• Natalie Wisdom

Kevin Bernard, Broadway Actor.

[Interview Date: November 7, 2020]

Oklahoma, Curtains, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Billy Elliot, Groundhog Day

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

That’s a weird one, because I didn’t mark that day, because I wasn’t in a show. We were more concerned with our children and what was going to happen with school. There was letter-writing, and parents were up in arms. It was very confusing for us with the kids; that’s all we were focused on. Heather isn’t in the business anymore; I am. But it was not any part of my consciousness. But of course, for my friends; I was checking in. And when it happened, I was stunned. Just stunned.

But with our kids, we were like, “What’s the right choice here?” Because people were already pulling their kids out of school. And we thought, “Surely, the kids are better off in school.” And then, we had parents that were writing campaigns: “Keep your children home. Don’t do this.” And I can only do my own choice. We believe the virus is real, but we also believe the kids would be okay in school. When they pulled the plug on the schools, we were like, “OK.” But it was a little frantic. That was what we were doing leading up to the Broadway closure.

What has quarantine been like for you as a family?

I’ve been joking with some of our friends, and I don’t want to make people feel bad. But we all get along. The siblings fight like siblings do; I sometimes wish they got along like some friends’ siblings always seem to on Facebook. Everyone’s so happy on Facebook!

I mean that first week, I’m sure everyone uses this word, but it was surreal. I mean, my daughter, she was 14. Both my kids just had birthdays, so now they’re 15 and 12. But they were 14 and 11 at the beginning. And I was like, “This is really happening.” Every morning you woke up going, “This doesn’t seem real- this can’t be real.” It was more of that feeling. The terrorist attack here in the city was very real and very obvious. And you saw it and felt it. I was out in Times Square when the second building came down, watching it on the Jumbotron. And that was tangible and visceral and horrific. You knew that tragedy was happening, so I never had that period of, “This can’t be happening.” But with this, I kept waking up and going, “This can’t be happening!”

But before the initial shut down, Heather had been working really hard; we had a pretty busy life. A lot of things were happening. I was getting ready to do a reading of my rock opera. I had lined up producers (Brown Productions); I was getting ready for a concert version of it too. I had all this stuff up in the air and it all stopped. And then I was like, “Ok, every night is family night. Chilling out. Having meals together.” My daughter took it really well. She said, “You know, if it wasn’t for the financial strain, this is pretty great.” She liked being home; she loved doing school at home. She didn’t care.

And we set up little schedules. And much to their chagrin, we were like, “I’ll tell you what. We’ll wake up for school an hour later, but we’re waking up every morning. You’re going to school; you’re putting on your clothes. And sit at these little makeshift desks we made, and then, we’re going to take lunch. And then, we’re going to exercise together.”

They were not always into it, especially my older one. She was like, “I just want to do what I want to do.” And I was like, “This is not the way the rest of this year is going to look.” “But my friends!” “I don’t care what your friends are doing.” She looks at the kids that are posting. “You’re not looking at the kids who are at home, at school, doing what they’re supposed to do. You have a limited view; you can see the families that have gone to their country home. The rest of the people in this city are just trying to get by, living in our 850 square feet. They’re not sleeping all day, just these people that you follow are!”

So, when it really hit, I was like, “Ok, we’re going to lock down and carry on with our lives in a new format.” And everybody locked into it. We do workouts, and in the evenings, we go for walks to get out of the house. I forced them to. Every day we get out of the house. It’s really bad for us to just sit in inside. We live up here in Morningside Heights. And we went for walks, and there wasn’t anybody on the streets; it was like tumbleweeds up here. In its own way, really beautiful.

In addition to being an actor and teacher, you are also a singer/songwriter. How has music played a role for you during this time?

It’s a weird thing. I actually kept working on the arrangement of my rock opera, because we reworked the idea after the concert fell through, due to the pandemic. And my musical director (Michael Ferrara) was like, “You know, you need a piano score to rehearse this.” Half the show is written on piano and half on guitar. So, my goal, as I was writing during this pandemic, was I was trying to write a rehearsal score. It was written for 6 instruments; that’s it. I was working on that for a concert, and then, we ran into this pandemic. And I was like, “Ok, I’m going to finish this 6-part concert. I had lots of sections that are only cello with a horn line, and then the vocalist singing. Or it’s just a bass or just a violin. So, all that stuff had to be converted to a piano score. So, that kept me super busy the whole summer.

My friends on the West Coast, old high school friends, one of them sent me this song. Sent it to all of us. And he was like, “How about we play this song?” So, Henderson (my son) and I came up with the keyboard sound, and he and I literally built it together. That was a lot of fun working on that.

