• Natalie Wisdom

Chad Larabee, Professional Stage and Film Director, Writer and Producer.

[Interview Date: December 12, 2020]

Where were you on March 12, 2020, the day Broadway shut down? And what was the week leading up to it like for you?

It was crazy, because I had spent two months in Italy. I directed two new shows for a brand-new ship called the Regency Seven Seas Splendor. I had just disembarked in Rome after its Maiden Voyage, feeling really satisfied with what our team had created. COVID was already in Italy, and I was struck by all the health protocols in Italy-temperature checks and these questionnaires I had to fill out before I flew home. This was February. (Then), I got to JFK, and I was going through customs, and they didn’t ask me anything. It made me concerned that Italy was so on top of it, but New York was like, “Welcome to New York!” So, I was unsure what was going to happen.

A few weeks later, my partner Kevin and I went to see the preview of Company on March 12th. It was their very last audience before Broadway shut down. We just were going to sneak in, see the show, and leave. I had no idea that was going to be the last time I was going to see live theatre for a very long time.

I remember we sat down, and it was a full house. We were chatting with someone we knew next to us, and I was thinking, “Wow, we’re sitting really close together…” I remember hearing a cough, and everyone’s eyes darted over. But then, getting word the next day, that it was all shutting down… I was worried it was coming, but I wasn’t prepared for the news.

Did you anticipate Broadway and other theatre productions would be closed for this long?

I was expecting it was going to be closed for two and a half months. I thought mid-summer/late summer, it was going to come back. Mostly because Governor Cuomo was so strong and clear in his directives, and I saw my fellow New Yorkers-everyone was following safety protocols and staying inside. I was really proud of the way that New York took care of things. And then, seeing other parts of the country not taking it as seriously, and watching the cases tick up… So, initially I thought two and a half months. And then, by April or May, it got scary.

What have, you, personally, been doing over the past year or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?

I was incredibly lucky, because Jason Howland invited me to be a part of the digital musical, “A Killer Party,” so I got to jump on as Associate Producer and also do a bit of direction with Alex Newell. It was a gift to help create, and assist in rolling out the show. I had a couple months where I was really busy, and that kept me really focused on something to do. And I was also developing a few shows for Cruise Lines and working on two new musical projects.

Jason got me into this mindset of: “what can we do?” I started working on a new musical called “Love in Other Destinations” that we’re doing a digital film version of this Spring. So, I started looking at what was possible. I knew what couldn’t be done, but I tried to stay focused on what could be done.

I don’t let myself get depressed about what’s not possible, but I’ve been really focused on doing whatever I can do. Keeping the blinders on, and just looking ahead.

I was grateful for the time to engage with Broadway’s BIPOC community and the BLM movement, and to explore ways to help change the culture of our industry. That was a big part of last summer- the events were such that you didn’t want to look away.

How has what’s happening in the world affected your drive to create? Have you felt a stronger urge? A lack of inspiration? Or has it stayed about the same for you?

It has definitely ebbed and flowed. I had collaborators I can connect with and work on projects. I’ve found that I have to keep moving. I’ve willed myself to keep working. I also got to take part in some marches and rallies in support of BLM. I was able to be present for a lot of what was happening, and I was grateful for that. It gave me a lot of time to reflect. I’ve always tried to create a safe space in the rehearsal hall, but hearing all these stories, you start to examine everything you do and search for ways to grow and evolve to create a truly safe and equitable space.

What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?

This. (Screens) The separation has been tough. Kevin and I went for a walk with our friend Yasmeen in Prospect Park in early summer. We couldn’t hug, but we could see each other, and it was the most magical moment- to be able to connect. As theatre people, it’s about that human connection, and we’re limited with that and forced to do this through a laptop. That’s been really tough. It’s also the longest I’ve gone since I was twelve, not seeing a play or a musical, and not being a part of that process. That’s been hard.

It’s been hard to see friends out of work and struggling, I have every confidence that theatre will rebound, because I think that it’s the most human experience you can have. It’s the relationship between audience and actor, and we’re all craving it. I think there’s going to be this huge renaissance in live theatre, and I’m excited about that, but I want it now!

What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time of quarantine?

I think it gave us time to better understand the repercussions of systemic racism in our country and in our industry. I worry that if that had come about in normal times, that would not have had as much space. To have the space to acknowledge it and make plans to address it.

We’re also such multi-taskers. We relied on technology. I think you will see fewer mobile phones out in rehearsal halls when we are back. Everyone’s going to want to be present with those in the room. I think there’s going to be such a joy to collaborate and connect with one another. We’re going to see phenomenal theatre happening.

