• Natalie Wisdom

Charlene Speyerer - Broadway Stage Manager

[Interview Date: October 30, 2020]

The Band’s Visit, Billy Elliot, Hamilton, On the Town, School of Rock and More.

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

When things like this happen in New York, I always look to the Broadway shows to see if they’re going to shut down. When snow storms happen, I’m like, “Oh, must be bad if Broadway’s closing." Watching if the subways are going to close… If the subways close, then Broadway’s going to close. And I was watching my Facebook feed, and I remember seeing, “When are they gonna close us?” And “Waiting for Charlotte St. Martin to say something about Broadway.” So, I was very much aware that week, watching what was happening. I’m a member of the Broadway Baby Momma’s Facebook group. And one of my friends posted, “Is anyone taking this seriously? My husband is hoarding toilet paper.” And I was like, “Nah, we’re New Yorkers. You can always go to the bodega for toilet paper.” I was not taking it seriously the week before.

And then, I saw my friends in Broadway shows posting—I was unemployed at this time, being a stay-at-home mom. My husband was working in the film industry as a set dresser for a TV show. And he was working, and nothing was changing with his work. But I remember being outside my kids’ school, and one of my mom friends saying, “You know, I’m not going be here next week. We’re going to our country home, and we’re not coming back. This is ridiculous.” And I was like, “What?” It didn’t really dawn on me. And then, when I saw Broadway closed, I was like “Oh. This is serious.” My family and I were already planning on going to our country home on the 13th, and I packed a little bit more... We were going to come back on Monday, because my husband had work in New York on Monday.

And then Saturday morning, I said to my husband, “This is getting serious. Broadway is shut down. We need to call your job; we need to find out what’s going on. And I think we need to keep the girls out of school next week.” He thought I was crazy. And then, on Sunday night, when his job was canceled, he was like, “Oh, this is serious.” So, we went in to the city on that Monday, because he had to get his tools from his job. I packed our car full--with my daughters and our dog-- full of everything we could grab out of our apartment with the anticipation that we would stay in Connecticut at least a couple weeks through Spring Break, which was coming up. So, I didn’t really know, obviously, the extent of it. But I knew that we had a safe place to be, and I was taking it more seriously in our family than anybody else. As the mom, I was trying to look at the big picture and do what was best for our family at that time.

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

I didn’t think that Broadway would reopen in September, because that’s when Broadway takes a dip; it didn’t make sense. I was really more concerned. They were coming up with solutions for audience members; that was the chatter. “Oh, they could sit every other seat. They could sit with a mask on.” But nobody was coming up with a solution for the singers who were singing in each other’s faces; for the dressers and the crew who are six inches apart, forget six feet apart. I did feel like Broadway wasn’t going to come back for a long time. I didn’t know what it was going to take to come back, because there were no obvious solutions for that part. I didn’t think it was going to come back in September, and honestly even January. Because those are the big two slumps. Thinking ahead, I was like, “Maybe next spring,” which is kind of where we are now. But I didn’t think Broadway was going to come back, by any stretch of the imagination. It was really sad.

What precautions have you discussed or heard discussed in regards to innovative ways to come back to safe rehearsals and performances? How do you think this will make your job different when you return?

So, my feeling about this is that in the beginning, the fear was that all of these protocols were going to fall to the stage managers. “Are the stage managers going to be taking temperatures?” “Am I going to be responsible for wiping things down?” That was the chatter among the stage managers. “How does this fall on the stage managers?” We can’t be a health person. This doesn’t make sense.” I’m glad to hear that there is a COVID Compliance Officer position, that I will talk more to: In TV and Film, that is already being implemented in load-outs and load-ins for theaters. So, this is new.

My lifeline to my Stage Management office community is Facebook. I want to hear what the Actors are saying; and I want to hear what my stage manager friends are saying; and I want to hear what my Mom friends are saying. That community that we had in the hallways of theaters is being replicated on Facebook for me. And someone had mentioned this Covid Compliance Officer Certification class that was $50 for two hours, and it was for TV/Film and Music Videos. And I was like “Ok, let me look into this.”

