Nancy Whelan, Professional Music Director/Conductor/Pianist.
[Interview Date: April 20, 2021.]
An American in Paris National Tour, Matilda National Tour, Frozen National Tour, North Carolina Theatre and more.
What was the day March 12, 2020 like for you?
Absolute disbelief. We were in Portland, and I remember playing a show, as per usual, the evening prior. Then, being called for a full company meeting the next morning and being told to go back to our apartments IMMEDIATELY and pack up - we were all being sent home ASAP for an as-yet-undetermined amount of time. I was shocked, but did what we were told, and landed on the opposite coast a day later. I thought it wouldn't last long, so I was happy to go home for what I thought might be a hiatus of a few weeks.
What was the week following March 12, 2020 like for you?
After the shock of what had just happened began to wear off, I was pretty darn content being home. (Again, not knowing the reality of how drastically our lives would change over the next year.) I’d take walks with my husband and dog; checked in with friends; and started cooking really healthy food. I thought it was just going to be a mini-vacay.
Did you anticipate that Broadway and other theatre productions would be closed for this long?
Oh my gosh, absolutely not (I didn’t unpack, in earnest, for about three months…!) when Broadway shut down, I was astounded! I was still contracting orchestras for a local theatre while I was on the road, and when we were sent home, I thought, "Cool - I'll get to go sit in on some rehearsals - depending on how long we're laid off. Maybe I'll even get to see a production!" Of course, those rehearsals were postponed, and postponed… and here we all are, still waiting...
Have you been able to find/create music gigs for yourself outside of theatre? If so, what have the challenges of this been like?
To be honest, I haven't tried to find or create music gigs for myself since the Layoff. (Mostly because, as a collaborative pianist, I had no interest in getting near another human being…!) I have barely touched the piano since I got home last March and, surprisingly, it’s been mostly a welcome respite. It has, of course, been an emotional roller-coaster, having my career pulled out from under me so quickly, but it's been kind of nice to have time and energy to spend on things outside of music. (Happily discovering my love of cooking, which has been a wonderful creative outlet!) I wouldn’t have ever chosen to do this, but in retrospect, having a pandemic-imposed sabbatical has had its benefits. Don't get me wrong - I have LOVED making music all these years, and am BEYOND grateful for the opportunities I have had (most especially, touring with Matilda, An American in Paris, and Frozen - OMG, dream shows!) When lockdown began, I stayed at home for about eight months - ordered groceries through Instacart, and anything else I needed, online. In November, I took the leap of taking a very part-time job at a nearby art gallery. It's a small, family-owned and run gallery - we only let ten customers in at a time, masks are required, and we socially distance. I've never worked retail, and it's honestly some of the hardest work I've ever done.
As you have stepped away from music for a time, what other things have been healing and fulfilling for you?
I have surprisingly found consolation through the creative act of cooking more than anything else, since I've been laid off. I've also gotten into essential oils, which has been incredibly helpful.
What precautions do you think will need to be made in order to create a safe Orchestra pit? Is there anything you think people aren’t realizing about the difficulties of this challenge?
Oy...I can't imagine what will have to happen to feel safe in an orchestra pit (and just out there in the midst of humanity.) I'm fortunate that, as a keyboardist, I can still wear a mask when I play. I'm as (or more) concerned about travelling (flying, Ubers, taxis, staying in hotels or Airbnbs, having to eat out, etc.) than I am about actually being in the pit.
What have, you, personally, been doing over the past year or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
Again, cooking (I spend so much time on Pinterest finding new recipes!), researching and using essential oils, getting out in nature, reading, and limiting my time on Facebook (have you watched The Social Dilemma?!?) I'm SUPER fortunate in that my husband and I are best of friends, and just really, really enjoy hanging out together. So being "stuck" at home with him is kind of awesome... (An aside: He is also a professional musician [drummer/percussionist] - we toured together in the orchestra of An American in Paris - but he now works full-time at the Gallery - so in addition to living together, we work together about three days a week, which is cool!)
I also try not to wonder too much about when we're going to go back out - just trying to stay in the present, and take one day at a time. Be thankful for what I have. Do all I can to stay healthy. Although I reeeeally miss my paycheck; we've realized we can get by on a lot less than we thought we could.
What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?
I miss seeing people's smiles - I miss seeing faces. I miss getting/giving hugs. I hated not being able to visit my 89-yr-old mom who lives in a retirement community about 35 minutes away (Thankfully, they have lifted some restrictions, and as of a few weeks ago, I was finally able to see her!) I miss going out for sushi. :)
What do you miss the most about your job/live theatre?
I really miss travelling. I haven't traveled a great deal in my life, so touring (especially Golden Days when we could sight-see) just opened up the world to me. To be completely honest, I sometimes just miss playing in a Broadway touring company pit - I came to touring very late in my career, and never took one day of it for granted. I know a lot of younger players who seem jaded already, and don't realize just how incredibly lucky they are to get to do what they're doing. More days than not, when I came into the pit to play a show (or even a rehearsal), I would think, "I can't believe I actually get to do this. I am so, so fortunate."
What’s your favorite theatre memory?
Oooh, that's a tough one. Conducting Matilda on tour was a definite highlight.
What is the first thing you’re going to do when theatre is back?
Not pack so much stuff!
What advice do you have for young Broadway/Musician hopefuls during this time?
That's a tough one, too. Be sure you're making music for yourself, first. If that brings you joy, you will ALWAYS have that, no matter when theatre returns. Don't pine for what isn't - find happiness in what is.