And my daughter taught herself how to read tablature! They’re both really accomplished piano players. But she picked up the guitar. She had learned to strum at school, and now she is full-on reading tab! Pretty much any song. She’s like, “I’ll just teach myself how to play this.” Blackbird; taught herself how to play it. She’s playing so much better than I was by the time I got out of high school. So, we had some jams. Henderson got a new ukulele. Music has been our family adventure.

It’s a dream come true, and I can’t push it, because this is all I want out of life. My children to play music with me. I would give up any wish to be onstage or stardom or anything, just to play music with my kids.

Have you continued to teach during this time, and if so, how has it been different? What have been the challenges?

It was really great to have that; to do and be a part of something with these children who are locked in their homes. This was back in early summer, so mid-July. I was doing it, and I liked doing it. It’s about the kids. I’ve taught at a college (Molloy), Musical Theatre Vocal Performance every summer. If I’m not in a show, I do it. And it’s this crazy, giant big production. It’s produced by a former Broadway performer (Angelo Fraboni), so we’ve got the giant stage and the theater, and it’s really exciting, all put together. We were scrambling this Spring, “What are we going to do?” So, we put together these ideas. And I said, “I can do filming and editing!” And you’ve seen my little home movies I do with the kids. I’m a sucker. Once I came up with the idea, “Oh, this is going to be a nightmare!” Because I’m going to dedicate three-million hours to it. It gave me insight into the amount of strain these teachers are under, because I just had 8 children and two weeks to make a movie musical with them. We did a 15-minute movie musical. I spent another two weeks editing it.

It was so hard to get people to do what you asked them to do, and to no fault of their own. But it makes it hard for the teacher; you don’t have the benefit of a classroom. You don’t have the peer pressure on the kids who are a little lazier to motivate them. This is a pre-professional training program, so if you get up to sing and keep forgetting your words to your song, I have to say, “Sit down, because you’re wasting my time and everyone else’s time.” And people step up; but (now) they’re sitting in their pajamas all day. And you do a group session at the beginning, and then individual sessions. And it’s just hard- you have a twenty-minute session with the kid. You spend five minutes talking about something, or maybe they were a little late, or you were late because of the previous student. And then, instead of lecturing the class, you have to email everybody. It was ten times more work than a normal summer program. Everyone needs their own email. I spent so many hours, unexpectedly. I would teach three and a half hours each day, and then that amount and more on the next class, to have it ready for the next day. I have friends now, teaching in the public school system, and they never stop.

It was all even more difficult than I thought, but it was really fulfilling, and I loved having it. The difference (virtually) is you don’t have the give and take. I love teaching. I wish I could teach children more. I love watching them grow. They still (can) define themselves across the internet; they discover things about themselves if they come willing. And the good thing about this program is they’re there because they want to be there. So, they’re all giving it their all. They want their dreams.

Have you made any big life decisions as a direct result of the pandemic? How have your priorities changed, if at all?

It didn’t. I woke up every morning, being like, “I can’t believe this is happening.” But at the same time, it wasn’t a surprise; because I had read this book, The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett. We’re going to wait it out, and keep doing our work, and move forward in life. I didn’t feel like I had to shift my priorities. A long time ago, I made my family my priority.

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

I want to keep my kids focused and healthy and not emotionally deprived. And not hurt by it; not broken by it. That’s been the hardest thing; watching our kids go through this. Besides, obviously, financially we were wrecked by it. And the third thing is, you know you asked me if my priorities have changed, I am working minimum wage as a doorman at 53 years old. I always made a living out of working in theatre; both Heather and I did. I rarely had any other job in my life, other than theatre. Teaching; I’ve added in over the last decade. I do an occasional show now. I don’t like to travel; I don’t want to leave town, because I’d rather stay home and be with my family. It does make me wonder: “Am I just going to be a doorman that does this administrative work, remotely?” I mean, is there a chance I’m going back to work? My agent was mainly a theatrical agent. I’ve done some commercial stuff, but those were one-offs. I shot something for Amazon last fall, and it was like, I turned that corner, where’s that corner going?

I’m not ashamed of what I’m doing at all. I’m trying to provide for my family. At this point I’m like, “Ok, I need to have something, and it’s going to be there next year for me, if I need it.” I’m an artist; I’ve been through these self-doubts so many times. Why am I doing this? Why am I working so hard? Because you’re an artist; this is what you’re on the planet to do. I’ve never had that path where I hit it and it’s been easy street. I’ve always hustled in this business, and now I’m hustling, and I’m not even in the business! It’s exhausting to think about it. So that’s been hard.