My husband works in TV and Film. Early in my career, I worked on two films but just decided it wasn’t for me. “Let me take this class and educate myself on the virus and how to manage my family and my life with this virus in our world.”. So, I took the course. It’s two hours. You take a quiz at the end, and they put you on a list of Covid Compliance Officers in the country. I listed Connecticut as my hometown, and I wanted to work anywhere near my home town. So, I didn’t think much of it. Things are shut down. Nothing’s going to come of it… But then, I got a job offer! And I thought, “Oh no, I have to fake it ‘til I make it now!” So, I’m googling my brains out! And they offer a lot of resources and crash course, preparing yourself for this job-- and talking to Butch, my husband, asking him advice. And talking about what my day-rate should be; what my kit should look like; and what I should ask for. It happened to be a photo shoot outside, which I felt good about, in regards to being safe from the virus. It was a 15-person crew. All things that were manageable to me- about 45 minutes outside our home. As I prepared, I realized, “Oh I do have transferrable skills.” It was scary as crap-- I don’t think I slept the night before. I had imposter syndrome-- totally terrified--but it worked out!

I’ve done four jobs now. Photo shoots, a reality TV show, an ad campaign for Avocados from Mexico! It’s kind of bananas, but I’m taking solace in the fact that it’s a new position. And there’s new information every single day, and there are more certifications and classes I can take to make myself better in this position. And because I’m in Connecticut, I am an anomaly. There’s work here, but not a lot of people that are certified. So, I can sleep in my own bed; go to a job. Even if it’s a 12-15-hour day, I still start at home and come home at the end of the day. Whereas, my husband, when TV and Film starts up, he’ll have to be in New York. I’m thankful for the work right now. It has definitely been a life-line.

Going forward, I would say a Covid Compliance Officer would be a part of our staff in theatre, and that position would work closely with the stage managers, but Covid Compliance would not be a part of a stage manager’s responsibilities.

The thing that was so surprising to me on the first job, even though I was scared to death on the inside-- I was so thrilled to be around creative people again. It was just Models and a Photographer and his crew. I was like, this is what I’ve been missing! Just to be able to be with crew members. They’re different in TV and Film than they are in Theatre, but they were all working towards a common goal that day. That was a nice feeling.

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

So, personally, I turn to my daughters. My daughters have really helped me stay in the moment, to stay present, and stay positive. Because they’re 10 and 12, and this is their childhood. And as much as I might be scared and anxious on the inside and am definitely suffering insomnia and that kind of stuff, I look towards my kids as the reason I’ve stayed sane. Especially during the summer when the weather was nicer. When it was too much, I would say, “Ok, guys. Let’s get our bikes and go outside.” It’s one thing we can do.

I would say my children and nature. Doing house projects with my husband. I don’t know when we’ve had this much time together. And being able to have a beautiful garden for the entire summer where we grew our vegetables. So those things that are normal have helped me stay sane. And being mask-less, because we’re in a small town in Connecticut, has really been helpful. We have friends with a pool; we have friends with a lake house… An embarrassment of riches. We’ve been very lucky through this time. Hopefully, my daughters will write their memoirs: “This is what we did when the pandemic happened.” And I can look back just so thankful, even though it was very scary. It still is, since we don’t know what’s happening. But I would say nature and my children and space. Being able to come to Connecticut has helped me stay sane during this time.

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

I think the hardest thing for me is I miss my friends. I miss people. I know that’s probably been said a lot, but when I’m home, I’m Mom and Wife, and I’m doing those jobs to the best of my ability, but I am not filling my own cups. And I know that that’s something I work out in therapy, and have been for years. But when I was able to drop the girls off and go have coffee with a friend; that was filling my cups. And trying my hardest to schedule phone calls with my friends during the pandemic, but it’s just not the same as walking down the street or sitting across the table from them, having a cup of coffee. Even though this is our home; we raised our girls in New York. I’m missing that community. New York was mine. Broadway was mine. I’m mourning that loss for sure. Trying to create my own identity here. I volunteered at the Farmer’s Market to have one thing that’s mine. What’s the one thing that I do? Every Sunday morning, I get up and go volunteer at the Farmer’s Market. That’s my thing.

You lose a part of your identity. I had an identity there that I feel like I don’t have here. It didn’t just provide a paycheck; it’s a community. I don’t think anyone on Broadway would say, “My job only provided a paycheck.” It provided so much more.

