• Natalie Wisdom

Kyle Lamar Mitchell, Broadway Performer.

[Interview Date: November 5, 2020]

Lion King on Broadway, King Agnarr in Frozen First National Tour

Can you describe what the week leading up to March 12, 2020 was like for you? What was it like to have to end your run of Frozen in Portland, mid-week?

I would say that there was just a lot of not knowing exactly what was happening, which is funny because I felt like we were in the hot zone; the Pacific Northwest. But Portland is so idyllic, so while there was all of this misinformation in the news, it didn’t feel like it was affecting us, directly. And, also, Portland wasn’t as bad as Seattle, and we had just left Seattle. And I was, personally, focused on my understudy, because the second round of understudies had just been put in. I was really focused on the work and doing the show. And we were getting to an interesting place in our rhythm, as a company — really finding a balance of fun and storytelling. And I was very much looking forward to San Diego; I was possibly going to go on (as Kristoff) in San Diego, and all these things. It didn’t feel like there was impending doom. But my mom sits at home all day and watches the news on her computer, so she’s like, “Oh, you have to come home!” And I didn’t understand why she was freaking out so much. She’s also a Taurus and a Black woman, born in 1951, so worry is her baseline. So, when we had to end the run in the middle of the week, they gave us the option of getting per diem to stay until the end of our time in Portland or being sent home, And I was like, “Whatever, I’ll just hang out in Portland and have fun.” But I was having so much fun, I missed my flight. I wasn’t that concerned, I was trying to get to the airport in time to check my bags but just late enough that if they rushed it, I could get on the plane. I did that once and they waived the overweight fee, but it backfired, so I had to spend the night. My mom was freaking out. I was not as concerned as my mother was, and didn’t think it was going to be that serious, which obviously I was misinformed.

How has the layoff affected your more long-term plans? Have you made any big decisions as a direct result of the pandemic? How have your priorities changed, if at all?

Well, my plans were to save all that good government money from this good government gig and buy a house. So, that is not happening anytime soon. And I was looking forward to getting to stay with Daniel; he’s my bestie from tour. And super excited to get to San Diego, especially after being in the Pacific Northwest. We got this gorgeous Airbnb right by the pier. We were going to go out and live! One of my best friends was going to come to see me in the show. I was going to go on for Kristoff. I was in talks with a young gentleman caller who was going to drive down and stay with us. It was going to be so perfect, but that did not happen.

But my priorities: I realized, that time is of the essence and that family is everything. My family has always been my everything. When I went on tour, I was most upset about leaving my little nephew nuggets, one and a half and three-and-a-half-year-old. I saw them on Thanksgiving, and I got to spend some time at the house with them. And when I said goodbye, I lost it. I was so scared they weren’t going to remember me or know who I was. I was going to miss seeing them grow up. I was so sad to be away from them. So, my priorities shifted. I have to see my family, but of course, we have to be careful. My brother is diabetic. They’re both teachers. But I got to spend time with them about two weeks ago, and it was like heaven. It was a dream come true. I got to take care of them while their mom was working, help out, and entertain them. It was a lot of energy! I could not wait until nap time. I took a nap right along with them and slept longer! Haha. Especially with what’s going on in the world, and so many things are so uncertain. Love is a constant joy and blessing, and my family is that constant blessing for me.

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

Girl. I distinctly remember a conversation where we thought it was going to be a cute little “kiki.” We could have a month off, go somewhere together. We were going to go to Tulum, see all our friends in the arts. It was going to be so cute; rest these old bones, Epsom baths all day. And that was not the case, and I wish I had realized that. I thought, “This isn’t going to last past the spring, definitely not past the summer.” So, I packed all of my heavy-duty winter clothes in my trunk, which would not have been an issue had I been home in New York when we got the message about receiving our trunks. But I was in North Carolina with my mom. So, I was like, “Let me pack all this stuff in here.” And when we got the email, I was like, “I’ll just wait until we come back.” Because I still thought we would be back before it was this cold! I don’t have my down coat, the green one with the fur; it was like a personal igloo. I’m getting through, but I just thought it was going to be much shorter than this. And clearly, I was wrong.

