• Natalie Wisdom

Jeff Pew and Ashley Elizabeth Hale, Broadway Couple.

[Interview Date: October 26, 2020]

Jeff: Cinderella, Frozen, Radio City Rockettes Christmas Spectacular and more.

Ashley: Matilda, Frozen, and more.

What was your day like the day Broadway shut down?

Jeff: We were in rehearsal-I expected that we would have rehearsal and then have a break, get some food and then come back for a show. I don’t remember if I was supposed to be on that night, but we were in rehearsal. We were teaching Tony, and we had a put-in for Jared scheduled later that day for Hygge. Yeah, it was just a normal day—Things were kind of ramping up with the pandemic, but still at such a stage where I was just like, "Oh, yeah, there’s this crazy virus going around, and there’s a lot of hoop-dee-la about it," but it didn’t really set in. It wasn’t something I was going to work every day or even leaving the apartment every day thinking, "Oh my gosh, what’s gonna happen?"

But that day, when we were there, there started to be all these announcements, and my phone started blowing up. The governor was saying stuff; the mayor was saying stuff; and leading up to that day, other shows were being shut down. Moulin Rouge reported all those cases. So, when we were there, it did start to become more serious. But it still seemed a crazy prospect that we could even get shut down at all.

Ashley: To me, it felt mostly just like any other day. I started the day as I often do, with coffee and listening to the news. We were all waiting to hear plans for our industry and New York City.

I was in rehearsal with our newest cast member, teaching him a new track with the wonderful Assistant Dance Captain, (Jeff Pew) and some fellow swings. The cast were coming in to join the last part of the rehearsal, which ultimately never happened.

Halfway through our rehearsal, my phone started going crazy. Our PSM and Front of House Manager were constantly in and out of the house with a strong sense of purpose, meeting with people, talking on the phone until our PSM came over and said, “I know what’s happening- we are closing for a month.” We were encouraged to collect anything essential and leave as quickly as possible.

It felt strange; not too dramatic, until I saw Tony. He sat on the edge of the stage and cried. He made his Broadway debut in Frozen and had only just joined the company. He was over the moon to be there every day. Brian Steven Shaw and I sat with him and tried to reassure him that it would all be ok. Little did we know. I will always feel bad I promised him we would be back.

In the week prior, I think many of us guessed that as soon as one person in a Broadway house was confirmed as having Coronavirus, Broadway would be shut down. I think Moulin Rouge were the first to find out they had many cases, and then we were all shut down. It could have been any show, and we are such a tight knit community. Once one person has it; it is only a matter of time. We also had discussed that theatre is not the easiest place to distance from people, and our industry may be headed for a slump. I’m not sure any of us saw coming, the epic proportions of the eventuality.

Were there any specific challenges with regards to the abrupt shutdown, including but not limited to anticipation of brush-up rehearsals upon return and/or helping with cast morale etc.?

Ashley: Being Dance Captain, I always feel a huge responsibility because I know everyone so well. I’m a constant in our world; along with Stage Management and the crew. I spend the most time in the theater, and I am used to coming up with a plan for every situation at a moment’s notice. This I could not fix. All I could do was grab my notes, computers, offer positivity to those there and leave. I know the show so well, I knew I could remember everything, and I thought I would have time to perfect my notes on all the recent changes we made to the show when our principals changed over. It’s only a month! Although after the shock wore off, that did not seem possible. I had, however, mapped out in my head and probably written down somewhere, how long we would need to get the show up and running again; remembering some people had only been in the show for two weeks.

Jeff: I wasn’t worried. We have so much information at our disposal. We have maps; we have charts. It’s the same studying we would do anyhow if we were up and running every day. It’s a little embarrassing to admit this now that we have lost our jobs and the whole world is upside-down, but at that point, I thought, "Wow, we get a month off? That’s so nice!"

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

Jeff: Absolutely not.