What is your biggest worry right now?

What’s my next career? Not just job. But what’s my next chapter? Because when this pandemic hit, I was taking a ton of classes at the Actors’ Fund. And because we’re here in Connecticut, and the girls were doing remote learning, I was in my office, going to Zoom classes with the Actors’ Fund and learning how to rewrite my resume and use Linkedin and how to transition from being a stage manager to something else. And now I wonder, is this time an opportunity to find something else or is this time just to survive?

I see friends getting their real estate license and their yoga certification, and I think, is that their next career or are they doing this for now? And, they’re going to go back to Broadway when they can? That’s where I struggle. I was thinking I would get a certification in Project Management. That’s where I would use my transferable skills. But how do I carve out that time and get that certification, so that when we are back to work, I have my next career? We have young kids that we have to put through college. And along those lines, do I want to go back to theatre with these new guidelines and this new way of doing things?

I am taking my time to educate myself on racial relations and equality, and I’m not saying we’re going to go back to normal, because that is not what our industry needs. We need to go back; moving forward, and informed and inclusive. And I support all of that 100 percent, and I’m excited about that. But the virus part and what will fall to stage managers-- I’m like, “How will that effect our work?” I’m not so sure.

What do you miss the most about theatre/your job/the arts?

I love the community of it and the problem solving. And the creativity. I miss the community. I miss talking in our offices together. I think theatre people are the smartest, funniest people I’ve ever met in my life. And I miss them so much. Just the strange things that people come in with, “Hey, I did this today.” “Have you guys heard about this show?” Those kinds of things. That’s what I miss. I miss our community and the smart, funny people.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

This is hard! I was thinking about Billy Elliot, and I was thinking about one of my vivid memories was when I was calling the show for the first time, and it was Dancing Dresses. A really difficult part of the show to call. This was when my younger daughter was born. She was three-months-old. I was probably getting two to three hours of sleep a night, and I was learning to call Billy Elliot, which was one of the hardest shows I learned to call besides Miss Saigon. Technically, it was just a difficult show, lots of moving parts. One of the other stage managers was down on the deck, and I called that sequence well. And she yelled up the deck, “You’re my hero!” and I still remember that. I was filled with joy! I had a newborn at home, a two-year-old at home; I had only slept a few hours. And I did it! And to get that affirmation from such a fabulous stage manager who had been with the show from the beginning was just a precious memory.

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

I am very excited to go see a show with my friend Ann who is a super fan. I look forward to taking my daughters to a show. I didn’t realize how much they were Broadway kids. I cannot wait to hear that downbeat. The anticipation of those shows is going to be explosive, and I just cannot wait!

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

I’ve never really been an academic stage manager. As I watch these younger stage managers come up, there’s a lot of taking seminars and learning things through classes… Where I feel like I learned so much by doing and watching female mentors that I watched in action. And I feel like that has served the way I work, which is more organically. Right now, the hopefuls can do the seminars and classes and arm themselves, but when they can, they go out there and do it and not study it. Even if it’s a small production in your home town in your church basement. Or a group of friends… But to go out there and experience problem-solving in real time and not on paper. And all kinds of varied experiences, whether it’s a black box or concert, outdoor opera…. Keep exposing yourself, and you will find your jam. Your joy. And I think stage managers who find that joy; what speaks to them, have less chance of burnout and a much longer career, because it’s feeding you back.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical Miss Saigon

Favorite Broadway Play Love! Valour! Compassion!

Favorite Movie Musical West Side Story

Favorite Theatre Tradition Everyone handing out notes and gifts on opening night.

Favorite NYC Restaurant Nizza

Favorite Theatre Superstition No whistling backstage.

Favorite Stage Manager Gadget (glow tape, spike tape etc.) Small paper cutter for the in/out.

Best Personal Superhero Stage Manager Skill

I have to reflect back to Bonnie Becker; she is so good at so many things. She is a great listener, and she garners respect from everyone in the building, which I am in awe of. And because she cultivated that relationship with everyone in the building, no one feels like they want to pull one over on her. She has a way of running a building. She garners respect of the cast and the crew and does it with strength and grace and humor. My favorite Stage Manager Super Hero skill is all those things, and she’s my favorite Stage Manager Super Hero.

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