• Natalie Wisdom

Katrina Yaukey, Broadway Actor/Musician.

[Interview Date: December 3, 2020]

War Horse, Billy Elliot, Natasha and Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, Cabaret and more.

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

We were rehearsing Assassins for Classic Stage in New York and we heard, “Broadway’s shutting down.” We were thinking, “Should we be in these rooms? This feels like the wrong moment to be in the room.” We had our last rehearsal on the 14th. And then, we had that Sunday off; and then, Monday, we got an email in the morning, saying, “We think you should come pick up your instruments. We’re on hold temporarily.” We were rehearsing at a dance studio on 59th. We picked up our instruments, and it was strange. I had heard rumors that some people were sick at Moulin Rouge, but I didn’t know who.

How could we have known that what we thought was a temporary pause, would lead us to what we’re in now? When it comes to Off-Broadway and smaller theaters, the idea of this process is delicate. Shutting down a show season like this can mean that a theatre company could close permanently, so it was a bit of a stressful moment for everybody. But it was the right thing to do.

I had traveled all last year to start an accordion business. I rented a space in Union Square, right before the shut down for an accordion office. It was mostly to have a spot for repairs, and also to do sales. I sent my best friend to go and look at it and saw it on FaceTime. Sadly, I never set foot in it, and I had to give it up in August, because I couldn’t afford to keep it.

A place in Germany was potentially going to give me accordions on consignment to sell; I was also working with a group in Italy as well, and I was going to have accordions made in the Czech Republic that would be my own brand called Main Squeeze. I went to factories to learn from people, and I had acquired all these accordions to get the business rolling. I was in Italy when this kicked off, in February. I was in Venice on Valentine’s Day, and then, they shut down Venice on the 17th. When I got back, I got sick.

Then weeks later, a friend of mine, back in New York, got sick and asked me to deliver food to him. The grocery store was terrifying, but I delivered food to him. A week after that, I got sick a second time. And I was like, “How could I get sick twice from the same thing?” So, in April, I stayed in my apartment for 25 days. I didn’t even take the trash down the hall. It was super isolating not to be able to leave my apartment.

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

Initially, I actually thought it might go longer. People were like, “Oh, we’ll be back by the summer. But I was in touch with people in Italy, and I was like, “No, this is going to be a while.” Even with talk of the vaccine, I still think we’re looking at next fall. Maybe end of the year; maybe even 2022. And other places will probably come back before Broadway. New York runs on tourism and travel. I think people are more likely to go to theatre in their hometowns than travel far.

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

I definitely have realized that being outside is super important, because nature is still happening. The pandemic has not stopped nature from enjoying itself. Being outside has been really grounding. I did need to leave the city. Also, being by the water. I didn’t realize how important it is to look out at the water. It’s been good to be on the coast. I didn’t think of myself as a beach person, but it’s different this time. The ocean keeps going; nature keeps going. Which has contributed to my sanity.

Have you been inspired to make music or play your instruments during this time?

I didn’t want to play music early on. There was, embarrassingly, an aversion to doing any of it. I needed to take a break from accordion and singing; any instrument really. However, in July, I met some people, distantly, who were musicians. They said, “Hey, we’re playing at this restaurant on a deck, outdoors. Why don’t you sit in on this session?” And the guitarist said, “Do you read charts?” And I said, “Yeah, definitely.” And so, he printed some things and I showed up and I played and thought, “Oh my god. I’ve missed this.”

I need to be doing things without the attachment of perfection that I’ve had in my life. I need to do it because it’s fun; without the attachment of outcome. And now, every time I play outdoors, playing on deck, outside; I’m so excited to do it. And it is so freeing to having no attachment to whether it is good or bad. It’s just making art.

While I’ve been away from the city, various things have come up to record. And there’s a little bit of, “Oh, that needs to be really good” thing that comes up again, and it’s been really freeing to approach it in a different way.

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

I know that the community is there; I just don’t get to see any of them. There are only so many Facetimes and Zoom meetings you can have. It’s crazy how exhausting the online stuff is, where as if I saw these people, in person, I would be rejuvenated. I miss my community, and I miss my friends in New York. I miss seeing my family. I know it’s going to be some time before people can sit in rooms together, and I miss that. I miss the shared experience.

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

I get to do the stuff I want to do. Like, I think, if anything, it’s a time to hone in on what it is that you love and like and want to do. I have different conversations in my head, every day, about what I want to be when I grow up. And it’s incorporating the things that I love and being really honest about the things I don’t love. I think this time period has been really helpful in singling out things I definitely don’t want to do; where I would have said “yes” to something before; now I would say “no.” Saying “no” is your greatest power. It’s hard to say “no.”

