- Natalie Wisdom
Kai Harada, Tony-Award Winning Sound Designer.
[Interview Date: December 16, 2020]
The Band’s Visit, Head Over Heels, Follies, Gigi, and More.
Where were you on March 12, 2020? And what was the week leading up to it like?
I was in Washington, DC at the Kennedy Center, on March 12, 2020. The week prior was extremely busy— I had just sound-designed a new musical in Miami Beach that was in previews and due to open on March 13. And having left two of my team in Florida, I had flown up to Washington to work with the Washington National Opera on Jeanine Tesori's opera, Blue, at the Eisenhower Theatre, as there were some acoustic challenges to be addressed.
We had spent the week prepping for the orchestra dress rehearsal on Thursday, March 12, and although I was cognizant of what was happening in the world throughout the week, it wasn’t until that day that I realized that we were in trouble. Due to the Opera world’s slightly less strenuous schedule, most of my Thursday was spent preparing for our dress rehearsal, but also following the news and social media very closely. When major sports organizations announced their cancellations, I knew theatre wasn’t far behind. I think it was around 1:00 PM that the Metropolitan Opera cancelled. Around 2:00 PM when Broadway cancelled, and at 3:00 PM, I received note that the next project I was slated to do— Love Life at City Center Encores, was also cancelled.
It was around this time, I also learned that the show in Florida was cancelled. At 4:00 PM, I was privy to an internal Kennedy Center conference call where all performances were also cancelled. It was extremely surreal. I walked around, stunned, for an hour, sent my assistant home, had dinner with a good friend, went back to my hotel, packed, and took the Acela back to New York on Friday the 13th, as I was originally scheduled to have done, And I sat in my apartment watching international news as details unfolded about Covid-19. I don’t think it will be a week I’ll ever forget.
Did you anticipate Broadway and other theatre productions would be closed for this long?
Not immediately; no. I knew that what we were experiencing was unprecedented and a big unknown. As we learned more from the news— and I spent a lot of time watching the BBC, SkyNews, Tagesschau Germany, France24, and NHK World from Japan to get a better global picture— I had pretty much assumed by April that we wouldn’t be back to work in the fall, like so many had hoped for. I decamped to my childhood home in Connecticut, and slowly and carefully packed up my apartment in midtown. By May, I had arranged to terminate my lease early, and by June, I was out of New York. It was a tough decision, but a financially responsible one, and I was lucky to have had a safe place to go not too far away. To sit here at the end of 2020 and know that we will go OVER ONE YEAR (my guesstimate: actually, eighteen months) without live entertainment is even more surreal to me. And mostly, I am angry with the government, their response to the pandemic (or lack thereof), and their lackadaisical response to those of us in the arts.
As a designer, what were the biggest challenges for you when you saw things were shutting down?
As a designer, I was most worried about my teams; I had six or so additional productions slated for the spring into the summer, and teams had been assembled, contracts signed, paperwork completed. And I was worried about those who were less fortunate than I. Everyone hunkered down and stayed safe, and I think the idea that this pandemic and shutdown affected everyone in the entire industry, from Tony Award winners to the younger off-Broadway generations, has made it slightly more bearable, but simultaneously worse, if that makes sense.
I am also concerned about the rental companies who service theatre; as far as I am aware, nine months later, all of our rented sound equipment from New York is still in that small theater in Miami Beach, and there is a complement of additional equipment at the Kennedy Center that was only removed in September. Add to that; any existing, running show, is basically going to need to re-tech their show when we’re safe to go back to work, and there’s a Herculean task ahead for all of us. Scenery hasn’t moved in almost year; lighting instruments and sound equipment haven’t been turned on; I can’t speak about costumes and properties, but there are so many layers to consider.
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?
All I have heard, in terms of safe rehearsals and performances, have applied to the “interim” productions— like socially-distanced performances with limited cast, or streaming-only live performances. I was offered to design a musical at a regional theatre that had established an entire Covid-19 plan for performances, including quarantining the cast, crew, and musicians, and plotting specific pathways around the theatre, and I was impressed with how well thought-out it was, but that project ended up getting postponed.
For myself, I know that when I get back to work, I will definitely be more aware of what I touch and how often I wash my hands; I am a very “hands-on” sound designer, and it is not atypical that I touch the mixing console, microphones, headphones, headsets, even actor microphones. Some of that is going to have to change, even with a vaccine; intercom belt-packs and microphones transmitters will have to go through a more rigorous sanitizing process. Vocal microphones should not be shared any longer, and those who spend most of their time on headset should probably invest in their own personal units so as to avoid cross-contamination.
What have you, personally, been doing over the past year or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
I had been incredibly busy over the past few years, so the first couple of months of quarantine felt a little like a vacation— a weird one, and not a restful one— but for once, I wasn’t agonizing over my schedule or having to take red-eye flights to be able to attend to different productions at the same time. Getting outside and hiking has been incredibly helpful for my sanity, and focusing on some home improvement projects has helped as well. Spending the early months packing up my New York apartment, while sad, also gave me something to do (it even felt a little like work). I have a core group of five or six friends who are in my “pod” and it has been wonderful to be able to see them throughout this time.
