• Natalie Wisdom

Sara Brians, Broadway Veteran, Director/Choreographer.

[Interview Date: October 26, 2020]

42nd Street, White Christmas, Billy Elliot, Matilda, City Center Encores and more.

Where were you on March 12, 2020? And what was the week leading up to it like for you? The week following?

I was working on two projects. I was working on Love Life at City Center Encores. I was Victoria Clark ‘s Associate Director for that. I was also choreographing Cabaret at the Argyle Theatre. That particular week, so many things were culminating. I was rehearsing Love Life during the day, and that process is so fast. And I was taking the train out to Long Island to tech Cabaret at night. On March 12th, we did a final run-through in the studio at City Center for Love Life, and we were supposed to go into tech the next day. We did some rehearsal in the morning, and then at lunch, we found out that Broadway was shutting down. Everyone involved with the production from the producer to the creative side, decided that as long as the cast felt safe, we would still do a designer run in the afternoon; to celebrate the work that everyone did. Kind of a, “Here’s our show. We know it’s not happening after this.” And then, I went out to Long Island, because that theatre—at that time for New York state, the capacity was maximum 500- that theatre was under that. So, we did a couple of previews. Thursday and Friday, and then Saturday night, we opened. And then, we closed. On Sunday, there was supposed to be a matinee. I think that day the capacity went down to 50. And then, I was supposed to start rehearsal for a show at Hershey Park that I was directing and choreographing the next week on the 19th. I was still prepping that, and on the 16th or 17th, I got the call that that was done. It was not a great week for everyone.

I had a bunch of projects lined up for the summer. Everything was either postponed or canceled-essentially canceled. It just felt like everything stopped. It was like, “I guess I’m not going anywhere. I guess there is no work right now. We have to sort of figure out what this means…”

Did you anticipate Broadway and other theatre productions to be closed for this long?

Yes and no. I had a gut feeling that it was going to, at least, be until about now. (October 28, 2020) I kind of had a feeling it would go through the fall (of 2020), what we’re in now. I don’t remember what Broadway was saying, June or July. I had a couple friends saying, “We’re gonna be back soon.” And I knew in my gut, there’s no way. There’s no way in a world-wide pandemic like this, that it’s going to be better that fast. Even now, I think it’s going to be a really long time. And I don’t think at the time, I knew what I know now. That it’s gonna be another year or year and a half or two years, who knows? The penny dropping on that is really what’s weighing most people down.

How has the pandemic directly affected your Director/Choreographer career over the past year? What about your job has changed?

What I will say is I was sort of in a place, in my career, where I felt like I was starting to make some traction as a Director/Choreographer, because I was transitioning; doing less associate work and doing more of my own directing and choreographing. As with anything, it takes time. You have to establish relationships. I had a lot of projects coming up that were going to help me establish those relationships with more regional theatres in the country and other directors and producers. And it felt like there was momentum happening—not that I was going to wake up and see some big change happen, but it did feel like this hard work I was putting in was starting to bear some fruit. And if I can just keep going with this momentum for the next couple of years, I will feel a little more established. In this industry, I tend to feel like I’m constantly hustling. I felt like, "Ok, people are starting to know who I am, in that regard.” And it just felt like the rug got pulled right out from underneath that. And I don’t know how much, when we are back, how much it’s going to feel like starting over again, completely. Hopefully, it won’t, but there’s a lot of uncertainty with that.

Have you continued to teach during this time? If so, how have your teaching methods changed and what have been the challenges involved in the adjustments?

I’ve done a lot of teaching on Zoom. I think there’s the typical challenges of the lag that you get with delay over the internet with music, and that kind of stuff is common, But I feel like I’ve been able to adapt to that and find my own ways of working around that. That doesn’t feel like such a hurdle. I have taught a bunch at a studio. Social distanced and wearing masks, which presents other challenges. But at least we’re doing it. It’s challenges, like “Ok, you have to stay in the six-foot square box and use choreography that doesn’t travel.” Students I teach at university are studying from home. You have to take into account what kind of space people have. Can they jump? Are they living with other family members, so they can’t make a lot of noise? There are hurdles, and you just have to be really flexible.

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

I do a fair amount of meditation and some yoga. You know what has really kept me sane is being outdoors. As soon as everything shut down, the only thing to do was go for walks. I’m not much of a TV watcher. I’m not one to sit on my couch and watch TV endlessly. I have a few shows, but what I ended up doing was walking through the park in my neighborhood. I have a friend who lives down the street. We would meet three times a week and go on walks. And I’d go on walks with other friends in the neighborhood. I started doing the same walk every day. It was a three-mile walk. Same path through the park. I would try to do it in the morning. To get myself in a good head space. I called it “my PTSD walk.” It was the one regular thing I could hold onto. If I just start my day, and I go down this path and I take this route, I’ve done that today. That was a constant for at least four or five months. That’s been very helpful. And I’ve been able to get out of New York City and do some hikes. Getting out in nature has been healing.

How has what’s happening in the world affected your drive to create? Have you felt a stronger urge? A lack of inspiration? Or has it stayed about the same for you?

