After a Brush-up Rehearsal, Broadway Actors Eager for Spotlight Again

News   After a Brush-up Rehearsal, Broadway Actors Eager for Spotlight Again "We get to go to church tonight," said an eager Karen Ziemba in the hours leading up to the Nov. 29 re-lighting of her show, Curtains — not to mention the 26 other plays and musicals that will shine after being darkened by a strike since Nov. 10.
Beth Leavel, Brian Kerwin and Karen Ziemba
Beth Leavel, Brian Kerwin and Karen Ziemba

For dancer-actress-singer Ziemba, the Al Hirschfeld Theatre is a place for worship and fellowship with a beloved family of performers and crew. "It's a life force, this show," she said. "The family over at Curtains is pretty exemplary."

During her time off, Ziemba, who is thrown around a saloon in one raucous number in the John Kander-Fred Ebb-Rupert Holmes musical, has been keeping limber with stretching, yoga and pilates. She also hung out with cast members, and had her spirits renewed by seeing septuagenarian Chita Rivera's nightclub act last weekend. She called Rivera a survivor and an inspiration in the recent time of showbiz uncertainty.

Like most shows returning Nov. 29 after 19 days of dormancy, Curtains had an afternoon brush-up rehearsal before the evening performance.

Brian Kerwin, on break from a rehearsal for August: Osage County at the Imperial, said that the time off was not a time of anxiety, but gave "a feeling of something really wonderful being interrupted. You just felt like a friend had been sick. We were grieving for the play. There was a feeling of holding tight and hanging on."

 

Listen to
Actors from Is He Dead?, Farnsworth Invention, The Seafarer, Jersey Boys and Hairspray talk about returning to work after the strike.

How did Kerwin retain his lines and keep it fresh in his mind? "I don't know," he admitted on Nov. 29. "It's indelibly etched. I thought I would have to have a script [in today's rehearsal], but I looked and I said, 'I know this.' It's just so well written."

For many strike-stranded actors, the time off meant time with family and friends in the evenings. Kerwin spent time with his teen-age kids, for example.

Jennifer Barnhart of Avenue Q told Playbill.com, "While I enjoyed spending a few extra days with my family for Thanksgiving, it feels great knowing that I can now buy them Christmas presents. I'm just glad that we can all go back to work now and feel good about it."

Tony Award winner Beth Leavel, who plays the title character in The Drowsy Chaperone, stayed prepared by going through her lyrics in her head when she went to bed.

"In the third week, I started going through my lines," she said.

And following 19 days of less physical activity — and a Thanksgiving meal with leftovers — "we are all praying that we'll fit into our costumes," she said with a laugh.

Every night, like all Equity actors who were stalled by the strike, the Drowsy troupers would show up at their stage door at half-hour, sign in and hang out, "commiserating and seeing what everyone else was doing," Leavel said. "We were kinda having withdrawal from each other."

Leavel didn't hide her feelings about getting back on stage at the Marquis: "I can't wait," she said, "I just can't wait…!"

The strike made some performers feel more passionate about — and connected to — the business side of showbiz. Ziemba said she attended a number of union meetings to stay informed.

Stephen Kunken, one of the American actors of the acclaimed production of Rock 'n' Roll, said, "In the beginning, I felt a little like the guy stuck on the side of the road, steam rising out of the hood of his car, hazard lights flashing, and mindlessly tinkering with the engine. All the while, I wished I actually knew something about auto mechanics. Turning that hopeless feeling into something productive involved a lot of meetings, reading and conversations about topics that I had never approached before the strike. There was a lot of time for that."

Can he fix the car now? "Probably not," Kunken said, "but I certainly have a much greater understanding of why we're all standing there and how both parties were working to fix it."

There was some slight anxiety in the home of Norbert Leo Butz, star of Mark Twain's Is He Dead?, the 1898 comedy that only played two previews before the Nov. 10 shutdown.

"There were three times [during the strike] when we were told to get ready to come back to work tomorrow," Butz told Playbill.com after his Nov. 29 run-through. He said he worried that he would have the "actor's nightmare" and not be ready when it was time to return, so his actress wife Michelle Federer would run lines with him — sometimes 'til 2 AM.

"She really did help me — and the cast voluntarily got together, to go through lines, last week," he said. "Memorization is not my forte."

The Twain comedy (adapted by David Ives) isn't a breakneck farce like Noises Off, but there is a lot of offstage prep for Butz's character, including some quick changes (and a gender change). "There's a lot of backstage stuff that has to happen," he said. "There were mistakes [at the rehearsal today], but there's another week before we open…"

The feeling of instant family helps showfolk make it through rough patches, whether on stage, backstage or during the strike's down time.

"It was a really a good and happy thing to be back at work," Butz said. "There's this tremendous feeling of glee. Everybody is so happy to be back at work. You know, you get very close to people when you work with them; it's a family, and it's hard when you don't get to see them."

(Playbill.com staffer Ernio Hernandez contributed to this story.)

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