• Natalie Wisdom

Michelle Cosentino, Professional Actress.

[Interview Date: November 6, 2020]

Kinky Boots, Norwegian Encore and more.

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

I was on the Norwegian Encore, and it was a Thursday. We were in the British Virgin Islands, and we had two shows that night. But we were putting in a new Nicola, so we had a put-in that day, so it was more like a three-show day. I remember being in our dressing room after rehearsal and finding out about Broadway and just being really sad. My heart was breaking, and I was, at the time, I was thinking, “Well, that’s New York City and New York City is getting hit really hard with this. It isn’t going to affect us here in the Caribbean.” I remember feeling like that. And then, the next day, that Friday, we had another two-show day. And we found out about three or four hours before, that we were shutting down. And we were like, “Oh no. It’s everywhere, not just NYC.” And we did our shows that night, and then shut down. We had started employing protocol in February. We started doing temperature checks; we took away ‘serve yourself buffet.’ More hand-washing stations were implemented, so we were already doubling down on that, and just being careful about the people that were coming onto the ship. It had been a month and a half of us doing that and then we kept hearing about what was happening on land.

What was it like coming off of a cruise ship job and coming back to land that was being taken over by a pandemic?

When I finally got let go on the ship, I had to go through customs and immigration one more time. The officer was like, “Where are you flying to?” And I said, “New York.” And he looked at me, and said, “Good luck!”

I think it was a little bit scarier; because at the time, New York was the epicenter. So, I knew I was flying into it, and was like, “Right now, in Miami, we’re safe.” Which is not the case anymore. I also didn’t have a home, because I had given up my apartment. I had planned to move out when I got off my contract. I was like, “I‘ll find a new place or sublet…” So, I didn’t have a home to go to.

And I was sick. This was about a week and a half into being quarantined on the ship, docked in Miami, and then I started feeling symptoms. I was self-isolating. And I got really bad and went to the Health Center onboard. And they didn’t have Covid testing. But they were like, “You don’t have Covid,” and I was like, “You have no way of knowing that.” I was pretty sure I had it, and they then told me I was discharged after seeing a doctor again. They came; they cleared me; and I left. I traveled; I went on planes; I wore three masks; I had gloves on. I was so worried. It was so unclear when we were going to get flights, so when they said, “You have a flight,” I was like,” I have to go.” I could have been on for three more weeks, and I didn’t want to do that.

It was very disorienting to go from a cruise to land again. It was very overwhelming and emotional, so I went home to mom, which is what you do in times of crisis. I tested positive for antibodies in July. There was a good chance I had it.

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

I kind of don’t know why, I was like, “September. Everything will be back in September.” That felt realistic and manageable to me. And I thought rehearsals and offers would be going out in August… And now we’re looking at June.

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

Well, I moved, so that was exciting! We were able to get our new apartment for less than the normal rent price because of Covid. So, that was a big decision, because a lot of people are choosing to move away from New York. So, the decision to stay. It felt like the only thing I had in my control. Going home to live with mom I love, because it’s comforting. But I can’t feel like I’m going backwards in my life. It’s a great fear of mine. It’s something I work through. And it doesn’t mean I am going backwards, but that’s how my brain associates it. I need to stay here so I feel like an independent human. So, I want to stay in New York, even though it’s going to be really hard. That was my big decision.

In addition to being a professional actress and singer, you are also a voice teacher. What has it been like to teach during this time? What have been the challenges and perks of these changes?

The hardest thing about being a voice teacher and a performer is that when you decide to take a job performing, you stop all momentum of teaching. I put all my students on hold; I left my students at New Jersey City University. I was like, “I’m going. I’m doing this thing.” So, then to come back and have not only a “maybe the jobs aren’t available,” but nothing is available. I was directing and choreographing a production of Mary Poppins from the ship. I was sending them videos. I was going to get back just in time for the last weeks of rehearsal; we were going to put it on its feet. I was going to be there, but it was canceled. Every aspect of my life, whether it was teaching or performing was either canceled or on hold.

