- Natalie Wisdom
Amber Mak-Chicago-based Director/Choreographer.
Updated: Mar 22, 2021
[Interview Date: November 4, 2020]
Artistic Associate and Director of New Works of Paramount Theatre, Chicago.
Where were you on March 12, 2020? And what was the week leading up to it like for you?
I was on a cruise ship with my family on March 8th. So, that week right before, that Sunday is when we returned with my parents. When we got to the cruise, it was, “Oh, Covid!” There was a little extra; we washed our hands five-million times; we were super clean. But there was no real fear, so we went off on the cruise, no problem. When we were on the ship, the world changed. Things started to go on lockdown. So that by Thursday, March 12, when everything shut down, we were all back in the office at the Paramount. We were all listening to the Governor on the radio, giving the mandates… And at 7:00, we had a performance of The Secret of my Success. The Governor finished speaking at 6:15. And we were all like, “We can’t go on with the rest of the show. We have to go notify the cast.” And so, I remember running over and at 6:30, being onstage with the company and telling them this would be the last performance of the show. It was the World Premiere, which was really cool. To get any show up on its feet is a crazy process. And the cast was really cool, and we were supposed to do two and a half more weeks. And at 6:30, they’re finding out, at half-hour, that there is no more. And who knows if it will ever be done again. As a performer, I was like,’ I would want to know.’ It’s going to suck, but at the same time, they get to take in those moments. You’re more cognizant of it. Looking everybody in the eye. And I was like, “We have to tell them.” We did an impromptu Closing Night party that night, with pizza and beer. And that was the last time I ever talked to performers!
And that following Monday, I got a slight fever. A low grade like 100, but I remember my body started aching, and two days after that, I completely lost my sense of smell. For twelve days, I had no sense of smell. At one point I was spraying Lysol all over our house, and my husband was like, “You’re suffocating us,” and I was like, “I can’t smell it.” I don’t know if I had it, because there was no testing at that point, unless you were super sick. But the fact that I lost my sense of smell, everyone is like, “Oh you had it.” We’re being very cautious, especially when we make plans to visit my parents. We quarantine, trying to make sure-because I’m terrified that I will pass something to someone. We feel like we’re relatively healthy, but that’s my biggest fear- that I give it to someone who can’t fight it.
What was the week after March 12, 2020 like for you?
I felt a little sick at the beginning of it, and I was still working full-time at the Paramount. We were trying to look at what the next steps were--looking at possible scenarios of reopening, of adjusting calendars, checking in with other theaters…What were other theaters doing? Were they putting things on hold? It was just a cacophony of ideas, with so many unknowns. It felt chaotic, and at the same time, my husband and I were trying to manage a three-year-old, nonstop, 24 hours a day. It had gone from going to school and having fun to having to be in our house. And the guilt of, “Do we want to watch that much TV? They tell us not to let her watch more than an hour a day of television.” I think my natural instinct is, “I can’t go back and change the way things are, so what can I do now?” So, I went into this mode of, “Ok this is normal.” Nothing ever goes perfectly. What can we create? How can we stay connected to our artists? “I’m going to create prompts to give artists to create during this time. And we’re going to host this little series.” We made that happen, I think, the first week. We sent prompts to writers and artists and kids. I, immediately, asked the kids to write a song that shared their experience of what it meant to stop going to school. We created this for two months. We did this thirty-minute series. It was for artists to give them something to focus on. I remember that about the first week: Chaos and what, then, can we do right now?
Did you initially think the Paramount Theatre in Chicago would be able to produce some semblance of a 2020 season when the shutdown first began?
We thought so. I think we thought, “Ok, we’re sheltering in place to get the numbers low, but we’re going to figure it out, and as soon as we get the numbers low, we're going to have a delayed season.” That’s how we were approaching it. I feel like it wasn’t too far past that thought that I started reading the science journals and doctors’ notes. And I was like, “Oh, we’re not getting out of this anytime soon.” But, at the same time, I talked to the Paramount and was wanting to hold out hope that we were going to get out of this sooner and open with Rock of Ages in August-- which is the show I was supposed to be directing. We tried to delay Kinky Boots, and then it was like, “We need to postpone Kinky Boots, indefinitely. And then, it got to the point of, “Were we going to open the season with modifications?” A concert version of Rock of Ages, not a full production. I remember sitting in a Production Meeting on Zoom, trying to imagine. “Can we do it socially distanced? A staged reading version of that show?" So, I was being asked as if we were proceeding, as if we were going to open sooner. But in my heart of hearts, I thought, “This is not going to happen anytime soon.” I did think that we would be able to produce something-something small.
