• Natalie Wisdom

Gregory Jbara, Tony-Award Winning Broadway, TV/Film Actor.

[Interview Date: December 7, 2020]

Film/TV: Blue Bloods, American Dad, Nurse Jackie and more.

Broadway: Billy Elliot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Chicago and more.

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

I was home in Los Angeles despite my TV job shooting in New York. Before Covid, my work habit was, be in New York for five to ten days, shoot two episodes, fly home for two weeks. I’d been repeating that cycle eleven times a year for almost ten years.

March 13th, I received a production office email saying, “We’re done. We’re shutting down. We’ll keep you all in the loop and let you know. Greg, you won’t be flying out next week.” I assumed, like we all did, “Ok, it’s going to be a month or so of ‘unknown’, and then, we’ll sort it all out.” Our Executive Producers were making every effort to keep everyone in the loop, early on. Later on, the e-mails became few and far between.

My wife Julie and I realized, “Ok…might be time to tighten the belt. Three episodes of work we were counting on that ‘went away,' with no official restart date…won’t be planning vacations anytime soon…Lord only knows where our next dollar is coming from.” Luckily, Julie is very frugal. We were able to weather the storm, thanks to her financial savvy. We were very fortunate in that respect.

How long was the break for Blue Bloods?

It was six months of not knowing, and then, everything moved really fast. October 4th is when I came back to work. It wasn’t official until two weeks before that. In mid-September, they were saying, “We have your flight booked, but we’re sorting out the Covid-testing regimen and people traveling.”

Did you think the break would be that long?

Surely, not initially. No. But after a month or two, Julie and I started seriously looking at our world, wondering, “Alright, what do we do?”

What has this time been like for you, as a family?

We were lucky to have children that were the ages they were. Zach is in college in Prescott, Arizona, a state in COVID-denial for the first couple months. They don’t have the same protocols that California does. Zach was already planning to move out of the dorm into his own apartment to go to school year-round to get his degree faster. So, he just lucked out. Timing was ideal. He was able to stay in school. Never broke stride. Classes online were immediate, and the flight line at EMBRY-RIDDLE never closed down. (Zach is getting his Bachelors in Aeronautical Science as a commercial pilot.)

For our tenth grader Aidan, it was equally convenient. He loved that he didn’t have to leave the house for school. At first, it was novel that the same video system he blew people up on, is now the same one where he is taking class.

Julie loves being a Baseball Mom. She wasn’t going to let Covid get in the way of Aidan’s College Baseball prospects. He’s just hoping to pay for college with a Baseball scholarship. And that may change, but he loves the game. It’s like we have a 16-year-old Doberman who needs to be run every day. But the baseball fields (Dog runs), are all closed.

Julie submitted some of his scouting footage and found him a travel team in Georgia! So, we packed two cars with everything and drove to Georgia. Spent two months in Marietta, because their Covid rules were a little less strict. Some ball fields allowed only one parent per player to sit in the stands. There were never more than 30 spectators in the entire baseball stadium, other than ball players. But he got to keep playing, which was the goal.

The drive on Interstate 10 from California to Georgia was terrifying. The disparity of how people dealt with COVID from county to county and state to state was jaw dropping. Frustratingly, most behaved as if there was no pandemic at all!

We had two months in sunny, beautiful, healing Georgia, and we got to be around Julie’s family, whom we love and adore. Julie seduced me with, “Let’s do this. And Greg, if we do this, you get to drive to Florida for the SpaceX Crew Dragon launch!” And I was like, “Oh, you’re good.” So, I took a day trip and witnessed my first Kennedy Space Launch, which was lifechanging! I also drove up I-75 to see my Mom and brother in Michigan. Was reminded how much I love road-trips. When you’re in a comfortable car and you’ve got your own music, with the Car-play, you can talk to people all day long, looking at beautiful scenery…it’s heaven!

And the other bonus was, we could do it, because we took two cars! Also, I had racked up so many points, staying at The Edition Hotel in New York City (Thank you, CBS!) every time for the last ten years. I have, like, “Demi-God” status at Marriott Bonvoy with all these points I was never going to use. So, we burned them on staying at the hotels that have kitchens in them. We’re all on this new food regimen and it’s Covid, so we’re not going to be dining out.

Aidan’s Driver’s Ed test got canceled at the beginning of the pandemic lockdown. When the California DMV reopened, they rescheduled his appointment to a date in July which determined when we were leaving Georgia to come back home. He passed his Driver’s test and now is completely independent!

