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A Mrs. Doubtfire star on how she's handling performing on Broadway (or not) during the pandemic
Since March 12, 2020, when the bell rang for round 1 of the Coronavirus Challenge on Broadway, the theatre community has been rolling with the punches in an ever-evolving set of crisis conditions. I've joked with my leading man, Rob McClure, that at times it's felt like we're Rocky Balboa, bruised and bleeding in the corner, begging Mickey to cut our swollen eye so we can see to carry on the fight. What exactly are we fighting for? The many jobs in our industry, of course, as well as live performance itself, which is challenging during the best of times, let alone during a pandemic. But I believe we're taking a stand for something even bigger than that—something so big it often elicits cynical head shaking. A little concept known as unconditional love: choosing to create and share joy regardless of the situation offstage. Let me be clear, this choice is not always easy. And making it does not mean pretending to be happy when I am not, or ignoring the negative emotions that come up when so much is out of my control.
Since our show, Mrs. Doubtfire, resumed performances on Broadway last October after being shut down during previews in 2020, my dark feelings have run the gamut from mere dissatisfaction to downright rage, general anxiety to abject terror. My emotional GPS keeps reminding me that if I can let go of trying to control the journey, I'll find myself not only appreciative of, but deeply grateful for the whole wild ride. My big song in Act 2 is called "Let Go," so I must acknowledge the universe's insightful sense of humor.
For those curious about just how wild this ride on the ol' Corona Coaster has been for Broadway performers since the reopening, this is my tale of the twists and turns of our 2021 holiday season. Our wonderful show officially opened on December 5 just as the omicron variant came to say, "Helloooo!" to the US. In the following weeks, it introduced itself quickly to many in our cast as well as other Broadway companies. Much has already been written about the incredible contributions of swings and understudies in keeping shows running at that time, but I will add that our Doubtfire team was impressively adaptive with the different combinations of covers we put on stage. We completed countless PCR and rapid antigen tests as our show's heroic COVID Safety Managers adjusted to the new ways this variant was behaving. When we ran out of superstar covers, our show was forced to close for a week just before Christmas—a week when we would have done 11 performances because extra holiday shows are how Broadway makes money in advance of the lean months of January and February.
While this upheaval was certainly upsetting for everyone in our company, we were also keenly aware of how deeply disappointing the situation was for audiences, too. We are a family show, and it is safe to assume that tickets for many of the canceled performances had been given as Christmas and Hanukkah gifts. It was heartbreaking all around. Once we restarted, we learned that this omicron-induced perfect storm meant our show wouldn't be able to survive financially unless radical action was taken. We closed after our January 9 matinee with the intention of reopening in mid-April.
I'd like to take a moment to look at that word "radical." My whole life I thought it meant far out, or beyond, or way out on a limb. But during 2021, I dug into its Latin root, which ironically is "root" (radicalis: "having roots, forming roots"), and this reframing of the word changed everything for me. Suddenly, I could see that exploring new ways of doing things—ways that could be viewed as extreme when compared to traditional methods—was about returning to a fundamental understanding of how growth occurs. To bear fruit, we must be firmly rooted. This vocabulary lesson served me well personally last year, and was affirmed again when our lead producer, Kevin McCollum, compared our brand-new show to a "sapling in a hurricane" as he described why he was taking the radical action of uprooting us, moving us to the basement under ultraviolet light and replanting us in the spring when, hopefully, the environment will be more favorable.
So, here I am again faced with the choice of maintaining my equanimity even when the current conditions are so very far from what I would prefer. How can I continue to reach for joy when the sucker punches keep coming? I can only answer that question for myself, since all my colleagues have unique experiences and perspectives. I will say that another word-based revelation has helped me immensely. Until recently, I had never actually seen the word "moment" within "momentum." I mean, seriously, it was right there staring at me! I had always thought of momentum as something created from a past event that then gathered speed. I never thought about how the moment itself and the choices we make within it can shift momentum and create a new trajectory. Choices like taking a deep breath, taking stock of all that is well right now and reaching for the next better thought. Thoughts that will accumulate toward improved feelings. I don't have to go directly from despair to joy, but I can continue inching my way up from the abyss to the emotional horizon line of neutrality, trusting that, eventually, I'll arrive at acceptance, love, joy and peace.
An example of that upward journey occurred the Monday before our last (hopefully only last-for-now) week of performances. One of my closest onstage contacts had tested positive for COVID late Sunday night. My sadness in knowing he wouldn't be with us for those final performances mixed with the fear of wondering whether I would be, either. So, I contacted our COVID Safety Managers Monday morning and asked if I could drive in to take a rapid test on my day off. I figured if I tested positive at least I could begin processing my sadness. If I tested negative, I would get a good night's sleep and go into that final week knowing that any performance could be my last, depending on my test results. Thankfully, I remained COVID free.
Having watched the film version of tick, tick... BOOM! the week before really put Jonathan Larson's exhortation for us to live as if we have "no day but today" in the front of my mind. This helped me make each of those final performances a celebration of life, liberty and the pursuit of musical theatre happiness—a sort of Broadway-style Declaration of Independence to choose love over fear, or, to reference Larson again, wings over cages. I remain optimistic that our wonderful show will fly again come spring, but only time will tell if that is true and whether all of my colleagues will be able to return. Everyone has a different set of life concerns. Financial, health and family decisions might be such that folks will take other showbiz jobs in the interim, or even decide to transition out of the business entirely. I desperately want all of us to be together again bringing light into people's lives. But I also know that no matter the outcome, I'll continue to do my best to find ways to keep shining mine.
Jenn Gambatese is an actor, singer, teacher and writer whose work has enabled her to see the world and collaborate with some of the most wonderful artists imaginable. She is married to Curtis Cregan and together they are raising their two wildly amazing daughters and one amazingly wild dog.
Top image: Jenn Gambatese.
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