- Natalie Wisdom
Terri Purcell, Broadway Wardrobe Supervisor.
[Interview Date: November 16, 2020]
Mean Girls, Billy Elliot, The Drowsy Chaperone, Something Rotten and more.
Where were you on March 12, 2020? And what was the week leading up to it like for you?
We had just put in 5 new company members (at Mean Girls), and changed our show to match the tour, so we had all been in rehearsal and tech the whole week prior to the shut-down. But more urgent than that, my kids were in their high school production of Drowsy Chaperone, which I did on Broadway! I had taken the day off on Thursday and Friday to drive to Goodspeed Opera to pick up the actual Broadway costumes that we had rented.
The producer of the high school show had called me the night before to say, “Don’t go to Connecticut yet, because they might cancel school on Thursday and Friday.” I said, “But I have to go then, because when we go back to school on Monday, it will be too late to go.” She encouraged me to wait, which I suppose was the right answer, because those Nightingale costumes would still be on my dining room table! Their show ended up being canceled. It was my son’s senior musical, and my daughter was playing Drowsy. Garth Kravits’ (one of the original gangsters) daughter was in it. We were all very excited about it, and it was just heart breaking to see it end.
So, since I had taken the day off from work, I just hung out at home. When we got the call that we were canceling the show that night, I spent the rest of the evening emailing and calling everyone. On Friday, my assistant Joby and I went in to figure out payroll (very complicated) and did a very quick sort of wrap up of racks. We didn’t know if there would be some intense cleaning while we were away, and we didn’t want debris to get in the clothes. It was very strange leaving the theatre, for what we thought might be as long as 2 weeks, but an uncertain 2 weeks, but that was a guess, at best.
Did you anticipate Broadway and other theatre productions to be closed for this long?
Absolutely not. We thought it might be just for the weekend, or we kept hearing 2 weeks. But we didn't even really believe it might actually be that long!
As Wardrobe Supervisor, what were the biggest challenges for you when you saw things were shutting down? Were there any specific challenges related to but not limited to things like load-out, crew morale, etc?
The week leading up to the shut-down was tense. Everyone was nervous if anyone coughed. Some people were more aware than I was about how this was affecting the whole world. While working backstage, in the olden days, pre-COVID, the least sick person went to work. You have to know what to do backstage as much as you do onstage. So, it’s very hard to throw in someone totally cold. Also, February is a very hard time to get swings, because of the new shows opening. So, we were in the process of training some new swings, and they were awesome! But, while we were training, we did have people who were sick, ranging from, like, a bad cold sick, to COVID sick, although we didn’t know it at the time. But everyone felt horrible if they coughed because it made people nervous. It was very tense. But for me, at least, I was so pre-occupied with the changes to the show that I just was not believing that the situation was as dire as it was.
What precautions have you discussed or heard discussed in regards to innovative ways to come back to safe rehearsals and performances?
I’ve been looking into UV light wands, which I saw in a video made by the Phantom Korea company, who I think never shut down. I imagine bite-lights are out, as we’ll have to be masked. What I can’t figure out is how we will be able to be socially distant during a big musical. We are constantly in small places together. I fear we won’t be back until there are widespread vaccinations available, when the audience might be willing to come back.
What have you, personally, been doing over the past year or so to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
I wish I could say I got my Master’s Degree in Playwriting, or painted my house, or learned how to tailor a suit. What I did do is, I made masks, for whoever asked me for one. I did some puzzles with my kids. I tried really hard to find the silver linings. The biggest of which was, having dinner with my family. That has been a joy.
Also, I got my son to college, which was a stressful prospect even before March. His high school graduation was canceled, then they had an amended one, where the graduate sat with his or her parents on the football field. While I was so sad at how much they all missed out on (prom, banquets, spring musicals, last day of school), it was so nice to be able to sit with him as he tossed his tassel to the other side of his mortarboard. Although the experience was compromised, how often do you get to sit there, with your kid, as they graduate from high school?
I learned a LOT about Cameo Silhouette vinyl cutting. I made some scrapbook pages. I quilted. Oh, one week, we worked on a song that my kids sang in choir, that I had sung in choir in high school. We worked on it for a straight week after dinner. We taught my husband how to sight-read (sort of) and we weren’t terribly good, but we were very earnest. Mostly, I tried to keep us sane, and pay attention when it got too depressing. My crew was awesome at staying in touch. I learned the most about Zoom with my young and very saavy crew. We toasted each other on Christmas night. It was just good to stay connected to Us.
The very brightest spots of this time have been my kids and my Paul. Both of my kids had some awesome experiences during this pretty challenging time. My son Joe was chosen to take part in Laura Benanti’s love letter to the class of 2020 on HBO, Home School Musical. Let me tell you, the weekend we filmed him, entirely in our house, was more work than any new musical I’ve ever done! Boy Howdy, we were running around like crazy. My husband was the music video camera man, my daughter and I were throwing balloons and feathers and silly string all over our attic! A definite highlight for Maria was a songwriting program she did with this amazing theatre company, Vanguard Theatre Company, who we have had the absolute pleasure to work with for the past few years. The brilliant artistic director Janeece Freeman-Clark decided to take these awesome teenagers, and show them how to write songs. And THEY DID!! Maria also taught herself to crochet and make candles and embroider, so all of those things have been really good for our sanity.