When we got back from Georgia, every other weekend, we were driving to Phoenix, Arizona for Aidan to play ball on a travel team there.

Julie convinced me to design and build a batting cage in the driveway. We didn’t know how much longer Aidan could get away with playing travel-ball, and he needed to keep up his pitching and batting. So, I built a rigid-net batting cage. Designed the netting and had it woven by a company in Georgia, designed the steel supports, hired a welder, did all the ABS framing, designed and rigged all the cable support harnesses myself. Our house wall and windows are 8 inches-max from the net, and the ball doesn’t hit them. Then my wife says, “They better let you come home for Christmas, because we need a pitching mound.” So, that’s on my ‘honey-do’ list when we get back.

Baseball kept us all sane. It gave us focus. We were doing it for Aidan…and ourselves. When we would go to the games in Phoenix, Zach would drive down from Prescott, and we’d all have dinner together!

Julie still has her Life Coach Health Practitioner business. She let go of her lease, because it’s all by phone now. It was just a whole bunch of things. We just lucked out; all that not knowing if I would have a job to go back to.

What have you been doing over the past several months or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?

Having our youngest son to focus on. And Zach, who is in Prescott, AZ. And having Video Chat. Zoom, Skype and FaceTime. We had scheduled chats with my side of the family every Friday. Nobody was ever alone if they didn’t want to be, thanks to the technology.

The other thing was, I stumbled into a relationship with the Emergency Medicine Foundation and the America College for Emergency Doctors. In the very early days of the pandemic, a music video was produced as an anthem supporting medical emergency workers. A song from a musical whose workshop got COVID-cancelled. I sang in the video, and then they reached out, “Would I be willing to be the face of their virtual auction?” And I was like, “Yeah, I’m not doing ANYTHING.” Normally, I’d be going to the National Conventions for the FBI Law Enforcement Education division and National Police Week in D.C. Reminding the officers who do good, that they’re still great…to not give up. Because of my role on Blue Bloods, I do a lot of law enforcement advocating. But with COVID, all that in-person cheerleading went away. Helping to produce and host this auction filled a void.

Following the success of their virtual auction, the emergency medical folks wanted to throw a virtual Cocktail Reception for all the big donors. I reached out to every celebrity I knew, making it hard to say “no” to recording a brief “Thank You” video for the virtual event. The pitch was, “Here’s twenty-five choices of quick copy, pick one and just record it. You don’t have to be dressed. You don’t have to be bathed. Just take the time to say, ‘Hey, thanks.’” So, I produced this show that included performances from Andre DeShields, Seth Rudetsky, Will Chase among others. With contributions from Jonathon Price, Lucy Arnaz, Victor Garber, Santino Fontana to name a very few. The project gave me a much-needed sense of purpose and reminded how generous our acting community can be.

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

I lost my Godmother, my mom’s older sister. With Parkinson’s and unable to care for herself, the COVID isolation in the nursing home was kind of the last straw. She stopped eating…surrendered.

Same thing happened with my brother, Dan. He was battling other issues, but I think the COVID lockdown was the final blow for him as well.

What has it been like to be on set, shooting a TV show during this time? Have there been any noticeable changes as a direct result of the pandemic?

It’s like shooting in an infectious disease laboratory now. My first day back, I had a whole new appreciation for my responsibility to the cast and crew. Because if I get sick, it takes me out for two weeks, and that affects everyone’s employment. So, that was like, “Holy crap, this is big.” There was tension in the workplace, because everyone wanted to do it right, and no one wanted to make a mistake. There was tremendous care on the part of our Union, SAG-AFTRA, and Viacom CBS to establish rules on how we will proceed safely to be able to shoot a TV show and minimize the risk of it becoming a pandemic within the microcosm of the show.

There are different tiers of work-related contact in the show. There’s a yellow pod, which is: all actors, the director, the first A.D., the heads of each department, and the hair and makeup artists. All those people have to test, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. (They) fill out an online questionnaire and have their temp taken every single day that they work. And the majority of those people are working Monday through Friday, so we have our own Medical Clinic for testing, just for Blue Bloods. Two trailers; one for registration, one for testing. You fill out a form, and they swab your nose, and you’re out. It’s all kept on-record. There’s a whole Covid department at CBS Viacom. So, if someone does test positive, they have the protocol.

