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  • Natalie Wisdom

F. Michael Haynie, Broadway Actor/Musician.

[Interview Date: October 28, 2020]

Olaf in the National Tour of Frozen, Wicked, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

Can you describe what it was like to find out that your tour was being put on pause? What was the week leading up to March 12th, 2020 like for you?

So, the week leading up was a bad week at the show. We had just gotten to Portland. Everyone was getting sick, and we were like, “Is it? Is it not?” We’d had a meeting in Seattle that was like, “This thing is coming.” “Are we going to have to cancel a show?”

In my career, I only had one show canceled ever. It was Sandy, I think. I was in Wicked, and we lost a Tuesday night show. But then we were back for the Wednesday show. The idea of canceling a show—I was like, “It’s never going to happen.” There was a lot of stress in the company. We were supposed to do Broadway Cares, and then we canceled it. We were all worried, trying to figure out what’s going on. Trying to adjust. Timeline-wise, we were hitting an amount of time where no one had taken a break, and no one had taken a vacation. The ‘new’ had rubbed off. We had moved cities a couple times. I remember, we went home that Wednesday, and me and my roommate were like,” I think that’s it. I think that’s our last Frozen here.” And we got an alert; I saw on NBC or something like that—the Governor of Portland called it. And I was like, “It doesn’t matter what Company Management said, that’s the Governor.”

We stayed up, trying to figure out what we were going to do. The next day, I went to the Starbucks by the theater, and the person working there was like, “Are you ok?” and I was like, “I think I lost my job.” And they were like, “We’ll get your coffee.” Literally, the last Starbucks I went to was that, because then for a long time, I didn’t leave my house. I think the feeling of us sitting in that room and finding out that—our Company Management probably didn’t sleep that night. Seeing them so emotional and exhausted and knowing that hell was coming for them—trying to schedule flights—"you can leave tonight, tomorrow morning.” Dressing rooms; trunks packed in the next four hours... It was terrifying. My first thought was, “I gotta make everybody feel better.” Trying to make sure the kids weren’t freaking out… Our drummer stood up and was like, “That’s it, guys. I was only here through Portland.” And I was like “Haaaapp—,” and we sang "Happy Trails." And that was the last time we sang together, as a group.

How did the pause of Frozen affect your plans? What decisions have you made as a direct result of the pandemic?

My initial plans were the idea that my apartment was being sublet, and I wasn’t planning on being back there until November. So, originally, it was like treading water. I had never been to Portland in my life. Went there in February, wound up staying there until almost the end of May. I lived in Portland. Loved Portland. I just never thought I’d live there—definitely not under those circumstances, in a weird Airbnb.

I also decided to drive cross-country, because I knew we had more time. My timing was hilarious. We were still slated for September, and I thought, “It is going to be responsible to go stay with my moms. I had two more days of driving, and I got a phone call from a friend and they went, “I want you to hear it from me; that the Broadway show is closing.” (Frozen) I was like, “What’s gonna happen?” Then, we had that email saying, “We’ve announced this, but we want to talk to you all on Monday.” I was supposed to get to Georgia on Sunday. And I remember sitting there on that Monday, and they said, “January.” I had just gotten to Georgia. I just sat there with my face in my hands.

I had a plan. I had stayed in Portland, and then everybody in my apartment was staying and I didn’t want to come back yet. And then, I was thinking, “I’ll stay over the summer with my moms. It will be great.” And then it was January. So, trying to figure out what that plan was, was a nightmare. And it got pushed to March, and I was like, “Ok, I want to go home.” So, I decided to drive back up here and live here for a little bit. We’re on lease until September, and plan-wise, I’m here, and I’m going to try to do stuff. TV shows are coming back; I’m going to try to hustle and talk to my agents. I want the work, and the less of my savings I can cannibalize the better. The hardest is the long-term plans. And, so, I was like, “I’ll be done in November, and if they ask me to join the New York company, I would love to work with a new company, and work with different actors. I love working with different actors. I thought that I would want to move on, find the next thing and the next job. Now that’s changed for so many people. The ten-year plan for actors has changed. All of the rules that we had about how your career works is going to be different.

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

No. I had people tell me they didn’t think we’d be back until next year, but I was like, “You’re wrong.” I thought about it scientifically, and I thought about it practically. And I was like, “Ok, we have eradicated small pox in the world. Once nobody has it, no one can get it… because no one has it.” Obviously with this, we were learning about it. We didn’t understand it.

Once we decided quarantine was a thing, I didn’t leave my house. I went to the store every now and then with some people. I was still seeing a good friend of mine in Portland, but we talked honest about every bubble. And I thought, “If we all sit still, and we don’t do anything for a month, it’s gone…It’s good.”

What I didn’t anticipate was that people in this world would somehow make this a thing. It blows my mind. Not to get political, but I can’t imagine this being bungled up more. People being like, “It’s my freedom, it’s my body.” And I’m all for the freedom of a body. But if you’re telling me it’s your right to not wear a mask. But it’s not though. It’s not that bad. Sure, it’s annoying. I bet in the summer in New York, it sucked. And I bet that for people that are claustrophobic, there would be a strange feeling. I bet that suddenly having to have the financial burden of having to have masks is hard… but when the alternative is that this lasts longer and people die—that’s what I couldn’t imagine. That it would last this long.

