Jeremy Morse, Broadway Actor.
[Interview Date: November 13, 2020]
Weselton in the First National Tour of Frozen, Ogie in Waitress (Broadway/National Tour)
Can you describe the weeks leading up to March 12, 2020 and what they were like for you? What were your initial thoughts when your tour began to make adjustments like limiting backstage tours and stage door autographs?
Weeks leading up to March 12… I went back and looked at correspondence and all these emails from airlines and hotel chains, and all the emails from Company Management. I remember, when we were in Seattle, and the outbreak of COVID happened in Kirkland, at the nursing home facility. And, as we were leaving Seattle, was when Washington state was shutting down. And I flew to New York in those days we had between Seattle and Portland. I had this weird feeling that things were about to change for the worst. Alex and I went out to see some friends at the West Bank Café, after the opening of our friend’s play. Some people were wearing masks; people weren’t shaking hands, just elbow bumping. It was kind of an eye roll moment. But it was like, “Ok, this is a scary thing.” And I remember flying back.
At this point, I don’t think I was scared of getting Coronavirus from being on the plane, because the way the news made it out, it wasn’t wide-spread. And then, in Portland, when it really hit was the night that the NBA shut down. “There’s going to be no basketball games; how will there be live theatre anywhere?” And that was the moment I knew that imminent change was going to occur. When we weren’t going to perform anymore. That was March 11th.
Another big part was, we were gearing up for Broadway Cares. We were signing posters, and we were so excited. And the first night, we were supposed to collect, we had trouble getting people to sign up. And then, right before the show, Broadway Cares called it. They were like, “We’re not doing this. We’re going to postpone and see how things play out.” It was really disappointing, because I love Broadway Cares. It makes me feel so good about our platform that we can not only spread joy through a show, but we can also help people in need. Even though I, logically, knew we couldn’t collect because of Covid. I remember, in the shows leading up to our final performance that Wednesday, our audiences were dwindling as people got more scared to be crammed in to the audience. I thought it was a safety protocol to not have us see people at the stage door and bring people backstage. I didn’t necessarily think that meant we were going to shut down; but after seeing how quickly it spread, once the news started saying that even with some safety protocols, you can’t stay safe from this. We didn’t understand what the virus was then.
What was March 12, 2020, the exact day like for you? And how did your life change in the following weeks/months?
That day was just absolutely insane. I remember waking up. They didn’t tell us to pack before our meeting; we knew because of the email that was sent: “We have a meeting at 1:00 on the 12th, a full company meeting.” And there was a limitation on gathering size to 250 people by the governor of Oregon. When I went to the meeting, F. and I jumped on some scooters, and the meeting was so surreal. It all just felt very like-“We have to pack up our stations right now. Then, we have to go pack up our trunks later today. And decide if we’re staying or leaving.” It was a very numbing experience. I didn’t process it until I was back in New York and a couple weeks in to being in my apartment. Going home, and packing up my trunk, and looking at the stuff in my trunk, I was thinking, ”What do I need? What do I not need for the next month or two months?” I left a lot in my trunk. I still don’t have my trunk. I didn’t want it shipped here. I remember having conversations with Alex (my wife) where we were figuring out what we wanted to do. I was like, “I don’t want to be in New York.” New York was insane. She was supposed to come out (to Portland) that week to visit. And I was like, “Come out and we’ll hang out on the West Coast.” But, also, her sister was going to have a baby and was due to give birth in mid-April. And she didn’t want to get stuck on the West Coast. I booked a flight back and cancelled her flight out, and that was that. It was very weird though, to leave the Airbnb I was in. It felt very disconnected.
Getting back to New York; I was back on Friday, the 13th. Alex had babysat for a friend, gone to a voice lesson, saw a matinee on Wednesday the 11th, the day before Broadway shut down. She had been to a college reunion party. Saturday, she started not feeling so great, and then she lost her sense of smell and taste and had a terrible headache. And we thought she had a bad sinus infection. So, in the (first) whole week, we weren’t wearing masks, because we were told not to wear masks at that point. We weren’t going to see people, but we would go to buy groceries without masks on that first couple of days. And I was chatting with F. one afternoon, and he was talking with his buddy, and he said one of the symptoms of Coronavirus was lack of smell and taste. And Alex just started crying from the other room. “I have Coronavirus. I’m gonna die!” And I was like, “You’re not gonna die. It’s going to be okay.” We started looking up all the articles about Coronavirus patients losing smell and taste, and hers was gone fully for six weeks. It’s slowly been coming back, but she still can’t smell certain things. Hilariously, farts. She can’t smell them, which is great for me because I can just let it rip. Her perfume or deodorant smells like poison to her, because she can only smell the chemicals of it. She’s been smelling essential oils to try to get her sense of smell back. If she has allergies, it’s gone again. The ENT said there’s no sign of any damage, so it should come back within a year to two years, fully. And the fact that it has come back, somewhat, is a good sign. And then, we left New York and came here (to Plymouth, MA), thinking it would be a month or two months. And now, it’s been seven.