What do you miss the most about live theatre?

Well, obviously the people. And that moment when the curtain rises. I love that, especially when you get to be onstage for it. When the curtain comes up, and you feel that rush. The temperature changes, because the theatrical air rushes on the stage. The show starts; the music starts; and the lights slowly come up on you. Here we are; we’re starting the show!

The first time I went on for David Hyde Pierce (in Curtains), I was onstage surrounded by Karen Ziemba holding my arm and Deb Monk on the other arm. And I was looking at them. And the curtain rose… I was like, “Woohoo, here we go!” Those moments when the curtain rises.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

I’ve been working professionally since I was 11, so what’s the math on that? 42 years, I’ve worked onstage. Very, very fortunate. But you know one of the weird moments that stands out is not a role or acting moment; it’s those workaday parts of it. The first time I walked onto a Broadway stage as a performer, and it was my Broadway debut of Oklahoma, the Susan Stroman Revival. And it’s the Gershwin, which is a gigantic, humongous new theatre. Modern. And we’re all sitting up in the back of the house, and they’re telling us what not to do and what to do. And I’m just sitting there, shaking with energy. And they cut us to go find this; go find that. And most of the actors ran up to the stage and ran into the wings or the dressing rooms or whatever. But I walked up there and just sort of came to a stop on the stage. And just was staring at it. The only person who noticed that I was stupefied by the moment was Patrick Wilson. And he was like, “Pretty cool, huh?” And I was like, “Yeah.” I just remember that moment very well.

And another favorite moment, probably my very favorite moment... I met Heather touring Europe with Oklahoma—the most important part of my life. We played Eastern Germany, and we played a Wagner (style) house. There are three off-stages, and they can all take an entire theatre set. And we did a one-nighter there. We did that show, and at the end, we sang the refrain in German. This is the first Western show after the wall came down; first Western Company to come into this Wagner house. And just to sing, “We know we belong to the land, and the land we belong to is grand.” There were grown IATSE men weeping; sobbing in the wings. The entire theater was sold out; the people were on their feet. And they came up on the stage and gave us roses and hugged us. It was transcendental.

People say, “Oh stupid musical theatre this” or “What we’re doing isn’t Rocket Science.” People love to degrade our art; even our fellow artists. But, that was a moment that changed people’s lives. It touched them; the beauty of this story, the lyrics. “We know we belong to the land…” They were so moved, and we did that with song and dance. And to think that it will be that powerful the night that the Broadway lights come back on.

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

I would love to be one of the first shows to come back. I mean how exciting to be that group?! And if not that, to witness it. I mean, people will be sobbing. The first night back, it will be great to be onstage.

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

I’d say don’t stop living your life. Life is full of hardship. If you didn’t know it, maybe you’re realizing it now. And we can either grow through it or be crushed by it. And if you’re growing, you’re growing as a human. And all those things affect us, as artists. Keep growing through your art. Just keep living. I used to get mad at people on the road in the 90's. They’d be like, “This isn’t real life; it’s the road.” And I’m like, “This is real life. This is you, and its ok.” In this pandemic, be who you are. Live your life. Grow. Find a way to express yourself, even if it’s like nothing you’ve ever done before. Write something; play something; do something.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Favorite Broadway Play: I Am My Own Wife

Favorite role you’ve played: Andrew in The Hero, I did that downtown here; it was a role of a lifetime. It was also the first time I ever got reviewed by the New York Times!

Dream role: Macbeth

Favorite backstage pastime: Listen to Eric play lead guitar in the Groundhog Day pit and try to figure out what rock band he was referencing. I’d be like “You’re doing Skynyrd! You’re doing Styx tonight!”

Favorite Movie Musical: Hairspray! My kids loved it. We watched it over and over and over.

Movie that you think should be a musical: One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World

Favorite Theatre Superstition: I love ghost stories, but I don’t believe in ghosts. I just like ghost stories in theaters.

Favorite Theatre Ritual: Thoroughly Modern Millie. The ritual was the boys’ dressing room would stay in their underwear and not get dressed until the Overture started, on the fifth floor. They would do this thing, and it wasn’t every night. But we would sit there, and we weren’t allowed to get dressed until the downbeat got started. And they would explode on the downbeat! It was terrifying! That was hysterical and so much fun.

Favorite Dressing Room item: Picture of Heather from when I met her in Europe. It’s made its way onto every mirror where I’ve worked.

Favorite Quote: “Acting is not an accumulation of skills but an eradication of road blocks.”-Jerzy Grotowski

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