platform called StageIt. And the great thing about that platform is they handle all royalties, so you can do any music you want. I think he’s fantastic and such a good friend. And I would tune in every Saturday night, and he was using recorded tracks to accompany him. I finally called him and said, “I love your concerts, and they’re so much fun. If there’s ever a piece you can’t find, I can just record some of those for you.” And he said, “Oh my gosh, do you want to just do one of these together?”
I think we’ve done twelve of them now. We do them every other week. At first, I said, “How are we going to do this? I’m in Oklahoma, and you’re in Connecticut.” And he said, “There’s nothing that doesn’t have a lag in it. You’re going to have to record your half of it and send it to me. And I’m going to sing live to your video of the accompaniment.” And that’s how we’ve done it, every two weeks, since then. It’s so terrifying and amazing. He’ll tell me, “Ok, at 20 seconds, say hello to everybody, and we’ll start at 30 seconds. And give me 30 seconds in between songs, and between these songs, would you say something about it?”
So, we did the classical concert for the first one, and the next week is when he said, “Do you want to keep doing these?” It’s amazing. And the neat thing now is we have this wonderful library of videos, because we started doing one decade of musical theatre, per concert. We’re doing the 1950’s next week. Now, they’re on Thursday nights. People actually think it’s live, so it’s been fun to try to do that!
That has been really helpful to my soul, and it’s kept my chops up, so I’ve been learning new music every week. We do a lot of tunes I know, but some I don’t. It’s kept him sane, because the opera world has been shut down too.
What precautions do you think will need to be made in order to create a safe Orchestra pit? Is there anything you think people aren’t realizing about the difficulties of this challenge?
Obvious answer is, there’s no way to sit six feet apart in an orchestra pit. There are some unusual pits that are really big, but they are unusual. So that’s going to be a challenge. And the only thing I can think of that might be helpful is, we’re going to have to have those plastic baffles that they sometimes use in orchestras in front of the brass. Big sheet things that stand up. I think we just have to create little cubicles for everybody. And, of course, the pianist and drummer can wear a mask, but the brass and reeds can’t.
There are some interesting things that have been created for school orchestras. Like, as a flutist, I’ve been aware of the one they’ve made for flute where it fits on your mouthpiece, and it kind of goes right in front of your mouth where you blow. So, the air is being stopped, so you’re not blowing straight out. There are things that people are trying to use for reed instruments. I think all these gadgets that are being created to prevent air flow from blowing around will have to be used. But I can’t imagine somebody conducting with a mask on, because you have to have that connection with the actors. My basic answer would be: because we can’t sit six feet apart, we’ll have to do plastic baffling.
What have you, personally, been doing over the past year or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
I would list: doing my Master’s in Human Services; that’s probably making me more crazy than sane! Helping my mom move to her new apartment. Doing a lot of painting for my sister. Our church has been really involved in doing mission work you can do online, which is basically, “this place needs some items for Christmas. Can you order them from Amazon and send them to this mission in rural Oklahoma?” There’s an African American church that serves a meal every day to anyone who needs a meal, and the church has been going over to help serve that. My sister and I are finally going to do that tomorrow. Things like that, that are little; but just opportunities to feel like you’re making some kind of a difference. To feel like you’re making a dent in the problems of the world.
What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?
I think just not knowing what is going to happen; not knowing how soon things will get back to normal. But I don’t think it will ever be the same. Not knowing how soon we will have some semblance (of normal); that is the hardest thing.
What positives, if any, have come out of this time of quarantine for you?
Time with family! I moved to New York in 2003. Having extended family time has been great, especially since Dad died right before Frozen started. It’s nice to be here and reconnect with people in Tulsa, because I was a professional musician here, right out of grad school. I was here for eight years before I moved to New York. It’s been nice to connect with those musicians. And just having a break-- although I feel guilty saying that now.
What do you miss the most about your job and live theatre, in general?
The people. I miss all the friends. I miss making music with theatre people, and I miss the people.
What’s your favorite theatre memory?
My first Broadway show was Wonderful Town, and I got to be Brooke Shields’ accompanist. That was kind of awesome. She’s just a real person, and she likes people. They thought they were going to close the show, and then the producers said, “No, we’re gonna bring in Brooke Shields!” And the Music Director said, “I don’t love playing rehearsals, and I know you do. So, why don’t you play her rehearsals?” And I said, “Okay!!!” And that was my first Broadway show. And I got to do that, and I remember her saying, “I know I’m here because I’m famous, and they think I’m going to sell tickets. But I want to do the best job I can. I’m gonna work on my acting, dancing, and singing as hard as I can. And I want to do a great job.” And I thought, “Wow!” And she did a fantastic job. I feel like she fulfilled her mission, for sure. For that to be my first Broadway show, that was pretty cool. And it started at Encores, so the orchestra was onstage for that reason. So, you got to be onstage, and I wondered, “Are all Broadway shows like this? This is cool!”
What is the first thing you’re going to do when theatre is back?
I just think I’m going to say a prayer of “thanks,” on behalf of all of my theatre colleagues who need to get back to work. I’m just going to be thankful for everybody I work with, who has been out of work.
What advice do you have for young Broadway/Musician hopefuls during this time?
I know it will all come back. My goddaughter is a Music Theatre acting major at OCU right now, and she’s a Senior. So, what I tell her is: Keep the faith, follow your heart. It will come back; it just may take a little while. So, if this is really what you want to do, I think you gotta just wait it out and try to do it when it comes back. Don’t be afraid to go get some other kind of job until then. There’s no shame in that.
Favorite Broadway Musical: Curtains-show I loved working on, Guys and Dolls-first Broadway show I ever saw, Camelot-because it’s just so gorgeous, Brigadoon-because it was the first show I was ever in, in Tulsa!
Favorite Broadway Score: The Light in the Piazza-the hardest score I’ve ever played as a sub and rehearsal pianist.
Favorite Movie Musical: The Sound of Music
Music Man or Oklahoma: Oklahoma
Rent or Rock of Ages: Rock of Ages
Rodgers and Hammerstein or Rodgers and Hart: Rodgers and Hammerstein
Irving Berlin or George Gershwin: Both!
Favorite Theatre Tradition: I have two, the Tony’s! And seeing people at the Stage Door! There have been random moments when a kid or someone asks, “Hey, were you in the orchestra-did you conduct the show?” It’s so nice to talk to those people and tell them there are ways to be a professional musician and be a part of theatre; it’s not just actors. It’s fun for me.
Favorite city on tour: San Diego!
Favorite instrument: Piano and flute
Favorite Instrument that you don’t already play: The harp!