What would you say is the best way to support local theatre companies right now? Donations? Is there anything else citizens can do to help their local theatre companies to ensure they’ll be able to come back safely and successfully from this time?
I think donations are, for sure, the strongest way to support any institution right now. They need money for staff and for operations. I know that just to maintain our building, it costs us money right now, even though we’re not bringing in anything. It shows, not only that you’re financially supporting them, but that you value that institution, and you don’t want it to shut down. And I think money is what they need; because without ticket sales, there is no other way for them to come back. There’s support, too, in just voicing that you enjoy them. If they’re streaming things, support what they’re streaming to show they have value. But if they want the institution to stay in that community, donations is how to do that.
How have you seen the theatre and arts community come together during this time? Have you seen anything that has inspired you and helped you have faith in live theatre’s return?
I definitely have seen the theatre and arts community come together, more than ever. At least, in Chicago. I’m a part of NAMT, and, at the beginning of this, we had a town hall every week, just to talk and see how each other were doing. And to share ideas. Immediately, we heard about Barrington Stage and heard about what they were trying to do. I think there is so much more collaboration amongst the theatres, and just community of the actual producing organizations than we’ve ever seen before. We have never had these conversations that we can now have, because we’re on pause.
There has been a lot of leaning on each other, and knowing that we’re not alone in this. And it takes so much energy to produce. It’s a crazy timeline; you’re running nonstop, constantly. Especially the nonprofits. You talk to other people in the community, but you talk to them briefly. There aren’t usually these conversations; what they’re doing. There’s been more about Black Lives Matter and the discussions that happen among that, the conversations with each other, and how to come back better than ever, moving forward. And I don’t think we would have been able to do that without this pause. Not going back to normal, not going back to before. But going forward. Stronger protests in who we are and what we do, because it’s a necessity. And I think we have the opportunity to be voices of equitability and change. I think that’s exciting.
What precautions have you discussed or heard being discussed, in regards to innovative ways to come back to safe rehearsals and performances? What are your thoughts on this?
I’ve heard so many. It’s just so hard, because theatres have tried things, and precautions have been taken, and it was interesting. In June, we were still discussing it. We discussed actor housing and a smaller cast. And I thought, “How do I rehearse the show? I stand behind a plexiglass piece and wear a mask, but my actors are going to have to be in a room for eight to ten hours a day. And how do we do this?” Ok… testing. We can test regularly, but the tests are so cost-prohibitive, at this point. I think it’s, like, $138 a test. Usually, we have a cast of twenty, not to mention the crew. We’re looking at the numbers. Usually, there’s at least 40 people in the rehearsal room. And then it’s like, “Are we actually creating a show? Is it worth it? Are we being detrimental to the art form, because we’re not actually honoring it?” We’re a theatre company that is like Broadway in that people go home, and some people are saying tour might be easier. Because a tour is a pod to begin with. There’s a little more control. You’re not going home to your kids and whoever you’re married to. Do we ask people to not see their families? Do we house everyone together? And then it was a question of the audience. Does the audience want to come back? People are taking precautions. I don’t know if there are any truly innovative ways except doing things outside. By summer, I hope we’re able to do more performances in an outdoor environment. It comes down to: Do we have an audience? I struggle like we all do. We struggle for how we balance our necessity to work and to live, which sometimes is our breath of life; and at the same time, keep people safe.
What have, you, personally, been doing over the past several months to stay sane? What has helped you the most?
Getting off of Facebook. I checked it every now and again, and then, just took the app off my phone. That was recently. To stay sane, I try to focus more on being present with my daughter, and the opportunity to be outside as much as possible. I’ve always been in theatre; and before theatre, I was a figure skater. I’ve always been in-doors. And trying to connect with nature, being outside and taking walks has kept me saner, and connected. And then, at one point; I hadn’t watched The Social Dilemma yet, and I had to step back. There’s so much I can’t control. So, taking time for meditation to figure out what I can control and taking back control of different parts of my life.