Did you initially anticipate that Broadway and other theatre productions would be closed for this long?
No, absolutely not. Not at that moment. I feel like, since the summer, I thought that next summer/next fall was a more realistic goal post.
What have you been doing over the past several months to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
I’ve been trying to stay sane. It’s an ebb and flow thing. It’s just finding the balance and finding connection. Where this type of connection, right now, feels normal, and it feels so good to talk to somebody- even if it’s on a screen. Where I feel like, before the pandemic, this did not feel as satisfying as it does now, because of our shift of normalcy or expectations.
To stay sane, getting my Master’s Degree (in Business) has been huge in that. Providing weekly structure where I have due dates; I have assignments, giving structure to days and weeks. I love math too. I’m taking two accounting courses right now. It’s fun, and I really like it. I started in July, so I’m four months-deep into this, which is crazy. I can’t believe it’s been that long that I’ve been doing it. Also, what’s really helpful is there is a decent amount of change, because the terms are short. Seven weeks long and one week off, so you immerse yourself in it, and then, a week off, then change. It keeps me learning and engaging in a different way and using a part of my brain that I wasn’t using on tour. So that’s helped me a ton.
(My) little dog is helping me so much too-Greta has been wonderful in providing structure every day. Cooking has been really awesome. Alex and I have been ordering Blue Apron, which is fun. So, we’ve been going back and forth- there was Hello Fresh and we’re now doing Marley Spoon, which has really diverse types of food; it’s all different styles of food. Blue Apron tends to be more traditional American cuisine.
And also, the concerts. That’s been a huge thing. I was pouring myself in the school work and I found I was lacking any sort of balance and creative expression and creative connection.
What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?
I think it’s just, in a broader sense, the lack of control. There’s so much that’s out of our control, which is a freeing thing. But, also, such a crippling thing when your entire industry-when most of your industry disappears overnight and can’t come back. That, and the fact that we all can’t see each other. Theatre is so much about community, and not being able to see friends and coworkers and collaborate... There’s something so electric about being in a room that you don’t get via Zoom and via Facetime. And the way that being in a room with somebody that affects you physically, that being on a screen just doesn’t. There’s a thing so tangible about being with other people, and making art with them in that space. That has been the hardest thing to try and replace. That’s the hardest thing, career-wise.
And the virus is so scary. I’ve seen my parents a couple times, and I’m horrified that they would ever get sick. We don’t see anybody else, other than Alex’s sister and husband and my parents. Those are the hard things.
What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time of quarantine?
I think the skills I’m building with my MBA. The time Alex and I are getting to spend together-which is time we wouldn’t have gotten. Time with her family; time with my family. It’s much easier when you’re podding with those people, and you don’t have other distractions of fifteen cities in four months. It’s easier to spend time with people you love and talk with them and have conversations.
There’s also been a lot of self-reflection in these past couple of months, and trying to understand why I work the way I work, which will be helpful, moving forward, in all the relationships that I have. I’ve been doing that with therapy and meditation. The Calm App is awesome. I get it for free through my American Express travel card that I have. That’s been an awesome positive.
You have found opportunities to perform outdoor concerts during this time. How has that helped you emotionally and artistically, and how did the experience differ from what an outdoor concert would have been like pre-Covid?
The first one we did was in June. We ended up talking with this musician who used to play at Alex’s mom’s restaurant. He’s a physics teacher who loves to play guitar and sing. We got on a call with him, and we were like, “We’re Broadway Musical Theatre performers. We can come sing some tunes and come jam and see what this is.” We had to learn so many songs, because we chose all these songs that we had to learn! And our first concert, we had to perform for a dinner event. There were tables along the lawn, and we wanted to fill two hours of time with an intermission. We ended up doing 27-28 songs. We limited it to 50 tickets. It was a set menu, treated like a catered event. We set up a rag-tag sound system, and we did it. We were so nervous, and I remember the way people lost their minds, hearing live music. Lots of stuff they had not heard before like “Unworthy of Your Love” from Assassins and “Blackbird” by the Beatles. And Grateful Dead and Barenaked Ladies, which made it accessible and new for the crowd that was distanced at tables all across the lawn. And the end of the night, the way we got to sit and revel, in this weird experience, was so satisfying. And we scheduled another one for two weeks out, so we learned some new tunes.
