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  • Natalie Wisdom

Tanya Rist, Assistant Props at Frozen First National Tour.

[Interview Date: January 18, 2021]

Book of Mormon National Tour, Denver Center Theatre Company, Oregon Shakespeare Festival and more.

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

I was in Portland, Oregon, on tour with the Broadway show Frozen. I’m not one who usually pays much attention to the news, but I did notice a lot of concern coming from Company Management, and of course, had heard about the virus. They stopped allowing backstage tours and meet-and-greets at the stage door the week leading up to our closure. That is when I finally realized how serious it was.

After our show Wednesday night (March 11), I was heading into the elevator at the hotel with a couple other crew members and saw that the mayor of Portland had banned gatherings of more than 250 people. I took my stuff up to my room, which I was sharing with another crew member. We were feeling lost, so went back down to the bar where a bunch of our coworkers were gathering to process the news. It was shocking. People were talking about packing up their trunks, but I think I was in denial that we would actually be leaving.

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

Absolutely not. Like many of us, I assumed we would be back in a few weeks. Most of us left a lot of stuff in our trunks and at the theatre. We had already dealt with SARS and other viruses that didn’t end up affecting our daily business at all.

As a Crew Member, 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.?

We had a company meeting at noon the next day, where we were told to go back to our hotels and pack up our trunks – they were starting to send people home that evening. We already had a work call arranged for that day, which turned into a pseudo load out. I work in props - we dismantled and put away all of our stuff to be ready and out of the way of other departments for when we came back to load out. As of today, Jan 16, 2021, everything is still sitting in the theater.

As far as crew morale, I think theatre people are very good at adapting to change. Also, we had no idea that we would be gone this long. We were busy dealing with the task at hand and then, we were all heading home without much discussion amongst ourselves, mostly because we had no real answers. I honestly thought we would be back within a few weeks. Our production was relatively new and, as a whole, we were still tired from production and learning how to move our show. I think there might have been a little relief that we would be getting some time off. Just not this much time.

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

There will be temperature checks at the door, and masks worn backstage. We will have to rethink how the orchestra pit is set and how we can spread the musicians out more and use shields in between them. I’ve also been in discussions about keeping the touring company isolated as much as possible, with all of us staying at the same hotels and not going out, like what they are doing with sports teams. The difference is that we are traveling and will always be in contact with locals who aren’t isolated. There will be a lot more cleaning and sanitation. I haven’t heard much about how we will deal with the performance itself – how do you keep actors onstage 6’ apart? Or in masks?

One would hope that they would also take the temperature of audience members and keep household groups separated by 6’, when seated. In my mind, it would make more sense to have longer runs in cities so that we can accommodate the physical distance necessary and still sell seats. Not to mention keeping touring companies safer by not moving so much.

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

I try to spend as much time outdoors as possible. I love to camp, so I’ve done quite a bit of that. I’ve also been riding my motorcycle when it isn’t too hot, too smoky or too cold. Hiking. Playing bass guitar. Spending time with the people in my bubble. Seeing coworkers on Zoom every Sunday afternoon.

In November, my friend Jason let me start using a spare room behind his garage as a studio. That has been incredibly helpful. Having a space of my own with my belongings in it has made all the difference in the world.

I’ve also needed to keep busy, so I repainted most of my aunt’s townhome and did tons of maintenance, including cleaning out her garage, washing the windows, clearing out unwanted items and so forth.

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

Not being able to travel freely. I finally had all the time in the world and was unable to go anywhere. I was also frustrated by people not taking the virus seriously.

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

For me, there have been a lot of silver linings. I was able to be here for my aunt, who has had several health issues this year. My stepmother died in June, so I was able to spend 6 weeks with my sister in Florida cleaning out our parents’ house. That is the most time we have ever spent together, as she is 12 years younger than me. I never would have had the time to do that with a touring gig.

What is your biggest worry right now?

The horrific and embarrassing way that our government has handled this pandemic and the vaccination roll out. I worry, because so many people aren’t treating this virus seriously or thinking that it is a hoax while my entire industry has collapsed and thousands have died. How are we ever going to get back to doing what we love? I worry for the safety of friends, family and common decency with this shocking show of white supremacy, police brutality and gross incompetence in the highest levels of government.

I worry too about money, how this will affect my retirement, pension, and future savings.

What do you miss the most about theatre/your job/the arts?

The people I work with. The camaraderie. The joy and thrill of live performances.

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

Other than cry? I’ll want to hug everyone!

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

Don’t give up hope! But do expand your skill set. There are so many online classes and tutorials. Theatre people will be welcomed at pretty much any job – we show up on time, we will do what it takes to get the job done, we think outside the box and we aren’t afraid of hard work.

Lightning Round:

Favorite Broadway Musical: Hamilton, Book of Mormon, Sweeney Todd

Favorite Broadway Play: Noises Off

Favorite Movie Musical: Probably Sound of Music. I also liked My Fair Lady.

Favorite Theatre Superstition: No whistling in the theatre.

Favorite Gadget: Leatherman/crescent wrench/headlamp.

Best Personal Superhero Crew Skill: I don’t think it’s a superhero skill, but I love programming lighting consoles and focusing (conventional) lights. I love being super-fast at it and anticipating the designer’s directions and having the light pretty much spot on before he/she/they can say anything. Same for programing – I like to have all of the commands in by the time they finish their sentence. I’m also a little OCD about details – it might be the 100th time I’ve done a show, but it is still an audience member’s first time seeing it. I enjoy being helpful backstage and having anything anyone might want or need.

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