I just turned 40 last week, and leading up to my 40th birthday, I decided 40 days prior: “I’m going to do a '40-days to 40' challenge for myself.” I’m going to eat clean. I’m going to work-out for 40 minutes, minimum, every day. And no social media. I knew that I needed to feel control in some part of my life. So much is out of our control, and I think taking those steps, for me, has helped me immensely. I certainly have plenty of moments where I allow myself to break down and feel sad. My daughter will look at me and be like, “Mommy, why are you crying?” And I just say, “I just miss what I know how to do.” But then, just knowing this isn’t going to change anytime soon, what can I do now? It’s a roller coaster, but it’s been being outside and then just trying to focus on what I do have control over.
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?
I feel like, at the beginning, my natural instinct was to create something to help other artists. I had a stronger desire to create at that point. And then, as the protests began and went on, I went to, “What is my voice as a white woman?” and “Is my voice necessary?” And just feeling like I don’t know if I belong or should belong. A lot of the questions we’ve had as theatre artists. That has made me not want to create.
And just recently I got this inspiration: I want to create a holiday show for the Paramount! The set designer I work with, and the costume designer that I work with; we had this idea. Maybe we could create an outdoor experience for the Paramount. That was super exciting to be writing and creating. But we just couldn’t get the “ok” from the state to let us do it. So, for three strong weeks, I felt like I knew what I was doing again. But since the state said “no”, because cases are rising, now I’m back on the roller coaster of, “Ok, I don’t want to do anything.”
I’m not great at just creating a dance to create a dance. And my least favorite task in college was create a dance, and I’d be like, “About what?” I need limitations. I need a prompt, a timeline, a deadline. And that’s when I’m most creative. So, I think, for me, just having this not knowing when we’re coming back doesn’t motivate me to create in the same way. I need urgency to get my mind focused.
I want to dance; I take dance class. I’ve been doing some online classes and teaching here and there, but I like, “Ok here’s a story; create the dance. Go.”
What do you miss the most live theatre?
Sharing those visceral, present moments with each other. Having that shared experience. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more present than when I’m in rehearsal, or onstage, or sitting and watching a show. I miss those moments, and those collaborations that happen because you’re together. Zoom is not the same as when you’re in the room thinking through ideas, and creating, and working through a scene. And you’re just there. Present. The world is happening around you, but you’re there; connected, in such a deep way with each other.
What is the first thing you’re most excited to do when theatre is back?
Walk into a first day of rehearsal and hug each other! And hear everyone read through a show together in the same room. And hear each other’s laughter in present time. Or hear sadness; just hear the emotion live. I think that’s what I’m looking forward to.
What advice do you have for young theatre artists during this time?
I think, to continue to learn during this time. And not just about theatre but about the world around you. Because if there’s anything we’re learning as theatre artists, it’s that the world is huge and more connected. If we can be with the world around us, the stronger our art can be. Because we’ll all be that much more connected with our audience. Practice whatever art form your craft is, but I think you need to learn, not just theatre. Learn how to cook; learn how to do a skill you’ve never done before, because that will help your art too. You’re going to be more genuine in your experience and more connected. We can get consumed in our world and lose connection to the people we’re creating the art form for, the work for. And we have the opportunity, in this pause, to connect in a different way and learn in a different way. I think it will make it a more genuine and authentic experience when we do come back.
Favorite Broadway Musical: Cabaret is one of my favorites. Period. Once is one of my favorites too. But I also love Matilda, I love Ragtime, Hamilton, Wicked. I love the art form.
Favorite Broadway Play: Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
Favorite Movie Musical: Singin in the Rain
Movie you think should be a musical: Troop Beverly Hills! I think that could be so fun!
Musical you would love to direct/bring to the Paramount: Light in the Piazza. It’s on my bucket list. I also desperately want to do a Guys and Dolls, gender-bended. Matilda is on my list to direct. There are so many.
Favorite Theatre Ritual: I have something that I always tell my cast: I don’t have control over what people think, but what we do have control over is the process. The process is more important to me than what we create at the end, because collaboration is the most important aspect of doing any of it. And people know me for that, I think. Every first day of talking with the company, trying to always remind them that we’re all artists. And I value each person, as an artist, to be a collaborative member of creating the show. It’s not my show; it’s our show.