At first, I almost didn’t even find joy in these; I was depressed in the summer. It was tough, but I started giving myself more permission to enjoy it, and pick songs that I loved. It has been a really transformative process. We all have varying levels of fear of performing in front of people, not as characters. It’s been great to overcome those fears through a really positive experience, where people love the songs, and opportunities to make art in a safe way. We’re doing another one tomorrow morning!
How it would differ from an outdoor concert: If it wasn’t for Covid, we probably wouldn’t have done this. I feel like looking past this, it would function in a similar way. People would just sit closer together. I would do this in a post-pandemic world. I would love it.
You have also gone back to school to get a Master’s degree. What has that been like so far for you? Is this something you think you would have done, otherwise?
I had already been thinking about getting my Master’s when Alex and I met. We talked about getting our Master’s, but it wasn’t anything that we made tangible plans (for). I would love to be able to teach and be a professor at a collegiate level, at a university. Something I’ve always dreamed that an end-game career would be- an artistic director of a theater, or start a theatre company. And having a skill set that included some finance background, I thought, would be important for that. I also feel, as artists, we are not given enough information about business, and we are all our own business. And I feel it’s an irresponsible thing for us to not have that as I keep learning in these courses. I see how helpful these skills are with finances, and the way you use your money, and the way investment pays off, that I didn’t conceive before I took these courses. And I think it would be really helpful for all performers to have some form of that. So, I can teach some sort of class in Theatre Business.
What do you miss the most about live theatre?
The community of people-what I was talking about before-the immediacy of what you get from being in a room with people and creating. How the beauty comes out of the chaos of all of these creative minds working together. I miss that so much. I know that’s more process.
I guess taking that step forward, not only the collaboration in the room, but also the impact it has on the audience. Getting to see, hear, and feel that. Both in a self-satisfying way and an extrinsic way. Of seeing that people’s lives are changed and improved and made better through the stories we get to tell.
What’s your favorite theatre memory?
I think it was making my Broadway debut in Waitress and sharing that with my friend who was also making her Broadway debut. I remember the “sugar, butter, flour” started- the loop. The audience screamed, and we both were just like, “We’re doing it! We’re doing it!” It was a magical thing like crossing over a barrier. But, also, the first night that Sara Bareilles went on, and it was electric in the house. It was really cool.
What is the thing you’re most excited to do when live theatre is back?
Just to do theatre! I get butterflies, thinking about the downbeat of the first performance back; it makes me want to cry. Just walking out onstage for the first entrance. I can’t even imagine what that’s going to be like. We’re not gonna be able to do the show- we’ll have to get all the cries out! It’s an insane Opening Night, because Opening Night has that.
What advice do you have for young Broadway hopefuls during this time?
Keep working; keep learning; keep experiencing whatever you can experience. Do your best. Be kind to yourself, because these are not easy times. It’s ok to not feel inspired. Just keep doing your best.
Favorite Broadway Musical: A tie for me, Parade and Sweeney Todd
Favorite Broadway Play: Harry Potter. I thought it was extraordinary.
Favorite role you’ve played: Finch in How to Succeed…
Dream role: Tobias in Sweeney Todd.
Favorite Movie Musical: Tie between Singin in the Rain and On the Town. I’m a big Gene Kelly fan.
Favorite Broadway Theatre Ritual and/or tradition: It’s show-specific for me. For Frozen, it was stretching and making sure my heels weren’t destroying my legs. In Waitress, we circled up- it was called the Pie Circle, we could come up with a stupid pie, like "butt-pie"- whatever you want. Or, it could be- if somebody had an important day in their life, or if someone was making their first performance, we would dedicate a pie for them. It was an awesome way for everyone to start on the same page. It was always special; a cool thing, and I love it.
Favorite city on tour: it’s a tie. Portland, Oregon and Austin, Texas.
Favorite Dressing Room Item: A crossword puzzle book
Trunk must-have: A good, nonstick pan and a good spatula.
Favorite backstage past-time: Playing games with F backstage before the show. And then, also, we got to this point where Austin and I would do this “Bring Sally Up” push-up
challenge. We were doing it every other day or every other show.