But luckily, I did reach out to some students just being like, “I’m back, I can do virtual lessons.” Had no idea how that was going to work, but I was like, “I’ll do it.” And at the time, I started getting two or three students a week; now I’m up to ten, which is a lot better. It was hard regaining momentum as a teacher, reestablishing yourself in the community when it’s all online.

And, because of the lack of employment, every artist decided that they were going to offer their services as teachers. And I can’t compete with people who have Broadway credits. It became challenging in that regard, as well. The technology is hard. As voice teachers, we rely so heavily on our ears, because voice is an instrument that we can’t see. That was really challenging. Working with a delay was really challenging. Now, I feel like I’ve really figured it out. I almost prefer it! I love being at home. I can have my cup of coffee; I can have pajamas on the bottom. You’re at home. You can still connect; you can still create. I don’t think my students have really lost anything, maybe with the exception that I can’t live-accompany them. But I’m one of the teachers that, I’ll make tracks for them. Especially in these situations when we can’t accompany them. I feel like it’s turned really positive, at least for me. I’ve really enjoyed teaching online.

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

Animal Crossing! It’s a video game. It happened to come out early this year, and I think a lot of people will agree it has gotten them through this pandemic. It’s so calming, because you build an island, and you build a community on your island, and you can spend hours on it. One day I’ll show you my island; it’s beautiful.

I’m also working on a book! It’s a repertoire book for auditioning, so it will be, “Take all your favorite singer musical theatre anthologies, and break it down by voice type, and then it’s by character type.” I thought really long and hard, in the beginning, to figure out how I want to structure it. But I want it to be the type of book where people can sit and go, “I have an audition for this,” and know where to look and know what’s going to work for them. I think we have versions of this already, but Musical Theatre is ever-evolving, and we need to continue to update. It’s also hopefully going to be the first audition rep book that is non-gendered, which is challenging in its own ways!

I’m in Italian tutoring lessons which is fun. And Zoom quizzes are the big thing right now for me. Friends across the pond; every Wednesday we do a quiz. Being able to see them every week and check in; no matter where we are in the world. We can still be together. Oh, and lots of wine.

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

Mental health for sure. I have struggled with depression and anxiety, and it’s almost always linked to self-worth. So, when we’re in a time when the industry is struggling, and not having a job, and not feeling like I have a purpose plays into my insecurities and depression. It’s been hard to keep myself positive in that regard. And then, it makes you question the big life decision question. If the industry is never going to come back, why did I go to school for what I went to school for, and why did I invest so much money and time and energy into this if it was never going to work out? And then you start applying for survival jobs, and, “what other skills do I have?” And it starts making you question your self-worth.

And on top of that, we’re staying home all day. We’re not connecting with people as much. There’s no doubt that mental health is going to deteriorate. And on top of it, I’m a bit of an empath. So, not only to be struggling, myself, but to see the people around me struggling. How can we lift each other up if we can’t even lift ourselves up? And then, vice-versa? Especially all of us in the same industry. I’ve struggled with, "How can I be a good friend if I can’t make someone else happy?" Mental health, on my part, and mental health on everybody else’s part.

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

This has brought us all together. We’re more resilient than ever, because we’ve had to be. So, we’re tackling the seriousness of the pandemic, while also digesting the bigger issues that we face, as a country, and as an industry. And the pause has given us enough time to reflect on the values that we’re upholding. And I’m really positive that once we return, new protocols in both safety, and diversity and inclusion will be in place. And I think, as theatre folk, we have taken advantage of this time to grow and be better for our return. The positive is that we did take the time to talk about it and look at ourselves and say, as an industry, “How can we be better?”

What do you miss the most about live theatre?