Which happened on the first Thursday that we were about to start shooting. The first A.D. said, “All actors need to go back to your dressing rooms.” Then two hours later, we were told we could resume. They were like, “Well, we had a false positive.” They had to isolate every potential contact. And then, they had to test again over a two-hour period. They did fast tests to confirm that it was a false positive. Instead of shutting the show down, we paused for only two hours. And I thought that was an impressive fix.

The other thing was, there used to be three cameras, with three crew members on each camera shooting in the very close-quartered Commissioner’s office set on Stage 8. Now, we have two cameras, and they’re both robotic. So, the people that were on those cameras now work remotely from a different room. Unfortunately, three jobs have gone away. They still have that crew for shooting on-location, because you can have three cameras with outdoor spacing. But it’s a little weird with only the actors on the soundstage set. Except for the poor boom guy who looks like he’s in an Emergency Room- in the movie Contagion, in a space suit, holding the boom mike. He’s the only other person in the room besides the on-camera actors, who must wear paper masks right up until they call “Action!”. And then, the mask comes off; we put them in our pocket. We shoot the scene, they yell cut; the masks go back on.

But the social life at work is gone, I never SEE the crew members, let alone come in contact with them. They put new doorways into the sound stages and changed the traffic layout coming in and out the building. We used to share the building with the show, FBI, and our soundstage at the ground level used to dove-tail into the dressing rooms. They put in a hard wall, and they are completely separate now. So, a lot of money was spent rebuilding the sound stages, changing the air filtration systems. The actors now travel in the "yellow pod” zone. Actors come and go through those designated “yellow pod” doors, and the crew enter and exit the sound stages through their dedicated “red pod” doors. It’s different. It’s a longer day. The directors have to be a lot more on-top of what shots they want. Because they have one less camera to work with. And every time you move those robots, the operators have to see what’s all around them using an overhead surveillance camera, so they don’t run into a desk, chair, table, or person. It’s a whole other, slow-moving complexity.

However, we all have a job…which is a miracle. To be able to pay my bills is a tremendous gift. But a lot of the joy of it is gone, because you can feel the isolation.

What do you miss the most about live theatre?

As an audience member, I miss how easily I am taken away and transported to a world outside of my own. As an actor, I miss the gratification of being an integral part of storytelling, eight times a week. The immediate, visceral gratification of being a successful storyteller. Because you don’t get that in film work. You don’t hear the laughs; you don’t experience the painful silence the audience is feeling. And then, whatever work you do as an actor on film is often manipulated, edited, or completely cut.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

I have many. The first Broadway show that I saw, in person, ON Broadway was Dreamgirls, summer of ’82. It made me miss my sister so much. I was like, “Oh my gosh, I can’t believe I am missing my sister, who I have wanted to kill (or she kill me) my entire childhood.” I loved that a live theatre experience could help me appreciate my sister.

My mom bought us the cast recording of A Chorus Line. It was the first musical theatre album that we ever had, and it was Mom who bought it. And it might have been a Christmas gift, and I remember (listening to) it, every waking moment.

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

To just go get my butt in a seat would be wonderful. Then, hopefully when my kids are out of the house, to come back and be a part of it again! I’m actually, currently, dealing with survivor’s guilt. I could have easily been in a Broadway show when the pandemic hit. I didn’t realize how devastated NYC was till my first day back in October. All the shuttered hotels and iconic restaurants- gone. Homeless individuals meandering right down the middle of Manhattan streets. Post-apocalyptic.

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

You would be foolish not to use this opportunity to learn how to present yourself well, using digital media. I am biased, but as an example, the University of Michigan, School of Music reinvented how they do performances, using digital media. They’re doing live performances and concerts while using safety protocols. They’re figuring out a way to make all that happen. This is the time to do this- see if you can work out a way to be really successful, since this is probably going to be the norm for a while. Actors are going to have fewer opportunities to be winning in the room, so they will have to be winning in front of a green screen. I wouldn’t give up. The reality is, there will always be a need for live performance.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical Billy Elliot

Favorite Broadway Play Pillowman/The Inheritance

Favorite role you’ve played Dad in Billy Elliot

Favorite Movie Musical West Side Story/Oliver!

Favorite Broadway Theatre Ritual and/or Tradition The ritual was family dinner, two-show Saturdays, upstairs at Sardi’s. And Sunday, after the matinee, at Rosa Mexicana at Lincoln Center.

Favorite NYC Restaurant Sardi’s.

Favorite Theatre Superstion I do practice not mentioning the Scottish play.

Favorite Dressing Room Item Personal toilet and shower.

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