Overall, I’ve been so aware that, this sounds really corny, even in the hardest times, on the saddest days, there is a beauty to that sadness. I tried not to get overwhelmed by sadness, but to see the beauty in it.
What has been the hardest thing about the past months since the shutdown?
So many things. We had 2 Coronavirus funerals; one a neighbor and friend, and one my first cousin. I will never again take for granted the honor of standing by people you love, as they bury their parent or spouse. It was wildly sad and difficult, but I’m so glad we were able to be part of it. My son had sung with Nick Cordero as his mentor with Vanguard Theatre Company, and so we spent a lot of time praying for him, and my cousin and our neighbor to get well. Which we really believed they could. There were many things that were hard during this time, but without a doubt, the loss of life was the hardest. This summer, when we all experienced racial unrest, I wished we could have been together to figure out what we’d been doing wrong. I reached out to my friends virtually, while I had to face some pretty unpleasant truths. It would have been great to be able to say things in-person.
My brother passed away right before the pandemic, and he lived with my mom in Texas. I really wished I could have helped my mom through it, but felt we would add too much risk to her health if we traveled to see her. And we were so far away. That feeling of isolation, even though I was in a house with people, was very close to the surface at all times.
What positives, if any, do you think have come out of this time of quarantine?
Time. Rest. Pause. I feel like we had an unwanted, unwelcome intermission. Like when the set breaks and you have to stop the show. But I feel like it gave me the gift of time. Time with my son before he left home. Time with my daughter, when she needed me. Time with my husband to just hang out. We were all in it together, and I promise you it wasn’t easy. But the time together while we navigated the uncertainty was invaluable.
Have you made any big decisions directly because of the pandemic? How have your priorities changed, if at all?
I still don’t know what I want to be when I grow up. While I can’t imagine going back to work in such an unknown new fronteir, I know I can’t bear the idea of work going on without me. So, I will look forward to the day when we can go back. And relearn how to do what we did. After the initial 8 weeks, when we really just stayed home, I stayed pretty busy, so I believe I’ll be an excellent retired person when the time really comes!
What do you miss the most about live theatre?
Definitely, I miss the social interaction. I miss hearing my favorite songs from the show in background, while talking to Joby (my assistant). I miss talking about what just happened in the world with my people. I miss singing along with random lyrics. I miss the excitement when a new actor goes on, or when a swing goes on for the first time. I miss the day-to-day checking in with my favorite people. I miss passing the envelope when someone was having a baby. Or when they lost a loved one. Or when they were hurt and couldn’t work. I miss eating dinner together on a 2-show day. I miss running into friends from other shows at Penn Station. . I miss working with coworkers who have become multi-decade friends. I miss hiring new people, and learning about them while they steam and I struggle through the petty cash. I miss giving backstage tours to people who are really interested in it. I miss telling people about the ghost light. I really miss the ghost light. I miss showing people the slash marks on the wall for how many shows we’ve done, and showing them what a 15-year run (Jersey Boys) looks like on that wall. I wonder how they will mark this time on that wall, and I wonder what the future generations will think when they see it.
What do you miss most about your job, in particular?
I miss a really good quick change!
What is the first thing you’re going to do when live theatre is back?
I sure hope we can hug.
What advice do you have for young Broadway/Stage Crew hopefuls during this time?
I believe there will always be theatre. I don’t believe this is the end. It will change, without doubt. But we are nothing, if not adaptable. Stay adaptable. Stay hopeful. I studied design in school, but when I came to NY, I found that I loved being a part of what makes the backstage work. So, I worked in wardrobe. I loved being a part of it. A weird, little part of it, that you only know you did well, if no one noticed you. Which is an odd thing. But knowing you helped make a special show, special, is a good feeling. And then suddenly you find you went from being a new kid who couldn’t believe she was walking into a stage door to go to work, to being someone who is... older... with a really cool resume full of shows you are so proud of…who has made unforgettable friends and has some really, really good stories.
Favorite Broadway Musical: So many. Side Show, Drowsy Chaperone, Something Rotten, Merrily We Roll Along, Billy Elliot...Really, all of them!
Favorite Broadway Play: Love! Valour! Compassion!
Favorite Movie Musical: Meet me in St. Louis, 1776, Muppet Movie, Wizard of Oz
Favorite Theatre Ritual: Definitely Opening night spirit boxes that we make for other wardrobe departments.
Favorite NYC Restaurant: So many of these too. I like Blockheads, Luigis, Arriba Arriba, VIRGIL'S! Although I rarely go, but who doesn't love Sardi's?
Favorite Theatre Superstition: Definitely the Ghost Light.
Favorite Gadget: Jess Scoblick’s magic shoe horn.
Best Personal Superhero Crew Skill: I think my labels are good. When my daughter was little, she once asked during the Tonys, “Will you ever win a Tony?” And I said, “When they give a Tony for Best Labels, I feel I’ll at least be nominated!”