Ashley: I had no idea Broadway would be closed this long, and we have no idea how long it will continue to remain closed. When we found out Frozen would not reopen, it was devastating. I had just finished doing a ballet class when I found out. I stood very still and just tried to take it in. We had a Zoom call later that day, and I found it so difficult to look at pages and pages of little screens of faces; people I know so well. The children; everyone had just lost their job in the middle of a global pandemic, and we would not get to say goodbye. It was a very challenging day.

What do you wish you had a chance to do one last time in the show, since it closed without warning? Is there a favorite part of the show that you wish you had been able to knowingly relish one last time?

Jeff: I feel like the most sincere and wonderful moment when you get to just sit and take it all in is the bow. I loved bowing. I loved being onstage with everyone at the same time. I loved being able to look out at the audience at that time and see. That was always my favorite; just to be with everyone, altogether, to give our appreciation to the audience. I wish the last time that I had bowed, I had known it was the last time. ‘Cause we won’t get to do that again.

What has helped you the most over the past year? What are you most grateful for?

Jeff: My fiancée, Ashley! And my family and my friends. That’s the real thing that kind of keeps me going. My brother, my fiancée, my siblings, my parents, my friends. That’s how it always was, but especially now, that comes into play. You know, you have your people. Your support system, your network that lifts you up.

Ashley: Good answer, honey. I am not one to sit around, so I decided to offer ballet class to friends. I wanted to stay fit and was doing cardio, stretching, and taking ballet barre. Jeff plays piano, so he would play and I would set the exercises. It was so much fun to stay in touch, keep motivated, and we often dress up with different themes for class. I still do class three times a week, for free, and we are on class number 128, I think.

I like to keep my mind occupied, so I am learning languages, learning skills I always wanted to pick up. I sing and act on camera to stay tight, and I’m learning to relax. I’m not so great at that. I started my own business too, dance classes online and stories for children, introducing them to ballet. (www.choosechoicedance.com) I am hoping to help out parents with that too. I know my sister would appreciate anything that occupies my niece and nephew for half an hour.

During this time, I have been able to spend time with my family. I went to Seattle to help my sister and brother-in-law and spent six weeks in Scotland with my family there. I would never normally be able to do that. It was the most fantastic time. Seeing family always makes me feel good. The structure of class is very helpful. Giving people a way to connect feels great, and having quality time with my other half is precious.

Have you acquired any new special skills since the shutdown?

Jeff: Drinking. And much earlier in the day.

Ashley: Ha! No!

Jeff: Special skills: I am working again, which is great. Not a lot of people have had that opportunity. So, eleven years ago, I had a sales job, and I’m back at sales. It’s not a new skill, but it’s a newly discovered skill that I once had. Very grateful for that, because that’s kind of kept us afloat up until this point.

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

Jeff: The same thing for me is, I think, the same thing for everyone. Just the unknown. When is everything gonna come back? How is it gonna come back? What’s the new normal? Are we ever going to be able to go into stores and restaurants and travel and fly the same way? I mean, the same things that have affected people worldwide have affected us. That’s the hardest.

Ashley: One of the hardest things in the past year has been the frustration of not being able to work in performance. Trying to raise awareness of the arts is very important to me. We need the arts industry, not only does it make a huge amount of money; it brings joy to people’s lives, helps encourage sympathy and empathy. The 'arts’ opens minds to new ideas.

Another challenging thing, in this time, is watching others suffer from a distance, knowing you cannot help. Knowing people are dying, alone. A friend lost her husband to Coronavirus. They both worked on Broadway; and the struggle of it all, over months, was difficult to even witness. My Auntie passed away, and only 6 people were able to attend the funeral. We had to watch on the computer. That was awful.

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

Jeff: The positives have been the time off and the sleep.

Ashley: Yes, sleep!

