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  • Natalie Wisdom

Susan Haefner, Broadway Veteran. Director, Writer, Teacher, Owner of the Little Yellow House Studio.

[Interview Date: November 10, 2020]

Thoroughly Modern Millie, 42nd Street, State Fair, Billy Elliot National Tour and more.

Where were you the second week of March 2020, when theaters began to close down? And what was the week leading up to it like for you?

I was at my home in Vermont. I had recently finished a run of Tenderly: The Rosemary Clooney Musical at Playhouse on Park in CT, and was home in Vermont teaching part-time, studying up to act in Small Mouth Sounds at Shaker Bridge Theater in New Hampshire, preparing to direct It Shoulda Been You at Playhouse on Park, and lining up acting and teaching work for the Spring/Summer. On March 10th, I went to a local steel drums class at a home nearby, part of a community learning program called Weston Pop-up University. I had no idea that this would be my last large indoor gathering!

In what ways did the stay-at-home orders and shutdowns affect your immediate plans?

In all work for the foreseeable future—24+ weeks of scheduled theatre work including AEA acting, teaching, and directing gigs. It seemed like every other day a call or email would come through with notice that a job was cancelled or postponed. Most jobs were cancelled, and I held onto the postponed jobs like my life depended on it. I had a couple private students at the time, so I started reaching out to them and others about studying virtually on Zoom.

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

For the most part, I anticipated this long wait, listening to friends in the medical field who said that we wouldn’t really be “back” until we could get a vaccine, which might be late 2021. What surprised me is how people in the country did not wear masks and take every possible precaution once they saw what places like New York City were going through. What I didn’t anticipate is how difficult it has been for regional professional theaters to get some kind of programming going. It is happening, but the struggle with unions is real. I recently lost 5 weeks of much needed AEA work (which included desperately needed employer-based health insurance and pension weeks) due to complications in getting a show approved at a theater that was already producing safe live theater. I don’t know the whole story, but in a state like Vermont where we already have low numbers and are following very strict guidelines, getting this news at the last minute was very disheartening.

In addition to being a Broadway Veteran and highly successful Actress and Director, you are also an Entrepreneur and Creative. Can you talk a little bit about The Little Yellow House Studio and how it has shifted since the pandemic began?

Thank you, I’m always up to something! In 2001, right after 9/11, and when I was just about to be a swing/understudy in Thoroughly Modern Millie on Broadway, I launched a small company, Living Room Arts, producing intimate space theater—concerts and new plays in people’s living rooms and cozy spaces. This turned into many years of developing new works and promoting solo artists. You could say the Billy Elliot tour “hootenannies” were born out of the Living Room Arts concept. I remember that we even did a living room hootenanny at my folks’ place when we toured through Rochester many years ago.

When I first bought my house in Vermont, I knew I wanted it to be a home for connecting artists with community. I tested out a few Living Room Arts events in the first few years, all of which were well-received. When acting and directing gigs out of town took up much of my energy, I stepped away from Living Room Arts for a while. Being home during the pandemic led to an idea to start a new company in the spirit of Living Room Arts. I wanted to combine my intimate space theater and new works passion with a deep love of teaching. Mix that in with the given reality that we would all be going remote for a while; I came up with the idea of founding Little Yellow House Studio.

I had a couple private students when COVID hit, so I started reaching out to them and others about studying virtually on Zoom. A live concert at nearby Ludlow Auditorium was canceled, but my sponsor (FOLA-Friends of Ludlow Auditorium) wondered if I could do a virtual concert. Everything pretty much snowballed from there. I turned one of the rooms in my house into a studio, bought a microphone and ring light, taught myself garage band and iMovie, and with the help of my collaborator and good friend Lisa Brigantino, recorded an old-time concert for FOLA and Okemo Valley TV. My studio has grown from reaching 2 to 12+ students, and I just released a second concert on Okemo Valley TV, “Make Yourself at Home”. I also produced a virtual conversation series called “Spotlight Tuesdays” to connect artists and audiences from all over the country. Business is booming! For the holiday, I’m planning on recording holiday songs, hosting a caroling party, and more.

Here’s a fun article to check out:

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

Walking, walking, walking! I have been hiking up mountains near my home. I’m also meditating and practicing mindfulness. I also grew vegetables from seed, and am still harvesting grape tomatoes and kale. I’m birdwatching and baking more. Recently, I signed up to take a free Castleton University graduate course in Relationship Building in Online Learning, thanks to a Vermont State Colleges initiative, offering free classes to those whose careers were affected by the pandemic. Having a project with deadlines really keeps me going. But I think what helps me the most is walking, and practicing patience with every step.