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

Family, like I said. And family comes in many forms, from many places. I’m a people person and a fire sign, so I love adventure and travel and people and the sun. So, I left my Mom’s house and came back here in mid-June to check on my apartment, because my subletter had left at that point. And my group of best friends here in the city, a bunch of Broadway boys-we call ourselves “The House of Margarita,” because every one-show Sunday, we would gather at the place in Hell’s kitchen and have margaritas and “kiki.” So, we did a friends’ vacation in Las Vegas for two weeks and created our own bubble. We had such a joyful and VITAL time together — it was like an IV of love.”

And then, from there, since I had quarantined for two weeks, I felt safe to drive to California to visit my other friend Matt, who is like my sister. And he was able to let me stay in LA until Labor Day. I was at the beach all day. It felt safer in California, because there’s so much room to breathe; everyone has outdoor areas. I was so happy that I got to have a summer. I said, “No matter how crazy this world is, I am going to find my joy and walk in the light as much as I possibly can,” because who knows how dark and cold it’s going to get? So, I needed to recharge my battery in the duration.

As a Broadway actor who went directly from a long run at The Lion King on Broadway to being an original cast member of the First National Tour of Frozen, what has this time been like for you? Can you describe what it’s like to have a long break from work after so many years?

I got to be honest, I was real hurt. I had worked so hard for so long. I graduated in 2008. And while I did things here and there; I was fortunate to receive my Equity card early on. I had been pounding the pavement and trying to achieve my dream. Not only the dream of being on Broadway but of being in The Lion King. That was a literal ten-year-old childhood dream of mine. After coming from that show, after being able to achieve that and play Simba and get to stay in the Disney family and be a part of this production of Frozen, which is so special; it felt like a right-hook hit to my confidence.

Coming from Lion King, I knew I needed to be a part of a show that moved me the way The Lion King did. To get to fine-tune and embolden that message of love and female empowerment in Frozen; I was so fortunate, so blessed, so grateful to stay under this ‘house of the mouse’. I felt really good about myself. If this was the career that I was saying that it was, I now was finally making steps to solidify that. Now it feels real. Now it feels like I’m on the road to success; to crafting the career. It’s not just a dream; it’s a way of life now. When I got back to my mom’s house—for people to go back to their parents’ house in their 30’s, I think there’s a collective sort of, “Oh my gosh,” but it’s nice to have those moments where your mom can be your mom. And go to the beach and spend time with her. But it wasn’t the real world, and it wasn’t my world. It was not my space and my life. So, I was eager to get back to the joy of my life. Then, also, it felt like a fantasy. Like I was running away from and hiding from the harsh reality of the world. So, it was nice to be back in Harlem, but I didn’t really have a sense of purpose anymore. To come off of 7 straight years of knowing what I was going to do every day and have that space to express myself and bring joy, I didn’t realize how much I needed that. And I think all artists are incredibly emotional people. And to no longer have that, myself, I kind of felt lost.

My brother is teaching; my best friends in California are executives, so they are working remotely from home; but I was like a fish out of water. No purpose, no rudder, no direction. I was depressed after working so hard to achieve this, and now… “What do I do now?”

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

Recently, I saw two friends and was like, “I need somewhere to be, somehow to be.” And one has a production company; one has a dance studio. And I was like, “I love writing; I love helping people; love sharing my light with people.” And they were so wonderful, and they both gave me opportunities to do so.

My friend did a beautiful dance video for Save the Arts, encouraging people to vote and use their voice, and I was allowed to be the Production Stage Manager for that video. It was my first time being on the other side of a production. It was so great to see those beautiful dancers, and the videographer… What we created was so necessary and so vibrant.

And I’m helping my friend with her dance studio. She is starting a leadership initiative. They’re not only teaching the students how to dance, but how to move through the world.

And in doing so, I’m like, “Oh wait! I’m actually kind of fierce!” All I knew how to be was a singer/actor on a stage or in front of a camera. But I have this well and wealth of love that I can share in other forms, and that reminded me about my songwriting again, which I used to do all the time. I used to sit on GarageBand and make up all these songs. So, I started writing songs again. Just the ability to come together with artists and be reminded of my art is a godsend. It’s been a lifeline.

