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  • Natalie Wisdom

Richard Riaz Yoder, Broadway Performer.

[Interview Date: December 6, 2020]

White Christmas, On the Twentieth Century, Shuffle Along, Hello, Dolly, My Fair Lady

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

The week leading up, I had just finished Mack and Mabel at Encores. And then, I had gone to New Orleans with a couple of my best friends, for one of my good friend’s birthdays. I was gearing up to audition, and a friend of mine texted me and said, “You should go and get all of the supplies that you need, because something’s coming.” And I was like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I had heard something, but I didn’t really know. But once he texted me, I was like, “Ok. Let me get it together.” And then, when Broadway got canceled, I had everybody over, and we talked, and played spades, and talked about life. And we were like, “Ok, I guess we’ll see you guys…” And then, it was quarantine. That was the last time that I really saw a big group of people.

What were the weeks following the initial shutdown like for you?

Immediately, I went into saving mode. I cut down everything that I didn’t need. I started cooking every meal, and I made sure I had as much money as I possibly could. Luckily, I already had an unemployment insurance up, because I had just finished a show. And then, I just hunkered down, and I would teach.

And I taught some in my apartment. I taught a regular class every Monday, and I would go in the park and teach there. There was one day that it was kind of one of those moments that made me laugh. But, also, that was, “What is my life right now?” I was about to teach a class (in Central Park), and I looked to my right and there’s a gigantic piece of poop on the ground, 12 feet away from me. And I’m like, “Oh my gosh, that’s disgusting." And I was like, “I am dancing next to…” It was one of those moments. But I was like, “This is insane! I am in the park, there’s a piece of poop, and I am teaching a class to these kids!”

Another time, I was teaching, and they kept having questions. So, I was like, “I will record the questions everybody has.” And it was one day in April. And there was a downpour! And I was in this tunnel. I turn around to look, and all of my stuff is gone. My ring light fell, so, luckily, I caught that. But the case for it went flying. My regular shoes went flying; my jacket and my backpack… So, I’m running around in Central Park in tap shoes. I got everything back, but my tap shoes were drenched. It was just one of those things.

There were some moments that I will cherish forever, because it was hilarious; and somewhere I was like, “I am so close to despair right now.” I went from City Center and Broadway to now. This is what I’m doing. And it was very humbling, because I’ve been very lucky. But it was like, “This is where I am right now.” And that is me in a privileged position. I still had housing and health insurance and unemployment. But I also was like, “This is bad for me; but there are people that are more worse off than me right now.” So yeah, that was one of those things.

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

Yes. I thought, when they said it was going to be a couple weeks… When I started researching it and seeing how it was going, and seeing how quickly it migrated to people. Because I got it as well, and the thing is, I was not engaging in risky behavior. I wasn’t in big groups; I wasn’t even in a show right before this happened. I was in Mack and Mabel, but I wasn’t in anything else. And when I went to New Orleans, there was nobody there. It was the six of us going around New Orleans; a bunch of us that went to New Orleans got it. I don’t think people realize how quickly this can spread from one person to another. So, I was like, “This is going to go on for a while.”

Have you made any big life decisions during this time? How has the pandemic affected your priorities during this time, if at all?

It’s been interesting, because it has made me more aware of how much I value my family. I adore my family, but this time has really been a blessing; just being able to be with them for this long. And I think that’s one of the main things. And it has put a lot of clarity into my views about theatre; about how I view people in theatre especially. Because I tended to be very worked up- “This person is doing this; this person is doing this…” And I’m just happy to have survived. I’m happy my family is safe.

I have been applying to get my Master’s degree in Teaching, so I’ve been working on that. So, I have two applications going out. The goal is to stay in this business and thrive in it; but at the same time, I know that I’ll be finding a way. So, if I don’t continue with this profession anymore, I will know I have done something really great. But I’m not done yet. I now know that things change; just thinking about Theatre in the past ten years; it’s different than it was back then. And I have to progress and change with the times. When it comes to creating content; when it comes to what that is for people. And it’s eye-opening; and it is also eye-opening to my own drive, and when given a focal point. I have a lot of drive and nobody will stop me, but when this opens up, there is no focal point. And that’s something I’ve had a hard time dealing with. Because there’s no road map. The road map to Broadway was not hard; take class, work hard…

And that’s the other thing. It’s also strange, but also freeing and scary, when you’re not defined anymore. You’re not defined as a Broadway performer. You are who you are. Whatever that thing is. You could end up writing; being a director; choreographer; a YouTube personality. There are so many different things… Our Broadway bubble has been popped. We have been on Broadway, but we’re not defined by that anymore. It’s kind of good, because now people are free to do whatever they want to do. What do you want to put out into the universe?

It let me know that I didn’t take a lot of time to develop other interests, besides focusing on being in a Broadway show, because when I got to New York, I wanted to create my own money; be in a Broadway show. And I didn’t think about much else, and now it’s like, there are so many things out there.

What have you been doing over the past several months to stay sane? What has helped you the most?

Getting the chance to be with family. And I know it’s going to be so silly, but I’ve been doing these videos of me dancing in supermarkets or Walgreens! But I literally create 30-second videos for a reel, and it fills me with so much joy. Because I am moving and dancing and having something fun to do. It’s been so great. And then, there are random projects that will come around. I got to direct and choreograph a dance clip for Divas for Democracy to get the word out to vote with LGTBQ+ youth. Getting to do the thing at the MUNY; it gave me something to do. Anytime I get the chance. There were a couple tap performances that people have asked me to do; and record taps for soundtracks for little things. They have been such a blessing; these gigs that come up.