In theory, we imagined it was worse, like zombie apocalypse. My mom would leave her mail out for days because she didn’t want to touch it. I just can’t imagine what would happen if everyone didn’t suck for two weeks. When you see the numbers come out that were like, “If 95 percent of people wore masks, we would save nearly 100,000 lives before January 2021.” It seems insane to not wear a mask. Now I’m getting angry; I’m starting to take it more personally. When I was in my hometown, I was embarrassed. I was like, “When you don’t take it seriously, you are costing me my livelihood, and my friends’ livelihoods.” That’s what I couldn’t imagine. I couldn’t imagine that it would last this long for this reason. It’s heart-breaking.

What have you been doing over the past several months to stay sane?

I am insane, so…I’ve been trying and really failing. Depression is an evil monster to people who have it. And I think during this time, all of my self-destructive hyper-critical things that help me work as an actor—when I don’t have new material to beat that monster of the thing. That I work hard, because I need to work hard. So, not having that kind of material has been really challenging. As an actor who has had to learn to be extroverted—I even changed my name when I got to college to create a different personality who was someone who could do this and not someone who sits at home. So, my introvert has been fed in alone time but has not been able to get any solace or contentment. That has been challenging. I left my house in Georgia maybe ten/fifteen times since May. I just didn’t leave. I didn’t see human beings. My mom would just go to the store for me, which was really kind. And my moms are both school teachers, so they put on masks when they started going back to school.

And I hid. I was scared of Georgia. Scared of going outside. One time I got a little sick. I don’t know what it was, but I had panic attacks for four days straight. I was crying, because I knew I had it, and I knew I was going to die. It seemed like it could happen to anybody. It was stuff like that, that I wish I had been smarter and been more open with sharing that kind of fear with other people. I have friends who say, “Every time I have a glass of wine with dinner and wake up with a head ache, I think I’m going to die”. Playing the game, ‘is it a hangover or Coronavirus’? It’s very real. I think a lot of that has been really hard. So, coming back to New York and making a list, and going against my instincts and talking to people, reaching out, and saying yes when people say, “Let’s talk”, and even leaving my house and seeing other people doing it has been amazing in New York. I’ve been physically alone this whole time. I think realizing, in the best way—during this time, to stay sane; I have had to figure out that I am not special. What I’m feeling is not unique, and what I’m feeling is the human condition right now, and I shouldn’t be embarrassed about it.

In addition to being an actor, you are also a musician and songwriter. How would you say the pandemic has affected your music? Have you felt it has helped you? Has the feel or style of your music shifted during this time?

I have written one song. It’s one of the songs I’m recording right now. It’s been hard. I think art is goal-oriented. So, the idea of writing a song—for what? The idea of writing a new song; I can get on board to write if I have a concert coming up, if I have a gig. I’m practicing, doing songs that I’ve already written; covers that I want to do, and then I’ll go “what is this”? And I’ll sit at the piano. Every time I would do shows and rehearsals, I would sneak away and duck in a rehearsal room and play for ten to fifteen minutes. That accidental time of coming home from something and being so inspired… I used to do concerts every week. 54 Below stuff. Singing people’s different music, singing pop songs, I would sing karaoke. And I would get home sometimes, and it would be bubbling up and I would be like, “Just go! Just write!” I haven’t tried to write.

I’m a big video-gamer, what I’m able to do is get into a video game. I can immerse myself in this world; I can get into a video game and get into this amazing narrative. I’ll play to a point, but then I’ll be like, “I don’t want to play right now. I’m bored.” And when I get bored of things that are fun is when I light on fire and start working. And work becomes easy, because the play isn’t as satisfying as doing the work. My goal in life is doing the work. I love rehearsal. I love developing stuff, working as a group. I love working in a giving way. I like to write something that I consider theirs. Maybe I wrote a song for them using their words, but that’s not how I look at it. It’s why in this entire pandemic, I have 120-something page script with a full score that I’ve written, but I’m scared to touch it. I just feel this is the time to make demos and do stuff like that. I love to collaborate. I think what I’m going to have to do is reach out. As artists, we want that collaborative feeling, and I need to be brave and get out of my own head and out of my own way, and reach out. Because I can’t be the only one who feels this way.

What has been the most challenging thing about the past months since the shutdown began?

Not having a distraction. The way my brain works, the chemicals, and all the science of that…The things that I think make acting a positive profession for me; the things that I think lend me to be a good actor—just, emotional presence, reacting, listening, learning, all those things that I love doing, and the structure of theatre. I think missing that has been so challenging. I imagine—it’s like my mental gym. I imagine it’s the same way for a dancer right now. If you dance because you’re bad at working out, and it helps you keep in shape and love yourself. Acting helps me exercise my own demons and insecurities. It’s not about getting the jobs. Going to an audition and feeling like, “I did that… I prepped that material. I came in, and I crushed. I did what I wanted to do.” They might hate me or think I’m not right for the job, but I did that. Good heart, good mind, good soul. I think not having that has been really challenging.

