The day before Christmas Eve, the show I’m working on as production stage manager, David Byrne’s American Utopia, was supposed to have two performances. I woke up early that morning to make sure I was available for whatever work crisis would arise; lately that seems to be every day.
On this particular day, our crisis was trying to do performances with multiple vaccinated cast members out with COVID-19. We were working on a plan to cover all the musical parts, setting up new spacing and making sure the lighting, audio, and instrument technicians were up to date with our new changes.
I left home feeling optimistic and headed to midtown, where I joined the long line of theatre workers waiting for their various COVID tests. I put on a smile as I approached the amazing, hard-working staff at Mobile Health Center, who work tirelessly to keep us safe. I said hello to Mya, an employee I see almost every day no matter what time I come. She looked tired and frustrated. When we caught each other’s eyes, her energy shifted and she gave me a huge smile (under her mask, of course) and met my friendly energy. I asked her about her holiday plans and, of course, her answer was: mostly working. Once she gave me my testing labels, I headed to the next part of the line. When I turned the corner, I saw a crew member and one of our musicians waiting in line.
We stood chatting for a while when I received a text alerting me that another cast member had tested positive. I felt defeated. It was my unfortunate job to call David Byrne and let him know. David and I sadly decided that we would have to cancel our upcoming performances. Now both of us felt completely defeated.
The crew member and the musician in line with me watched me like hawks, trying to figure out what was going on. I quickly left the Mobile Health Center when I happened to run into the positive cast member. They looked visibly scared and upset as they headed back home. My feeling of defeat was overcome by the feeling of heartbreak. I was at a loss for words.
I walked into the theatre brushing tears from my eyes. I feel my heart rate rise, knowing I now must go tell all the cast, crew, ushers, security, doormen, stage managers, wardrobe, and house managers that we would be cancelling the show. Worst of all: I wasn’t sure when we would be able to reopen.
But then Broadway magic happened.
I walked onstage to find David Byrne, the crew, and a few cast members gathered around the ghost light excitedly talking about something. As I walked up, I heard things like “We could do this,” “What about this,” “We could play this song,” “What would you need.” An idea was born at that moment: It was clear we could not do a show that day. But it was also clear that if we still couldn’t perform American Utopia the following week, we were going to have to do something else. Not performing just wasn’t going to be an option for this band.
After much excited discussion, I noticed that people had begun to smile around the building again, and we went home feeling excited with ideas to create what we’re calling a brand new “unchained” show. This would be a special concert created with the remaining cast members we had playing a new set list, featuring some American Utopia songs, some David Byrne classics, and some Talking Heads favorites. Over the holidays David and some of the cast and crew had a Zoom holiday gathering to feel some sense of community.
While most people were celebrating Christmas Eve and Christmas, we spent ours emailing, calling, and texting back and forth all day. Luckily for me, I work with a wonderful group of humans who were just as excited as I was to be a part of this out-of-the-box idea that would help keep the curtain up at the St. James.
On Dec. 26 I headed back to midtown for my COVID tests. I saw Mya again and we had our typical friendly exchange. I got to the theatre two hours early to print out all the new lyric sheets and music sheets. The company manager and a stage manager friend of mine show up to help me put binders together.
Our cast members were glowing with excitement, thinking about performing certain songs they had never done with David before. Things finally felt something like…normal. As we chatted, a cast member’s phone rang. They looked at the caller ID, and I noticed the color and smile drain from their face. They looked up at me and said: “Why is the COVID safety monitor calling me—does this mean I have it?” All I could reply was, “Just take a deep breath and answer. It will be okay.”
It was news of yet another positive case. Musical parts were quickly reassigned and we kept on moving.
I rushed onstage with pages still freshly warm from the printer, and as I parted the chain curtain I was instantly filled with pride and hope. The crew had us completely set up and the band was already in, putting on their ears and packs, talking with instrument techs about what they needed. I heard the drummers start warming up. The pound of each beat awakened my soul and brought me back to the place I love: a rehearsal room. I started to hear the bass, then the guitar, and finally David joined the mix. Suddenly we again had magic and art being created in front of our eyes at the darkest of times.
We spent all day and all night piecing this brand-new show together. We finished late and exhausted, but also inspired and full of hope. The next day everyone stayed home learning their parts, having Zoom vocal rehearsal, arranging the box office, programming the Kemper, releasing the press announcement, creating track sheets, figuring out payroll. It was a busy day off for all.
Tuesday morning, Dec. 28th, I again woke up early. I couldn’t wait to get to the theatre. I got my COVID test and rushed to the St. James to find Bobby Wooten III and Angie Swan already practicing in their dressing rooms. I went directly to my office to finish my tracking sheets and print updated music and set lists. By some miracle we all tested negative, and that night we were able to perform this uplifting concert we all worked so hard to pull off. We’ll be doing it for three more days, through Jan. 2, 2022.
No matter what happens next in this uncertain time, getting American Utopia Unchained up onstage in spite of it all will remain one of the proudest moments of my life. I am so grateful to be in the room and a part of this amazing feat of teamwork. I am lucky to work with such a hard-working group of hopeful people.
Julie DeVore (she/her) has worked as a stage manager on King Kong, School of Rock, On the Town, Wicked, The Motherfucker With the Hat, and Nice Work If You Can Get It.
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