The best part about working on a cruise ship is you see your audience members all week, because they’re onboard. So, they frequently come and talk to you, and we’re encouraged to talk to them if we see them; at Starbucks, or around the ship, or wherever it is. What I miss most is getting to connect with them after the fact or before the fact. Especially with a show like Kinky Boots. Because our audience--they’re not ready to sit down and watch two hours of Drag Queens and inclusivity. It’s not a show that they’re ready for. Some of them really hate it, and some of them walk away feeling like they learned something. And that’s so powerful. I think that’s the thing we want to do the most as storytellers; maybe change someone’s mind. “You can change the world when you change your mind,” as we say in Kinky Boots. Especially for my character, and Don’s character. They learn. I loved talking to people on the ship and seeing what they thought. I miss that, and I also miss connecting with your castmates. Because it’s the coolest job in the world. It’s the biggest collaboration that there is; Musical Theatre. Getting to meet new people from all around the world, and make something. I really miss that.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

Offstage: As an audience member, my favorite theatre memory will always be seeing Lin Manual Miranda in In the Heights, when he looked at me and said, ”I hope you’re writing this down; I’m gonna test you later.” And I lost my mind! It was one of those little Broadway fan girl moments. And I knew the cast recording so well, and we had a moment. And it was the best thing I’ve ever seen on Broadway. It was so fantastic, in every way.

I have a hard time picking an onstage memory. You always have those onstage inside jokes that the audience doesn’t see. In Kinky Boots, there’s this moment in “Sex is in the Heel”’, where we do the dance break. And we pass out sketch pads with the heels on them, and the Drag Queens hit the poses. And Lola throws the glitter in the air. I always got chills. And there was something really visceral about that moment for me. I’m supposed to be shocked and confused- about “why there are Drag Queens in the factory?” But I always had the moment of, “I’m in Kinky Boots. I’m onstage. He was on Broadway, and he was on Broadway…” I would have an out-of-body experience almost every time, when the sketch pads would hit. It was such a great moment.

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

I can’t believe I’m going to say this, but rehearse! It’s the place you can play the most. So, when you’re creating something, you can make a choice. That’s the safe place to do it. Rehearsal is just as rewarding as when you get to the show. I can’t wait to collaborate. I’m also really excited to audition again. Being newly Equity, I don’t know how it’s going to be different. Do I get to sing more than eight bars?! I’m excited to see how it’s different and what’s going to happen. I haven’t auditioned in so long, and I’m excited to get back in the room.

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

To just keep creating in whatever facet that means. I want to say “keep working,” but I think working can be hard some days. So, whatever ways you’re working on your craft- great. Take a dance class; take a voice lesson; take whatever you feel insecure about and work on that. This feels like a great equalizer, because we’re all in the same boat. Nobody has a jump on somebody else. Our resumes are going to look different, but everyone is on the pause. So, it’s like, “What do you do with this time to better yourself, to continue to create, to be a better artist?” Keep creating. We have so many great platforms to do it: TikTok, and Instagram live, and Zoom readings. There are a lot of opportunities, even if we can’t be together; to get creative about creating.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: West Side Story

Favorite Broadway Play: Seminar, by Theresa Rebeck

Favorite role you’ve played: Hildy in On the Town

Dream role: Fanny Bryce!

Favorite Broadway Vocalist/Singer: Stephanie J Block

Favorite Movie Musical: Meet me in St Louis

Movie that you think should be a musical: Miss Congeniality

Favorite Broadway Theatre Ritual and/or Tradition: I like to hug everybody. Can’t do that in Covid times now. I like to find things that are specific to the show I’m doing. When we got places at Kinky Boots, I would pop my head into the Angels’ dressing rooms and say, “Break legs, ladies!” The other thing I do is, there is a prayer I do. It’s called, “The Guardian Angel Prayer.” I’ve done it for every show. If I don’t say it—and this has been proven—something will go wrong, if I don’t say it.

Favorite place you visited on the ship: San Juan, specifically the Cannon Club.

Favorite Theatre Superstition: Don’t say the M-word, and the ghost-light

Favorite Dressing Room item: I have to have music. Whether it’s headphones or a fierce playlist. I also like to have some kind of fruity snack, so a Swedish fish or a fruity snack. I don’t know why.

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