Charlie Underhill, Broadway Stage Manager.
[Interview Date: December 2, 2020]
Billy Elliot, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Something Rotten, Frozen and more.
What was the atmosphere of the St. James like on March 12, 2020, the day Broadway shut down? And what was the week leading up to it like?
We had just put in all of the tour changes into the show (at Frozen), and we had just put in several new principal cast members. So, we had just gone through two weeks of tech, and the last stage manager was learning to call the revised production. So, we had come through a period of so much work, and then there was all the talk about the virus. And they’re like, “Oh my gosh, there’s going to be a pandemic!” All of this was happening at the same time; there was so much going on. It was hard to focus just on the pandemic.
I remember Jujamcyn having a meeting with us. They said, “We’re going to stop autographs at the stage door. We’ll be more diligent about who comes into the building, backstage.” And then, as that week went on, and more things started to shut down… The Met shut down and the NBA shut down. We were in understudy rehearsal, Ashley (the Dance Captain) and I were putting in a new Sven and a new male ensemble member into the show. I remember getting a call from the company manager saying, “It looks like we’re going to be shutting down, but don’t say anything to the cast yet.” Ten minutes later, he called back with the news that we were going to shut down for a month. And I thought, “An entire month? That’s crazy!”
I had to break the news to the cast, and let them know we would be in touch if they wanted to come back and get their personal belongings. The new male ensemble member who had just started (it was his Broadway debut) broke down into tears. It was really heart-breaking. We all departed with a, “we’ll see you in a month!” It was crazy.
Did you anticipate Broadway and other theatre productions to be closed for this long?
No, I had no idea that it would be this long. I thought maybe it’s going to be longer than a month, depending on how it goes. But never, in my wildest dreams, did I think it would go on more than a year. And none of us thought, in our wildest dreams, it would close our show. Our first reaction was, “Thank God we’re working on this show. Our jobs will be here when we get back.” And then, it was pretty early on- three months in- that we found out the show was closing. So, it’s been anxiety-inducing ever since; knowing you can’t even look for work. In this limbo of, how are we going to find work? There isn’t much development happening right now.
As a Stage Manager, what were the biggest challenges for you when you saw things were shutting down?
I was really concerned about the cast and morale. I would text everybody, individually, once a week to check in, see how they were doing, and let them vent. It was easy to feel like you were isolated and alone in this. And when you talk to other people in the industry, you realize, “I’m not the only one who feels this way.” So, that was my big concern; just keeping in contact with everyone and reassuring them that somebody is looking out for them, and someone cares about what’s going on.
Once we received the closing notice, the concern began to shift to: How are we going to load out a show, as far as my part of the load-out, when we hadn’t prepped at all for a load-out? We had stuff everywhere. We went back in the building, and it looked like we had done a show that night. Everything was exactly where it was. It was challenging; but successful.
We didn’t start the load out until the week of July 4th. I had to pack up our office and contact the cast about getting the dressing rooms cleaned out. And then, the crew took over with loading out the physical production and restoring the theater.
What precautions have you discussed or heard discussed in regards to innovating ways to come back to safe rehearsals and performances? How do you think this will make your job different when you return?
I haven’t heard a lot about it, other than rumors of temperature checking everybody; everyone wearing masks, which I think is definitely going to happen. I’ve heard of maybe doing away with paper playbills; switching to digital. I don’t know if that’s true; I think the idea of having inserts might go away, at least temporarily. Like on Frozen, we had a digital board we could update as people called out. I think what they’re trying to avoid, is people touching paper and handing paper to other people.
I’ve also heard that the idea of distancing the audience within the theater will be challenging for Broadway shows, because the costs to operate the shows typically depend on selling at full capacity. It will be interesting to see what happens.
What have, you, personally, been doing over the past year or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
We have done a lot of work on our house. We have spent a lot of time with family; we’ve driven to Florida to see my dad three times. He lives alone. We quarantine and stay in the house with him. It’s been the silver lining of this challenging time. I’ve spent more time with the nieces and nephews than I ever would have. We painted the inside of our entire house. Neither of us likes to paint, so that was a big deal. When we first shut down, it was on a Thursday. And we had two of our best friends from Ohio move to the city the year before Covid. We called them up and said, “Oh my gosh; let’s have a drink with you guys in the city!” It was before they were saying, “Don’t go out.” And they came out (to the house), and they ended up staying for two and a half months! They both still had their jobs, so they would work 9-5. They would go up to the bedrooms. David and I would be hiking or cooking. And we would meet up for cocktails at 5:00 or 6:00. And it was like camping, for the first couple months. That’s what saved us, mentally. We would drive back to the city and pick up our mail… That was a life-saver for us; to be out of the city and be able to do yardwork and hike. Fresh air… It was great.