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?

Much stronger urge! Every day, I come up with a new idea about something to try. I’ve applied for grants, applied to the Vermont Teaching Artist roster, started singing at a local virtual church service, and I even started writing songs and premiered a song about my grandmother in my most recent online “Make Yourself at Home Concert”.

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

I think the very hardest part is not being able to see my family much, and not being able to hug my mom. My mom and I are big huggers. I come from a big family, and we live all over the country. Although we Zoom every other week, it’s just not the same. I’m also having a hard time trusting that the jobs will come. I refuse to change careers and find something new, but at the same time, so much of the work has vanished. Luckily, Little Yellow House Studio and some local school teaching artist jobs are keeping me going for now.

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

The creative juices are flowing! I feel like the Queen in Alice in Wonderland: Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” And I’m back in school taking the online learning relationship course, and doing a teacher training course with my voice teacher, Andrew Byrne, author of The Singing Athlete. I would have never taken the time to study this much again.

What do you miss the most about live theatre?

The audience. I miss the immediate feedback we get from an audience. If we tell the stories well, we get to feel an electricity coming from the audience and hear them breathe, laugh, cry and gasp, and see faces in 3-D instead of 2-D Zoom screens. Oh, and standing ovations. I miss standing ovations and bows.

What do you miss most about directing live theatre?

I miss my tribe, the creative team and the cast. I miss the magic we can create in the room together. I miss this family.

What’s your favorite theatre memory?

In September 2003, I was cast as an ensemble replacement in the 42nd Street revival on Broadway. I had five days of rehearsal before “Opening Night.” I remember crying a lot as I learned the show. It was such a fast process, and I was no spring chicken! But I recorded every rehearsal on my camcorder, rehearsed constantly on the subway and when I got home to Astoria at night, got through it, and managed to have a successful opening performance.

The next week, I started rehearsals for the two roles I understudied, Anytime Annie and Maggie Jones. A couple days after my very first understudy rehearsal, the gal playing Anytime Annie twisted her ankle in the opening number. I was also tapping in the opening number as an ensemble member, and when I got offstage, people were swarming around me and telling me I was on for Anytime Annie. What?! I had literally just learned her featured numbers, “Go into Your Dance” and “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” and hadn’t had any staging rehearsals. The next 7 minutes were a complete blur. People were taking off and throwing wigs on me, changing me into new costumes I had never tried on and didn’t quite fit, running lines, tapping out combinations in front of me...and then they threw me on stage.

Anytime Annie is a sassy character with a lot of attitude and pizazz, so I had no choice but to just go for it. I don’t remember a thing from that performance other than the other gals on stage pulling me through. Somehow, I finished in the right spot and with the right arm gesture. During that first number, the rest of the cast was either right offstage in the wings, or down in the green room watching the monitor, cheering me on. The rest of the show was also a blur, but my dresser, the stage manager, the conductor and the cast carried me through. I recently found a picture of a congratulations sign they made for me after it was all over. I am so grateful for the wonderful ensemble at 42nd Street, the most generous gals in the business. The show came at a time when I was burnt out, turning 40, and considering retirement, and those ladies kept me going. I even got voted “best legs in the company” - at 40 years old! And I never did quit show biz.

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

Have a spa day of beauty—a mani/pedi, buy some new eyelashes and make-up, and get my hair done. Oh, and audition a lot!

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

Practice, Practice, Practice. Take this time to improve skills, work on your art, and plan for the future. Stay in school or go back to school. We will be back! Find a mentor who might normally be too busy to help, and schedule sessions with them. Ask a lot of questions and soak up all the knowledge you can. Create your own DIY film and audio projects to share with friends and on the socials. Keep in touch with other Broadway hopefuls, and build a strong and supportive network.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: Most Happy Fella

Favorite Broadway Play: Coram Boy (only played on Broadway for 2 months in 2007, but rocked my world)

Favorite Movie Musical: White Christmas

Movie you think should be a musical: Does a series count? Schitt’s Creek. Movie: Shawshank Redemption

Show you would love to direct but haven’t yet: Strictly Ballroom, the musical

Favorite Rosemary Clooney song: "When October Goes” by Barry Manilow (m) and Johnny Mercer (w)

Favorite Theatre Ritual: Opening Night Flowers

Favorite Theatre Superstition: "break a leg” never say good luck

Favorite Theatre quote: “A bad dress rehearsal means a great opening night.”

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