Stephanie Kurtzuba, Broadway/TV/Film Actress.
[Interview Date: October 25, 2020]
Broadway: Boy from Oz, Mary Poppins, Billy Elliot.
Film/TV: Wolf of Wallstreet, Annie, The Irishman, The Good Wife, Grey's Anatomy, and more.
Where were you on March 12, 2020? And what was the week leading up to it like for you?
I was at home waiting for my husband’s call on the 12th. He was about to have the first invited dress of Plaza Suite at his theater, and he had called me earlier in the day to tell me that there was going to be a big meeting with the producers at 4:00. So, we kind of knew the writing was on the wall. We thought there was maybe going to be a two-to-four week shut down, so that’s where I was, waiting for his call. And, of course he did call, and I was excited, because I was like, "Great, he’ll be home for dinner!” He had been in tech up to that point. I was like, “Wahoo!” I was really of the mind, “This will be a great break for us! He’s been doing ten-out-of-twelves. It will be nice. We will have a couple weeks off before he goes into previews, and that will be fun!”
The week previous-not even the week-a few days prior, I had been in Los Angeles. For the first time in my career, I was doing network pitch meetings for a television series idea that I had finally gotten off the ground and had some real producers and some real meetings and a real agent. We had just been to Showtime and AMC. That was the 5th or 6th of March. And between those 24 hours, we went from having multiple meetings on the books, to only two, and then having the rest for the next day all canceled. And it was “Coronavirus this and Coronavirus that”. And I had been keeping up with the news, and I was like, “It’s just a flu! These LA types are so intense with their tofu and their health consciousness.” I was like, "I’m a New Yorker. I’m gritty. This isn’t gonna bother me." So, I was a little blue about the fact that all the meetings had been canceled, but I was feeling confident that they would get rescheduled within a couple weeks.
So, when the Broadway shut down happened, even though I thought it would be short-lived, there was this little tickle in the back of my brain that was like, “Uh oh…”
Did you initially anticipate that Broadway and other theatre productions would be closed for this long?
Oh, no. My initial thought was that it would be two-to-four weeks. And then, things got really bad in New York, and then, I thought it would be summer. And then, it progressed. When they announced in the fall that we wouldn’t be back until January, Josh (husband) and I knew it would be Spring, 2021. And now, I’m thinking it’s probably going to be Fall 2021. But we’ll see.
As a mom, what were your first thoughts regarding how this pandemic and time in history could affect your children and family?
My initial thought over the first few weeks was this sense of gratitude for the slow-down in all of our lives and for the time together. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt—maybe since the kids were born. When they were both new-borns, I felt like it was just me and my husband and my babies, and we had all the time in the world. This was the first time since then, that I felt that feeling again. Of course, those feelings then morphed and changed a lot, because it wore on longer and longer. I mean, that was how I initially felt.
You have made some big life decisions as a result of the pandemic. Can you share a little about those decisions and your reasoning behind the changes you have made for you and your family?
Yeah, so the biggest change that we made is that we sold our home and decided to take off on a cross-country adventure. We’re calling it our “Great American Adventure.” We sold the house, rented an RV, and made our way across the western part of the U.S. for about a month, and then we temporarily relocated to Oahu through the end of the year. And the reasoning was multi-pronged. But I just remember when Broadway made the second announcement about Broadway not coming back until whenever it was---it was after the second one, in June. I turned to Josh, and I was like, “we’re not coming back any time soon.” And I’m an actor, I’ve spent so much of my career being told what note to sing, where to stand, and what step to do on what count, and I just really was feeling like I didn’t know what to do. I realized I had waited my whole life for someone to tell me what to do, and this was not going to be a moment to sit around and wait for someone to tell me what to do. And I know that fortune favors the bold. I turned to Josh and said, "We’ll never get as much money for our house as we will right now, because all these people are trying to move out of New York. There’s no reason for us to be near New York right now. We could be turning this into an adventure.”
