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  • Natalie Wisdom

Sue McLaughlin – Broadway Puppet Supervisor.

Photo Credit: Selena Moshell

[Interview Date: November 4, 2020]

Frozen First National Tour, The Lion King and more.

Can you describe your initial thoughts and feelings during the week of March 12, 2020? What was the week leading up to it like for you?

As the threat of the virus became more real, I found myself hesitating to tell people that we had just played Seattle (where there was a documented outbreak). There were certainly differing degrees of concern within our professional group. I remember being disappointed that backstage tours were not being allowed. But I never fully grasped how serious this was, until we closed. Even then, I naively thought this hiatus would be about 5 or 6 weeks.

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

No. I really could never have imagined us being dark for more than 6 months. We all live by the “the show must go on” mantra. So, having this trap door open beneath us was, and remains, a shock.

As Puppet Supervisor, what were the biggest challenges for you when you saw things were shutting down? Were there any specific challenges relating to but not limited to things like load-out, crew morale, etc.?

As the puppet supervisor, I tend to be pretty self-contained. As difficult as it was for our company to face being out of work, it was equally difficult for the local crew. Our shows provide much needed income to locals. To cut that in half, essentially, was tough for lots of people. It was also hard saying good-bye to locals without being able to hug them, or even shake hands.

What precautions have you discussed or heard being discussed in regards to innovative ways to come back to safe rehearsals and performances? How do you think this will make your job different when you return?

My union has released pages and pages of precautions to take in the work place, much of it applying more to Film and TV, than Theatre. I have heard people float the idea of a touring company existing in a bubble. Also, audiences would need to be at a severely reduced capacity. Keeping “pods” of people socially distanced. Because I work so closely with my actors, I would have to be masked all the time. I will be constantly doused in hand sanitizer, because gloves are not practical.

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

I am extremely lucky. I am living with my boyfriend who is endlessly supportive, and a source of comfort. We are lucky enough to live with 4 other housemates, ranging in age from 7 to 72, and a dog and a cat. Our housemates are kind, creative people. We have the luxury of a large home and yard, with a pool and hot tub. I think I was just stunned for the first six months. I mostly puttered around, and played Scrabble on the iPad. Now, my days are a bit more well-rounded. I exercise every day. I take hula classes on Zoom. I take yoga on Moxie. I created epic Halloween costumes for most of the household. Kurt and I play trivia on Zoom, every other week. And, of course, I read and watch TV. Maintaining my connections to the Frozen family, my friends, my family, as well as to my friends in Hawaii, has been invaluable in keeping me grounded.

You are a creative and highly skilled craftsperson and designer. How has this time affected your drive to create?

As I mentioned, the first 6 months, I genuinely struggled to get motivated. I built a couple of puppets for my housemate early on. I felt a deep sense of guilt every time I heard about someone producing scads of masks, or starting a business, or returning to school. But, having a focus for Halloween (of all things!) has inspired me. It had been years since I had done a challenging build like that. Now, I am thinking of ideas that may translate into an Etsy shop.

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

The hardest thing has been having all this free time, and not being able to travel to see my friends or family. The second hardest thing has been watching my savings dwindle. I am not on the cusp of retirement, by any means, but I am closer to that than I am to college graduation!

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

I would have never dreamed of moving in with my boyfriend this early in our relationship! But it has been wonderful. Our relationship has grown exponentially, (when we anticipated weathering a long-distance relationship.) Also, being able to take hula remotely (an option previously unavailable at my studio) has been a shiny silver lining to this pandemic.

What do you miss the most about your job?

I miss the joy and excitement of doing live theatre. I miss experiencing new places. I miss seeing people I love and respect every day. I miss being around Michael Curry’s beautiful puppets. Honestly, I miss the paycheck.

What do you miss most about live theatre, in general?

Live theatre has been my passion for most of my life. It has been my professional career for over 25 years. I miss the sense of community it creates. There are very few shared experiences left in our society. Coming together to create a theatre experience is magical. Everyone in the audience is experiencing one performance at the same time, together as a community. I miss seeing theatre-goers dressed as their favorite characters. Seeing a little Anna, Elsa, or Kristoff crossing the street to get to the theater warms my heart in a way nothing else can.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

This question is always so hard for me. Picking one favorite memory is like picking a “favorite” child to me. One favorite is the first day I swung in at The Lion King. They had opened a few months before. At the top of the show, I went to the back of the house to help dress the actors for the processional during "Circle of Life." Once the music started, one of the dressers motioned to me to peek through the curtains (still at the back of the house). Seeing the giraffes cross the stage for the first time was one of the most magical things I ever experienced.

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

Relearn my track. It is all a foggy memory right now. My anxiety dreams feature me not remembering how to get to stage left.

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

Theatre will be back. Keep your passion alive. There are shows available to stream that were not available before. Take advantage of that. Keep using your skills, dancing, acting, writing, building. It is a challenge, but if you love it, do it. Above all, practice kindness. The theatre can’t survive without it.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical The Lion King

Favorite Broadway Play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Favorite Movie Musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch

Movie that you think should be a musical Avatar, the Last Airbender (the anime, not the film)

Favorite Theatre Ritual Singing or dancing backstage with the performers

Favorite city on tour Honolulu

Favorite Theatre Superstition Never saying the Scottish play backstage

Favorite Gadget Dremel

Best Personal Superhero Crew Skill Finding and fixing small problems before they become big.

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