Although I know of other sound people who have devoted some of their quarantine time to learning new software or techniques, I find it INCREDIBLY difficult to concentrate on work-related tasks. Only in the late fall have I been able to do a little bit of work to streamline future work processes (paperwork templates and organization, etc.). I find it much more cathartic to spend time doing the things I usually DON’T have time for, like being outside, going on road trips, house cleaning, organization, watching Netflix, spending quality time with my cat, etc....
What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?
1-Coming to the realization that this country had ZERO grasp of the situation and ZERO plan. I don’t agree with a lot of Andrew Cuomo’s policies (especially in regards to the MTA, and more recently, in regard to the new allegations of sexual harassment), but I do commend him on taking the leadership role early on in the pandemic for the New York Metropolitan area.
2-The months leading up to the election were also anxiety-inducing, and realizing that fully half of this country shares ZERO of the same values that I do. I am encouraged by the result and hopeful that with a person in office who believes in SCIENCE, that we may actually be able to get back to work in 2021.
3-Zoom musicals/readings. Those are hard to sit through. The medium does not lend itself to performance, and although I understand that many people (directors, creatives) can get work done remotely during this pandemic and are trying to make the best use of this time, I have officially reached my limit. My work is SO contingent upon being IN THE ROOM with everyone, to help facilitate the transmission of information to an audience, and to help facilitate the exchange of energy between performers and an audience, and this simply cannot happen virtually.
What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time of quarantine?
In spite of the fact that so many of us are going to be hungry for work and excited to be back in the theatre, I do hope that we all learn to take a step back and preserve our health. I was notorious for not “calling in sick,” even with something like food poisoning, and I’d soldier on, sitting through previews and taking notes even with a fever. And I think, at least for myself, that this is going to change. I am in a middle generation between a group of people who sacrificed everything for their career (sometimes including their health / sanity) and a younger generation who were already pressing for improvements to work culture. And now, I'm starting to ally myself more with that younger generation.
I am curious to see what might improve in terms of scheduling rehearsals, technicals, and previews. There’s a movement to abolish 10/12 rehearsal hours, and while I do agree that that last hour usually accomplishes NOTHING, as a designer who gets paid a fee, I have to worry that less 10/12 rehearsals mean a longer tech time, which means a longer time fixed in one theatre. And I am not confident that theatre companies will all compensate designers in the appropriate way.
I really HOPE that given the #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, and #weseeyouwhiteamericantheatre movements this year, that all theatre companies (and opera, too!) can work harder on fostering diversity in the industry, on ALL levels. That said, I am old enough to understand that this is a VERY LONG PROCESS that cannot be fixed overnight, and I hope that the younger generations understand that this is going to take time to fix. I commend the one or two theatres I know who have outlined their plan for the future. I am not surprised, but very disappointed, by the lack of response from many other theatres.
The only silly positive that came out of this pandemic was that two shows I was to design— one in London and one in San Francisco— were no longer happening on top of each other; this meant no anxious directors in either city, and no ridiculous travel plans. I was slated to make three round-trip London/California trips this past spring! Whew.
What is your biggest worry right now?
I have a vague worry that the way the Covid-19 vaccine will roll out will prepare an older generation audience to go back to consuming the arts quicker than the arts will be ready for them. I have another worry that too many Americans will refuse the vaccine.
My actual worry is the people. I had worked with a group of younger generation sound people, many of whom are REALLY good— talented, smart, AND nice to work with. Many of them have moved out of New York City and returned to their homes and found new job avenues. I am worried that some of those really good people may not return to a career in sound in New York, and that makes me very, very sad. I am worried that we’ll be stuck with the obstinate-and-not-much-fun-to-work-with people that are in ANY industry.
What do you miss the most about theatre/your job/the arts?
All of the above: I miss being IN A THEATER, and I miss helping (to) create a sonic world that reinforces emotion in an audience. And most of all, I miss the camaraderie and working with people I like, who are good at their jobs.
What is the first thing you’re going to do when theatre is back?
Hopefully, hug a whole bunch of people I haven’t seen in a while.
What advice do you have for young Broadway/Stage Crew hopefuls during this time?
Don’t give up! There will be an incredible amount of work when we go back, and I would also wager that older generations who were close to retirement may start leaving the business because of the pandemic, so come back! But also— don’t short-sell yourself (this applies mostly to younger designers and those who aren’t Union members). All theatre companies will be crying poor, and justifiably, but that doesn’t mean that WE have to make those sacrifices.
Favorite Broadway Musical: On the Town or Follies or The Band’s Visit.
Favorite Theatre Ritual: The meet and greet. If that can be counted.
Favorite NYC Restaurant: Yakiniku Futago, Basta Pasta, Soba Totto, Sobaya.