As a Broadway dancer who is originally from St. Louis, what was it like for you to be able to film a number for the St. Louis MUNY’s Variety Hour? Can you describe what that was like for you?

It was emotional overload, because It reminded me of how much fun I had while I was there. As soon as I walked in, I was like, “I remember doing all these shows…” And when I was first working to become a professional actor. It’s all those memories. And then, it was sad, because none of us are able to touch each other. It was the first time I was around theatre people, and it was just awesome. It was just magical; just being able to do that, and dance around the MUNY stage. And feel supported. They were trying to create their Variety Hour and at first, I was in my head. I was like, “This isn’t going to look good…” And then, I had to let that go and be like, “This is bigger than just me. This is about getting brightness to people’s lives.” It was so special. And that was the other thing; a lot of people that had performed at the MUNY- having them see the backstage was so important to me. That was very important to me, because there are so many people that lost jobs this summer; that were prepared to go there. And I wanted them to feel that they were there with me.

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

Letting go of the expectations of where I would be in my life at this point, right now. There was such a good quote in yoga the other day, “finding contentment but also being uncomfortable- but not settled.” It was about finding a way to be settled but also reach forward. That’s where I am right now- being happy with what I have. Being happy I get to spend time with my family; being happy I have my health. But also, being like, “It’s ok to want more.” Finding that fine balance. But I’m still working at it. I feel like that’s been the hardest thing. And seeing other people going through these terrible things. Just with COVID and everything that has to do with Black Lives Matter. That’s something that the whole world saw. But especially the Black community; not only do we have to deal with this pandemic, but it was almost the straw that broke the camel’s back. And there’s beauty in the breakdown, and that’s true. The world broke down, and now, we’re coming into a new consciousness, I feel like.

What do you miss the most about live theatre?

I miss the people so much. Getting the chance to just walk into a dressing room and feel like we’re about to accomplish something. Having that time backstage; getting to talk with everybody every day. There were shows; when I was like, “I don’t want to go onstage today.” But getting to do that, and going onstage and getting that energy from the audience; energy of people wanting to escape, and getting to escape! Before I was appreciative of it, but now I see it in a different way. Because not only is it giving us all these great things we deserve, because we’re working so hard, but we’re giving something so special to the audience. I miss the people, that energy, and working toward something and fighting for a goal. It’s just awesome.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

My favorite theatre memory- there are too many so I’ll say one. I think one thing would be getting to perform onstage with all the different Dolly’s (in Hello, Dolly). Because each one was so different, and each one was beautiful in their own right, and so funny. It was the coolest thing. And when we had our first audience with Bette; I’ve never experienced anything like that. The eruption; the amount of love from the audience to her… It was one of those moments that I was like, “Oh, Bette Midler! She’s Bette Midler!" It was one of those moments. So, I think it would be that…

And one of the first times we were onstage with Shuffle Along- getting to do that dancing; getting to be with all those People of Color. To be with a Black cast; that, honestly; it was one of those most special moments to me, ever.

And seeing a show; I think it would be Next to Normal. I don’t think I’ve ever been through a transformative experience, as seeing Alice Ripley. Seeing her perform that. I was a puddle. It was so good, and I miss that. It was so magical.

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

I would love to be performing. But if not, I would love to be able to see a show. Because I don’t think I took advantage of that when I wasn’t in a show. Because I was just burnt out from being in shows. A lot of times I would not go see shows, and I’m not always like, “I’m a theatre nerd”-that’s not really me. But now, I’m realizing how special it is; getting to see live theatre. I would do anything to go see a play- a deep play that would tear my soul asunder. And make me cry and laugh… I would not be able to wait.

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

Practice and refine whatever skills you have, and take any kind of classes you can. And stay hopeful, and don’t give up. Because things will come back, and we have to be ready for it.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: Next to Normal

Favorite Broadway Play: Brief Encounter

Favorite role you’ve played: Cosmo in Singin in the Rain

Favorite Movie Musical: Singin in the Rain

Favorite Performance in a Movie Musical: Stormy Weather, Nicholas Brothers

Movie that you think should be a musical: Jingle Jangle

Favorite Tap Step: Swing Time Step

Favorite Dance Icon: Maurice Hines, Savion Glover, and Katherine Dunham

Favorite Broadway Theatre Ritual and/or Tradition: Dancers having their spot to stretch or their spot to do something in particular. Right before “Dancing” every night, I would walk to this one spot, right below the train. I would sit underneath it, and that’s where I would stretch and talk to people. And right before “Sunday Clothes,” we would sing this harmony to “Sunday Clothes,” and that’s what I miss. Those traditions that everybody has.

Favorite NYC Restaurant: Yum Yum Bangkok. For drinks, 9th Ave. Saloon. New World Plaza-Blockheads!

Favorite St. Louis Restaurant: Hacienda on Manchester. And Pie!

Favorite Theatre Superstition: I don’t like when people tell me, “Oh, I like it when you do this!” I think about it, and I mess up! I’m like, “Ah! I’m thinking about it!”

Favorite Dressing Room Item: Floss.

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