And also, choosing the people you have around you too. It’s really narrowed it down to who’s in that circle. Who do I want to speak to every day? Who am I sharing this experience with? There’s a group; we meet every Wednesday night. And in our 34th week, we watched Love Actually together. It was the first time we watched a movie together, and it was so fun. Usually, we have a check-in. We’re in all parts-Canada, West Coast, Southeast, New York- but we are committed to this thing. And it’s important to recognize, “These are people I want to be in my life.”

What is your biggest concern right now?

I have no idea how I’m going to make money in a way that feels sustainable. And while I am starting a business, it doesn’t feel like the right time. And the people that would be using my business are the people that don’t have work, so, I need to figure out a way to sustain myself. And I’m ok with it being something, maybe, I wouldn’t have done before.

I sold my apartment, so I’m ok for a minute, but that will go away, if I don’t do something smart. I’m on unemployment, but I’m not getting the full amount. And that’s gonna run out.

Rachel Chavkin posted something: “It’s time for a Secretary of Arts and Culture. Our sector is a major division in the American economy, and we deserve a seat at the table.” I agree with her. I think more opportunities will open up when society respects how much we contribute to the world. And so, in terms of looking for work, I feel like there might be more opportunities, if we have more respect coming from the top for what we do.

What do you miss the most about live theatre?

The shared experience. Like I said before. That translates to any avenue of my life, at the moment. I miss the shared experience of everybody experiencing art in a different way, whether they think it’s good; bad; mediocre... I miss that shared time.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

I think it was joining the Great Comet in the tent; starting rehearsal at noon, and then being in the show that night. The girl that played the accordion part had left, and they asked me to play this section and dance down through the middle of aisle, and kiss the main lead and run off. I’m pretty sure it’s that. Because as an understudy/standby, you have to be excited about those moments, when you get to go on, and do your thing; whether you feel prepared or not. I feel like that is, hands down, a moment when I was like, “This is not going to be great; it’s not going to be perfect. But yes, and...” And, they made an exception with Equity, because (with) Actors Equity- you have to have adequate rehearsal. It was awesome! I totally did not play all the right stuff, but whatever! I still loved it!

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

I’m excited to actually want to play my instruments again. I play a lot of instruments in Assassins. We’re all still very hopeful that it will happen once things are back up and running! That group of people in that show; it’s like a masterclass every day. I’m excited for that experience, specifically. Just to feel inspired again. The nerves leading up to it again; you know, the “Ok, we’re gonna do our thing.” First day of school feeling!

How do you think your job may be different when we come back, specifically as an actor/musician?

I don’t think we’ll be sharing instruments anymore. That sometimes happens in shows. I don’t think we’ll be playing each other’s guitars, mandolins, violins… we don’t really share woodwind instruments. I know John Doyle already has things spaced, so we’re not near each other.

I’m thinking people will check in more with what everyone is comfortable with in the room. I hope people don’t feel pressured to do things they don’t want to do. Because it will be different for everyone. And when we come back to theater, it’s going to be those conversations that will be incredibly important in the way we approach the work.

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

Keep doing what you’re doing. But also, what else do you enjoy right now? Make sure you dive into those other things and carry them with you.

Recently, I spoke to my nephew’s Musical Theatre program. They asked me about the ‘fall back job’, and I’ve always hated that. I don’t think of waiting tables as my back burner job. It’s my side-hustle and a job I’ve enjoyed because of the interaction.

I would encourage kids who are wanting to do Musical Theatre to keep learning about what you might possibly enjoy as a side hustle too. Keep building those Musical Theatre skills, but also, make sure you’re focusing some energy on that side hustle too. Because that will only compliment you, as a performer. What else do you love?

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: Cabaret

Favorite role you’ve played: Sally Bowles. Although playing Mrs. Wilkinson was pretty rad too.

Favorite Broadway Play: War Horse.

Dream role: I don’t have one. I feel like you’re supposed to have one, and I just don’t.

Favorite Movie Musical: White Christmas

Movie that you think should be a musical: Up.

Favorite Broadway Theatre Ritual and/or Tradition: Getting to the theatre so early- like embarrassingly early. I’m at the crew call, at least. And, I do love the Birthday Club tradition.

Favorite NYC Restaurant: Green Symphony

Favorite Instrument: Accordion

Favorite instrument that you don’t already play: Bassoon

Favorite dressing room Item: A bottle of bourbon and a small plant

Rehearsal bag staple: My cell phone charger or my pencil. Toothbrush and toothpaste if it’s a musician show.

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