My whole life, I’ve wanted to be one of those families who just took off and lived in Bali or lived somewhere like that—And I always resigned myself to the fact, because of my career and because of Josh’s job, we were never going to have that opportunity. And this moment happened, and I went, “It’s either now or never.” And not to get political about it, but things have been so bad. My kids are of an age now where they are cognizant of what’s happening in the world. And they can listen to what’s happening in the news and understand it. And it was really important to me to have a great experience in America. To show them what America is. To show them all of the beauty and the things that are worth fighting for, and just not being angry all the time or feeling disenfranchised. I was like, “There’s a whole country out there that’s beautiful and full of good people and full of great ideas." And this is why we can’t give up or feel despairing. It’s worth remembering that—we’ve been to all these natural places, all these national parks, and to say to them, “Oh you know, President Theodore Roosevelt was responsible for starting the National Parks System.” Government can be a good and a positive thing, and it’s worth understanding and not just raging against.
You are not only a Broadway veteran but also a highly respected Film/TV actress. Can you describe how you have the seen the pandemic affect the different entertainment mediums? How has this affected your career, personally?
Well, I’ve had an interesting perspective because my husband is a work-a-day Broadway person, and even though I have been a work-a-day Broadway person, that’s not where my work has been for the last few years. I’ve been reliant upon Film and Television for my livelihood. I definitely feel as though the Broadway community has been hit significantly harder than the Film and Television specter, only because Film and Television was able to get up and get protocols in place more easily than live entertainment. And it comes down to—simply that you can’t get people in front of a live audience right now without such significant risk. And even when you can, are people going to want to sit six inches from some stranger?
I feel like really great minds have been trying to sort out what it looks like and how to work around it, but the truth is: Theatre is a live experience. That’s what makes it special. Even with all the Zoom streaming—and I think people have been super innovative, and I think art is even more important right now than ever. But when you take away the live aspect of live performance, you’re missing a huge component of what it’s all about, which is that collective experience of bearing witness to a play or a musical and having that response within a group. And when that’s gone, it’s not that it’s not still important; it’s just not the same. And in terms of my own career, financially, it’s been really tough. I don’t think people understand the artist’s economic model.
What has kept you going this year? What has helped you the most during this time?
Honestly, staying on the move. One thing that’s really difficult for me, in general, is a sense of stasis. If I don’t feel like I am moving in one direction---forwards, backwards, sideways, I tend to get really blue. So, even though the physical movement, this Great American Journey that we’re taking isn’t necessarily movement, in life terms --towards more security or happiness-- it's moving from one place to another, and that has actually helped me. 'Cause it has made me feel like there is some sort of momentum in my life, even if it’s just physical momentum right now. It feels like there’s no momentum anywhere else.
What has been the most challenging thing about the past months since the shutdown?
The crushing uncertainty. The absolute uncertainty of how I‘m going to-- not just for myself and my career-- how I’m going to continue doing what I do, but also financially, how am I going to care for my family? It is such a reminder from the universe to never get too comfortable. It’s just shocking to me that in February I was at the Academy Awards; I was at the Oscars. As a kid from Nebraska, I had daydreams about it, but I never, in a million years thought it was remotely possible that I would be able to do something like that! So, to have gone from that to not knowing if my unemployment is going to run out and then what? It’s a real reminder never to get too comfortable, which is saying something as an actor, because that’s our life choice is we never can get too comfortable.
What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time of quarantine?
I’m extraordinarily grateful for my time with my family right now. Especially the ages my boys are at. Calvin just turned 13 about a month ago, and Dexter turned 11 during the summer. They’re right at that age where parents and family life become less important. They don’t have as much of an interest in what the family is doing. It’s a natural transition into teen-hood. But to have-there’s nowhere else for them to turn to. Especially Cal. Just knowing that he’s gonna be moving on soon, so to have this time with him really concentrated before that separation naturally happens is not lost on me. And there are so many kids going through so much anxiety in the world right now, between the pandemic and schools and all of the questions that are so different than when I was 13. I am just so grateful that I get these extra months of time with my son to help him understand, emotionally, what’s important and what’s not.