What is your biggest worry right now?

I worry that folks are losing health care. They’re going into debt and having to leave the city. Worrying about who will come back, and who won’t survive this. We’re going to be one of the last industries to come back from this; it terrifies me.

I worry about all those kids who graduated from college who want to come here and make their mark. I hope people are writing and creating. There’s going to be this floodgate of great material. I have too many friends who have had to leave the city and go into other careers out of great necessity.

I also worry that people see Hamilton on Disney + and think, “This is theatre!” But it, in no way, even approximates the experience of being in that space live. I worry that some people don’t understand the value of what we all do. And they think, “Oh, they’ll bounce back,” when a lot of people are suffering in silence. And there’s only so much the Actor’s Fund and Broadway Cares can do. I hope in the new year, the Biden administration is going to support our community. We desperately need it.

What do you miss the most about theatre?

I miss the process. Walking into the rehearsal hall in the morning with a cup of coffee in my hand and seeing freshly-taped floors and Stage Managers buzzing around. And actors coming in and collaborators coming in, and what’s going to be explored that day. That’s what I miss beyond anything. It’s not the same when you’re 100 miles apart. This isn’t an equivalent.

How has the process been different for you, as you have continued these projects, digitally?

It requires a little more conversation. I don’t trust email; it’s easy to misinterpret intent and those subtle cues. I find things take more discussion, and I think everyone is trying really hard to be present, but there’s so much PTSD with what we’re going through. I think patience, sometimes, is a little less. It’s easier to get frustrated.

So much effort went into “A Killer Party,” and so much passion. But then, it goes off in the world and all you see are the numbers of how many people are viewing it. But you don’t get the experience of people watching it. It, kind of, happens in a vacuum. There’s no reverberation backwards, in a meaningful way. It all requires a little more effort.

And then, for anybody on the music side, you can’t sing in real time. I’m impressed with all these online concerts; people are finding a way to have a shared experience when it’s happening at a distance. It’s exciting to get back to work, but it’s not the work we were trained to do, and that we should be doing. But some muscles do get stronger; getting to connect in this artificial way.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

The one that comes to mind is right when I moved to New York, I was so lucky. I got to direct a revival of a Garson Kanin play in New York. It was an incredibly challenging project for a multitude of reasons, and it left me doubting myself. Marian Seldes was married to Garson and was involved with the project. She found me on opening night and gave me a big hug, said some very kind things, and renewed my faith in theatre. Marian reminded me that theatre is never easy, that it requires a huge amount of effort. And the process isn’t always easy, but it’s necessary. I appreciated her kindness and for breathing some of her joy and life-force into me. It was a transcendent moment.

And another one is back to Little Women at the Barn (New London Barn Playhouse). The frenzy of putting something up in 11 or so days. And just the roller coaster of that. I miss that moment where you get to sit with an audience for the first time and feel a show breathing for the first time.

What is the first thing you’re going to do when theatre is back?

Buy a ticket! I want to be in an audience; that’s the very first thing. And I think anyone who can, needs to buy tickets. Just to prime the pump and get butts in seats, and see that it’s safe and see that it’s possible. I’ll wear a mask, a hazmat suit; I don’t care. Whatever I have to do, when it’s safe to do, and hopefully everyone will do it; so, it just comes back!

What advice do you have for young Broadway hopefuls during this time?

I think to try and put your time to good use. Read plays; train your voice and your body; get to know every composer you can. Don’t let this time be wasted. Try and set some goals, and keep yourself conditioned for when the world wakes up. Use this time to better understand who you are, as an artist, and what’s your place in the world. And have that confidence of self. I think this is challenging everybody. It can be a damaging time if we’re not checking in with ourselves and providing ourselves with why we do what we do, and why we’re here.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: Ragtime and Sweeney Todd

Favorite Broadway Play: M. Butterfly by David Henry Hwang.

Favorite Movie Musical: Pre-COVID- West Side Story. Post-COVID- Mamma Mia 2! It is pure joy. I think I’ve watched it three times since the pandemic.

Movie you think should be a musical: The original Pete’s Dragon!

Favorite Theatre Ritual: Sitting in a theatre and watching the crew turn off the ghost-light. That magical moment of waking up the theatre.

Favorite NYC Restaurant: The Palm on 50th Street. They make everyone there feel special. The best staff in New York.

Favorite Theatre Superstition: David Belasco’s ghost at the Belasco Theater.

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