What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?
Personally, for me, it’s not working. Because I’ve come to find out, I define a lot of who I am by my work, which is maybe not so healthy. And to not have that, has been challenging. It was interesting, because when I went back to work for six weeks for an in-person developmental lab, I was so happy. And when it stopped, I went back into that same depression of, “Oh my gosh, I’m not working again.” It was interesting to go through that a second time. That’s the hardest part: The loss of community; the loss of the job. I love what I do so much. People in other industries were like, “I hate my job so much,” and I felt the opposite. It’s such an outlet for many of us. It’s such a hard void to fill. If I were retiring, it’s something I would work up to. But to quit cold-turkey was very challenging for me.
I’ve been catching up on TV. We still have a group of 15 of us that watch Survivor, so we Zoom once a week to watch Survivor. And now, we watch The Amazing Race. It’s a good group, and we can all laugh, vent, and be with each other.
I’ve taught a couple of Stage Management college courses; I’ve done a couple of Zoom interview sessions with the students. That’s been really interesting, to talk to them during this period of time. I can’t imagine graduating during COVID and seeing that there’s no work. It must be frustrating.
What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time of quarantine?
I think that the main takeaway, for me, is I’ve learned a lot about myself, which is good. And the fact that we have been able to spend so much time with family and friends. It has definitely been the silver lining for both of us.
What’s your favorite theatre memory?
The first show I PSM-ed was Something Rotten, and it was right after I lost my mom. I love that show so much. I was so happy when I made it through the tech process. And I’ll never forget the invited dress rehearsal, and hearing the audience reaction to a couple of those big numbers that were so good. And I was so filled with pride, and wished my mom was there. I just remember sitting at the calling desk and tearing up thinking, “This is why I love theatre. This is what makes it so special.”
Theatre is an escape. I’ve tried to watch some of the online content, and I just don’t get the same feeling as I do, sitting in a theater. And being close to the performers; it’s just something that, at least for me, you can’t replicate.
What is the first thing you’re going to do when theatre is back?
I can’t wait to get back into the room with the actors, the crew and the creative team. When I come back, I don’t know if I’ll be in rehearsals or subbing on a show. I don’t think it will matter. Just doing the job. All of it. There’s not one part of it that I’m not looking forward to.
I was hiking with someone the other day, and I said, “To be on a show for the first two months after reopening is going to be the honeymoon period, when everyone is so thrilled that they have jobs. And loving life.”
What advice do you have for young Broadway/Stage Manager hopefuls during this time?
They should be networking with people in the industry. Many out of work Stage Managers have more time right now and are more open to Zooming or talking on the phone with students that reach out.
Favorite Broadway Musical? Something Rotten, because it’s the first time I PSM-ed. Billy Elliot, because it’s so rewarding to work on that show. Les Miserables because it’s one of my favorite scores. Thoroughly Modern Millie, because it was my first Broadway show to stage manage. Frozen, because it was my first experience with Disney. I was with the show from the first reading, so it was a journey for me. There are so many! I could go on and on!
Favorite Broadway Play? I really loved Angels in America. And Love, Valor, Compassion.
Favorite Movie Musical? Singin in the Rain.
Movie that you think should be a musical Waiting for Guffman
Phantom or Les Miz? Les Miz
Hamilton or In the Heights? Hamilton
Music Man or Oklahoma? Music Man
Rent or rock of ages Rent
Favorite Theatre Ritual? Legacy Robe.
Favorite city on tour? Chicago
Favorite Theatre Superstition? Ghost light
Favorite Stage Manager Gadget (glow tape, spike tape etc) Flashlight
Best Personal Superhero Stage Manager Skill I’m very approachable. I’m a person that people usually feel comfortable coming to with any questions or concerns. I’m also good at reading a room (shout out to Bonnie Becker for teaching me that skill).