What is your biggest concern right now?
My biggest concern is the soul of our nation. It seems as though the idea of the collective good as opposed to the individual good is not the way people think anymore. People think only of themselves, and I think this pandemic—you can be one of two minds—It’s either, “I can just protect me and mine and do whatever I want to do-what feels good for my family” or “I can have a social consciousness about everybody suffering, and I can do my part as part of a larger group for the greater good”. It worries me. That’s an element to our society that needs addressing.
What do you miss the most about the arts and live entertainment industry?
Everything! I deeply miss the community. Not even just the Broadway community but even above and beyond that, just the sense of feeling like you’re a part of a larger group of artists out in the world, I’m really missing that. I’m also just missing a creative outlet right now. Even when you’re working on auditions, when you’re not working, but you’re still preparing things, you’re still calling upon your professional skills and your creative self.
Is there anything you wish people outside of the entertainment/arts industry understood better right now, regarding what arts workers are going through as a result of the pandemic?
I’m sure I’m going to say what everybody else has said, but people just don’t understand how financially decimated we are. I think people have such misconceptions about what it’s like to have a life in the arts. They think we do something else and we go to play practice. It’s not a hobby. I literally paid my mortgage and for my groceries and my utilities; it all comes from the living I make, not as an actuary but as an actor. It’s really hard for people to understand the many, many things we all do to cobble together a living even besides being onstage. A lot of us also teach, which can’t happen in-person right now. A lot of us perform side gigs and concerts, none of which are happening. So, to just say, “retrain in something else, it’s like ‘retrain?’” There are, of course, many things artists can do that are soft skills that are well-suited for other jobs and would probably be very welcome in other industries. However, as a 40-somethng-year-old woman stepping into an entry level job for minimum wage—you have to understand, I was just at the Academy Awards! For a performance in a Best Picture! It’s not that I won’t go work somewhere where I’m at the bottom of the heap; it’s just that if I don’t have to, I really don’t want to. I can’t go in and demand $80,000-$100,000 a year when I have no experience in another industry. I don’t think people realize.
What’s your favorite Theatre memory?
I have so many. One of my favorite moments ever was performing once, when I finished a very dramatic number. When I finished, it was one of those special nights when everything was really cooking, and there was a point-seven-second delay before the audience applause after the number. And in that small window of quiet, I heard a woman go, “Ah!” Which was amazing. Because that was a moment I was like, “I did it. They felt what I really needed them to feel from what I just did.” Isn’t that all any of us really want? Also, one of my other favorite moments was when I had to sit on my partner’s lap in the middle of the song. I sat on his lap, and the chair that he was sitting in shattered, and we both fell on our butts! And I was not able to stop laughing so hard! They put us on these IKEA stands! It just shattered into fifteen pieces underneath us. And I was laughing so hard, I couldn’t stand up! I was wearing a dress, spread eagle, so... So embarrassing! Mortifying.
Favorite Broadway Musical Once on this Island
Favorite Broadway Play The Heiress
Favorite role you’ve played in any medium Aldonza in Man of La Mancha
Favorite Broadway Theatre Ritual Our game of 5-6-7-8 in the Billy Elliot dressing room. That was, by far, my favorite.
Favorite Theatre Tradition I love Invited Dress. I also like the announcement of “It’s Saturday Night on Broadway!"
Favorite NYC Restaurant Ooh! Um…I do love Bar Centrale. Loved their drinks and menu.
Favorite Theatre Superstition If you’re nervous about falling during a number, fall offstage. Do it offstage. Nervous about tripping? Fall down.
Favorite Dressing Room item I always like my picture frames of my family.