Jeff: And getting to spend time together. Catching up on the stuff that you never get to do, whether it be emails or your favorite show on Netflix. I mean, that’s been awesome. It’s been awesome to get to hang and spend time, and get to do the things that you never got to do. But that’s starting to wear off, because you’re like, "Ok, let’s get back."

Ashley: The Black Lives Matter movement has provided much food for thought and work to do. Going on peaceful protests may not have been something I would do if I were working. To have time to read and listen has been positive. I have quarantined three times and kept busy; I am good at busy. I had a balcony at home in NYC, which is lucky to get fresh air. The applause for essential workers was a great, positive moment each day.

What is your biggest worry right now?

Jeff: I guess I don’t think about this too much, but my biggest worry would be if my parents got Coronavirus or Ashley’s parents. I mean, because you see a lot of it on the news. And I had Coronavirus, and it was miserable. And you just see people that are dying every day, and you hope that it’s never someone that you know and love.

Ashley: My biggest worry right now is that there seems no end to the global pandemic. More isolation for people; more deaths and sickness and our industry may take even longer than we ever imagined to come back.

What do you miss the most about your job and live theatre?

Jeff: It’s all about the people. You know, I look back at all of the opportunities I’ve had to perform and put into practice all of the things I’ve studied and trained for, for so long. I’m very grateful for that, but I think, with anything—whatever you’re doing, the job is great and you worked for that. You feel accomplished and some sense of pride that you’ve been able to get there. But the day-in, day-out of it is just about the people. That’s what I miss. I miss the people. I miss hanging out with my friends in the dressing room after the show and sitting around and chatting. That was like our family. Going to work, for me, was never a hassle. I loved going to work, because I got to be with people that I liked.

Ashley: I miss the community of theatre; the performing, the connection with the audience and seeing dreams come true. I miss the hope and positivity. The joy.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

Ashley: I have thousands of wonderful theatre memories and count myself very lucky for that. Perhaps my most favorite is surprising my parents in Matilda on Broadway. They had flown in from the UK and had no idea I was on for Miss Honey. Best day ever. It is also such a gift to witness and be a part of so many Broadway debuts at Frozen. That was special every time.

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

Jeff: If this is what you’re passionate about and this is what you want to do, you can do it. Twenty years from now or fifty years from now, this will have been a small bump in the road. And I do believe that. I do believe that for any industry that’s been shut down or that’s been affected by this. It will be a bump in the road, so keep training. If you’re able to take class, if you’re able to be on Zoom—If you’re in a state that allows you to go to your dance studio and wear a mask and be safe and smart and socially-distanced while you’re training, then do it. Your voice lessons and your acting classes-If you can still do them somehow in some way; keep doing them. Because it’s a long game. It’s like anything else. You’re not gonna get rich overnight. You’re not gonna get the best job of your life overnight. It’s a long game. It’s day after day, consistent effort towards the ultimate goal that you want to achieve. So, just keep at it.

Ashley: Keep working hard and know that the generation before you is working hard to keep the arts relevant and seen.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: Jeff: West Side Story Ashley: Matilda

Favorite role you’ve played: Jeff: The Springtime Tenor in The Producers Ashley: Miss Honey

Dream Role: Jeff: Anita in West Side Story Ashley: Cassie in A Chorus Line

Favorite Musical Instrument: Jeff: Piano

Fosse or Jerome Robbins: Ashley: Jerome Robbins. It’s so hard for me to turn in!

Favorite Musical Instrument you don’t currently play: Jeff: Guitar

Favorite Thing about being a Dance Captain: Ashley: Helping dreams come true.

Favorite Put-In Theme: Jeff: 80’s Day Ashley: Our 80s theme worked really well!

Jason Robert Brown or Andrew Lippa: Jeff: Jason Robert Brown

Agnes DeMille or Michael Bennett: Ashley: Both

Favorite Theatre Ritual: Jeff: When everyone’s hanging out and warming up onstage before the show.

Favorite Dressing Room item: Ashley: Nespresso machine.

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