In the beginning, the first three months, I felt not inspired, creatively, at all. I felt like I had to use the time to re-fill my cup. Or to pack my suitcase full of tools. What can I learn? What tools can I gain out of this time that are going to help me be a better artist when the time comes? That I can have in my suitcase for the next creative thing that I do? I can open that suitcase and pull out a tool that I didn’t have before. The feeling that this could go on forever is the really horrible feeling, even though I know it won’t. But at the beginning, “Oh, this might be six months; I’m going to use this time.” That mind frame is something I think I can take with me the rest of my life. Because it doesn’t change when we’re back. It’s just a way of thinking about myself as an artist.

What has been the most challenging thing about the past months since the shutdown?

I would say the financial stress. Emotionally, I have a lot of tools that help me through emotionally hard times. That doesn’t get me down as much as thinking, “I have bills to pay, and I have to find work.” I think what’s challenging is going, “Am I going to do something other than what my skill set is, or what my passion is in order to pay my bills?” And, of course, yes, I need to do that. I need to make money, but it’s stressful.

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

I think for myself, I’ve been connecting with my family a lot; which, when I was busy working, we weren’t connecting as much. Just my nature of being busy, so I feel like my relationship with my parents has grown and deepened. And finding ways to connect with friends differently. We have Zoom dates. I’ve reconnected with old friends more constantly now than I ever have before, and finding those support systems has been really lovely. And I think there is something to slowing down. And that is not a new concept to me. I’ve gone through periods in my life where I have taken retreats or time off, but you always go back to the grind. And back to, “I have to be productive.” There are pros and cons to it. And I think you just sort of have to be careful.

Has the pandemic directly affected your priorities in any way? Have there been decisions you have made this year that you think you wouldn’t have, otherwise?

Not really. I can’t say that my priorities have changed. I think it’s the way that time has sort of opened up in a different way. I’ve just, sort of, reassessed how I view my day. What’s fascinating to me is I will go through my day, and at 5:00 or 6:00, I can say, “Oh, I can stop working now and have an evening.” Whereas before, you know, we work in the evening. And most of the time, we’re working in the day and the evening, So, that has illuminated a different kind of lifestyle that is interesting. I don’t think it’s what I always want, because I want to do theatre. But it’s made me feel that in some ways, it can be less stressful. Even though we are under so much stress right now. If I can just turn everything off by a certain time in the day, it allows me to breathe. And that’s been an interesting revelation.

What do you miss the most about live theatre?

Being in a studio with people. Singing and dancing and making something. Being in rehearsal is what I miss.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

Oh my gosh! I have such great memories around Billy Elliot, especially the Chicago company. Everybody bonded. I was so busy, so I didn’t get to participate in all the social things that everyone did, but we would do hootenannies and barbecues. And it was such a special and unique time and group of people. And working with the children made it even more special. I had worked with kids a lot before that, but not kids at that level. It’s so challenging, but that’s what makes it so fulfilling. When everyone is working so hard to support this tiny human being who is still developing and doesn’t quite know all of the talent they possess. Just helping draw that out of them; that was such a cool experience.

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

Be in a rehearsal studio. I just want to be in a huge, giant studio with high ceilings. With people singing and dancing; and a live piano and drum kit. Because you know that feeling that it evokes. “Oh, I can release my artistry in this space with these other people!” And it’s magical.

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

I think if we’re specifically talking about young people, the one thing that they definitely have is time. They have time. When I was younger, and I don’t know if this is a common feeling… But when I was in my early twenties, it was this feeling of, “Oh I have to do it all now.” And the more life that you live, the more you can look back and gain some perspective about time. Yes, it takes time for things to develop, so it may feel like there’s a loss of time now, but that’s across the board. It’s not like somebody else is getting ahead and you’re not. You can’t compare yourself to other people anyway. We’re in the same holding pattern. And they should know they have the rest of their life ahead of them. Even though this feels in many ways like a “holding pattern” because we are waiting for theatre to return, I alternatively feel strongly that we can’t just be waiting. Ultimately, when I say “we” I’m just talking about my internal feeling and realization that life is still moving forward.

So, instead of “waiting” for theatre to return, I have to use this time to be productive - even if being productive means resting - that this is a time. And, also the potential that we have now to shift theatre when it does come back; to make it more racially just. I think there are going to be so many incredible changes in how we approach telling stories; who tells them and how, so the younger generation of people coming in are actually coming in at an amazing time. So much is going to get cracked open when we are back. They’re going to be at the cusp. They’re the ground zero of the return of theatre. The young people are in the best place possible right now.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: Cabaret

Favorite Broadway Play: Indecent

Favorite Movie Musical: Willy Wonka in the Chocolate Factory, original

Movie you think should be made into a musical: Kill Bill

Favorite tap step: Time steps

Favorite dance icon: Cyd Charisse

Dance bag staple: A massage ball

Favorite Theatre Ritual: I really love the Opening night gifts and Opening night celebrations

Favorite NYC Restaurant: Snack Taverna, Greek restaurant in the West Village

Favorite Theatre Superstition: To not say the Scottish play in the theatre

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