What do you miss the most about performing in Frozen and live theatre, in general?

The shenanigans backstage. People don’t know there’s a whole world that’s happening behind the scenes—of course, professionally. You have those rituals that help you get through the show. Although my track- I don’t have any down time. You have those moments where you can connect with people and have little moments onstage. I miss the family dynamic and the mechanizations. And, also funnily, I miss coming to a new city and figuring out the dressers! It used to be such a stressor. The first week and a half is just getting into the groove, but I love that because it adds to the ephemeral experience of live theatre. It only happens the way it happens once. I miss that, and I miss the people backstage and in the house.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

There’s two. My very first live theatrical experience was at The Lion King on Broadway. My mom strives to share with us the most beautiful parts of the world including traveling and art. So, she took me and my brother to the Lion King. She also likes us to see people who look like us represented onstage. She wanted us to see ourselves. I was 10 or 11, sitting in the mezzanine. And the second act comes on, and Mufasa’s face appears to Simba in the night sky. And now, having done the show, I know how it is executed. I know all the moving parts. But as a child who’s never seen live theatre, when Simba looked up to see Mufasa, it took my breath away. Blew my mind! And at that moment, I turned to my mom, and I said, “Mommy, when I grow up, I’m going to be on Broadway, in the Lion King. And I’m going to play Simba.” That is what set me on the path to Broadway.

Another moment: There was a show called Passing Strange, and it came out the same season as In the Heights. My mom got us front-row center seats to see the show. And the story is about a Black man who is a musical artist and performer with a single mom. And he goes on a journey to find himself. He goes all the way around the world only to find that when he comes back home, home was what he was searching for the whole time. The relationship that he had with his mother is so reminiscent of the one I have with my mom, and I was sitting there with her. There was Daniel Breaker who was also in Shrek, and the actor who played Stew in the show. But Stew is the band leader, who actually is telling his own story. And in the finale, he’s strumming the guitar so hard, that the pick that he had fell to the floor. And during the bows, the woman who was playing the mother picked it up as they were leaving. And right before the curtain came down, Stew said something to her. And she ran back out and leaned out across the front of the stage with the small pick and said, “Stew told me to give this to the young man sitting in the front row with his mom.” And I was already crying; hysterical, and then I just lost it. I still have it in a little jar. In this little decorative ceramic vase and kept it at my station at The Lion King.

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

Obviously see everyone! To remember the show. I got into live theatre, because every time it happens, it’s so unique. And I wanted to do what I could; to give people an hour and a half, a two-hour reprieve from all the craziness of the world. To a space where anything is possible. I’d be most excited to step to the front of the stage and just see everybody’s faces, and the little kids all dressed up!

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

I would say to keep the faith. Keep on dreaming, and keep honing your craft. Find it everywhere. Make your moments, and tell your story. We can’t be onstage right now, but you can still put on a show. If you can embrace your own journey and craft your own path to the stage in your own house, then you’re going to be ready for when we’re back.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical Passing Strange

Favorite Broadway Play August Osage County, which I saw closing week with the incomparable Phylicia Rashad.

Favorite role you’ve played Simba. In addition, I come off a certain way; I tend to skew fabulous and vibrant, and I had a chance to do an original role as Tomatoes in F’ing Hipsters; it’s about a hipster band. It was for NYMF. I love that role, because Tomatoes was the head of the family, and I got the chance to play against my natural instincts. To be more grounded and be a leader.

Dream role Paul from Six Degrees of Separation. It would be a beautiful challenge that I would love to accept.

Favorite Movie Musical It’s a new one, animation. Over the Moon on Netflix!

Movie that you think should be a musical The Story of Mariah Carey’s Life.

Favorite Broadway Icon Audra McDonald

Broadway Revival you would love to see Passing Strange! Because it’s a story that we need to see again. A Black man finding himself.

Favorite Broadway Theatre Ritual and/or Tradition It would definitely be the “Huldra” that we do on either side of the stage before the show and also when we put someone into their first role for the first time.

Favorite city on tour It would be Los Angeles, because it was the longest, and there was so much that was possible there.

Favorite Dressing Room Item Headphones, because sometimes you need a minute. And then, a really good cot and warm blanket.

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