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

I think, personally, the positives—I don’t think I’ll see until the end; the other side. But globally and structurally, I think the number of people in this business in the arts, in general, who have been able to say, “I’m running full speed… Yeah, I see all these things that are wrong with the thing that we’re doing, but I’m not going to stop and fix them as I go down the road.” About inclusion and representation. Right now, we as a society, are having a chance to really assess. Having people feel free to come out and tell their stories, without the fear of repercussions right away. I think that’s one of the positives. We are a business that’s never stopped. But I think coming out of this, we’ve gotta find the art that is worth coming back for. I hope one of the positives is that there are voices being heard; that those hiring practices that have to resume will be able to start with that. I hope that when people come back, they will feel more comfortable, and producers and directors will be more open. I hope that we can, as a community, help people that need to stand up to material that is racist or sexist.

What is your biggest worry right now?

My biggest worry is that people will take advantage of the weakness that we will all have after this and will use it against us in the way that they have always used it against us. The things we’re going to have to say yes to. If a show came to me and said, “We need you to do this. Here’s the dollars and here’s the situation,” I’m going to be scared to ask (for more).” I’m so afraid that producers will continue to do the thing that, as a business, makes sense. But I’m worried our union isn’t going to be able to help us. Because they have been losing these battles without the pandemic, so that is my deepest, darkest fear. I hope that I’m wrong.

What do you miss the most about performing in Frozen?

People. I miss people. I miss the way that I would come down—because I’m not in the show for the first half of it-I would come down and watch almost everybody’s first show on. I didn’t even have to be dressed! I could still be in my street clothes! I remember almost every principal’s first show on. All these things. Like, I wept every time. I get to see this person do this thing, and I miss that. I miss the people. Audiences are cool, but getting to look into people’s eyes. Getting to be onstage and share that energy with people. That’s why I love Theatre-and TV and Film less. People.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

I will say that one of my favorite theatre memories was my Broadway debut, because I couldn’t imagine what that was going to be. I had done a couple shows that were like, “We’re going to Broadway!” And every time… hit and hit. And I remember going, “This is going to be the most incredible night of my life.” And I got there, and one of the principal’s had called out. It was just a Tuesday for everybody at the theatre. A lot of people had come to do my Put-In, but people wanted to call out, because it was a Tuesday. And some people had been there for ten years. There was a vacation swing who came in and introduced himself to me at Places. I’d opened and closed every show I’d done, so I realized it was just a Tuesday.

In the crowd, they wanted to hear the green girl sing the songs and didn’t care how I played Boq. But then, there was one row of people that was one of my best friends in the whole world who had played the part for two years, and then two of my other best friends, and I got tickets for them. My brother and sister-in-law were there. My mom was there, who was my theatre teacher. My other mom who was my band director… That row of people; it was very special for them, but for everybody else, it was just a Tuesday. And there’s a part of me that loves that. Knowing that what we do for people is to help them to not think about what we’re doing. We’re just doing our jobs. I think that memory encapsulates that. Theatre people are so resilient.

What is the thing you’re most excited to do when live theatre is back?

The work. I want to do the work. I love creating, I want to do that the rest of my life. I want to ruin someone’s theatre experience by dying during a show. That’s how I want to go out.

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

You’ve gotta work on your instrument. I never realized it when I was a kid. I’ve been different sizes in my life, and they weren’t healthy. I’ve not taken care of my voice at different times; I’ve not taken care of my brain, my body in general. I have a bad knee, injuries I have from doing party tricks, stunts. I don’t know how to warm up, to this day. And it’s a nightmare. When it works, it works, when it doesn’t…I think when you’re a kid, you’re willing to run in here and do a jump split and crush yourself. Singers do the same thing. It’s full-out every time. I think taking care of your instrument, as a human, is incredible. You get told, as a kid, “you can do anything if you try.” And I think that’s the worst advice you can give, because actually learning your limitations is a huge part of humanity. Because you know when you need help, and you know how to help someone else. Also, learn what you want to say no to.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: Into the Woods and Sweeney Todd

Favorite role you’ve played: Quasimodo. No question.

Dream Role: It’s a new role. I love developing new stuff.

Favorite Musical Instrument: Cello

Musical Instrument you wish you played but don’t yet: Cello. I think drum kit too.

Favorite Broadway Theatre Ritual or Tradition: Happy Trails. I had never heard of it until I did Wicked, and then you sing it every week.

Favorite city on tour: I really like Seattle.

Favorite Theatre Superstition: Anytime Equity members can induct a new member into Equity and convince them that there are weird traditions. I did Band Geeks at Goodspeed Opera House. It was a great group of people. We had three kids who were getting their Equity cards, and we made them light sparklers and do a lap around the theatre. And had a candle-lit séance where they had to be welcomed in!

Favorite Dressing Room Item: In Frozen, it was a basketball hoop, because people would come by and play basketball. I love having video games, because it lets me center and have a thing to do.

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