The Zoom conversation I held with two-time Tony Award-winning actor/musician for ‘Assassins’ and ‘Fun Home’, Michael Cerveris, was compellingly informative, and I was taking in as much as I could. Michael put me at ease so quickly that I felt as if I was having a virtual cup of coffee with him and, at one point, I imagined he got up from the table, went to the imaginary urn, and poured me a second cup all the while just speaking calmly and comfortably how the worldwide pandemic has led him to take stock of where he is at this point in his life, and where he is headed next.
He was visiting his father in Pittsburgh when we had our conversation. I’m assuming Michael was speaking from the living room at his father’s home, and the scene was quite idyllic. There was a beautiful ray of sunshine through the glass pane where Evangeline, the puppy he rescued from the Louisiana/Mississippi border, lounged quietly on the sofa in the sun’s warmth.
The first time I saw Michael on stage was in 1993 in his Broadway debut of ‘The Who’s Tommy’ as the Pinball Wizard of this energizing rock opera. I went back later that year with a friend to see the show ‘cause it was so damn good. The next time I saw him on stage was in ‘Titanic’ and the third time was in the revival of ‘Sweeney Todd’ where he played the demon barber opposite one of the grand dames of the New York Theatre, Patti LuPone.
Yes, this interview is lengthy again, but I didn’t want to miss a word. Thank you again, Michael:
It appears that after five exceptionally long months we are slowly, very slowly, emerging to a pre-pandemic lifestyle. How has your daily life and routine evolved as a result of this emergence?
It’s been up and down, I think, like it is for everybody. I’ve gone through different stages of dealing with things. I think we all expected this to be a shorter event early on, so there was the initial panic and anxiety but a certain amount of excitement (I suppose you could call it) because everything was new and urgent feeling.
It was quite frightening being in New York at the beginning stages because it was very dire there early on. Fortunately, New York is one of the safer places to be in America because people took it seriously early on. I wish the rest of the country could have recognized and learned from our example just what’s possible when you do take it seriously immediately.
Since those early distance days, like everybody, I started to settle into this new way of existing. There are benefits in some ways to stopping the forward motion of your life and taking stock and really asking yourself which things essential, and which things are not. I’ve been trying as much as possible to use the time well and prepare myself to be a better person in a better place, when this is over or when we’re at least on the other side of it.
I’ve never had so organized clean closets and dresser drawers and basement in my life. Right now, I’m going through boxes in my father’s basement that I’ve left there for years, and that he’s been asking me to go through for years. And that’s been great fun as I’ve been discovering all kinds of terrific things, posting photographs from my early performances as a boy growing up in West Virginia. That apparently is the most entertaining thing I’ve done in decades for people as they are seeming to enjoy it a lot. My Facebook and Instagram feeds are full of people enjoying my embarrassing younger photos. So at least I feel like I’m doing something good for the world right now.
I’ve also spent a little bit of time a little further upstate at one point during the pandemic, and I do recognize it’s easy when you aren’t living in a close urban environment, like New York, to feel that the threat isn’t quite as urgent. When you quarantine in an apartment and have to wear your mask even to walk down in your building to get your mail, it’s a different kind of thing.
When you see refrigerator trucks with bodies in them because there isn’t room in the morgue, it makes it clear how serious you need to take it. It’s difficult when you’re quarantining in a house with a yard, when you can walk along the street in a suburb without a mask, because you aren’t going to be encountering people close enough to necessarily have one. I do understand how difficult it is to impress upon people the seriousness and reality of the disease’s spread, and we’ve seen the consequences of that throughout the US, especially now in people not believing it or not taking it seriously. Of course, the numbers start increasing in those areas.
It’s the benefit and the curse of living in a close urban environment, but I’m really proud of how New York and New Yorkers have responded. It really has been a real blessing to have the kind of leadership and the science-based thinking in the state and local governments that we have. Hopefully, that will mean that we can continue the course we’re on and think about opening theatres in a safe, responsible way at some point.
It’s really difficult for all of my live performing friends, and hundreds of thousands of people who aren’t directly on stage but are affected with the closing of the theatres. A lot of the city’s economy is dependent on that business surviving, and it was one of the first to close in order to keep people safe, and it’s going to be one of the very last ones to re-open. There’s no discussion yet for serious plans for live entertainment venues to re-open anytime soon, even though some jobs are re-opening hopefully slowly and carefully.
In my business, people are sometimes hanging on by a thread in the good times, so it’s really a challenge. We’re trying to encourage our government to extend subsidies to venues and to our live performers and it’s been an uphill battle.
Were you being considered for any projects or involved in any projects before everything was shut down?
Not on stage, I had a film project and television project that were both supposed to happen in March and April. They tried re-scheduling the film about four times. One time I had my car packed and driving to where we were supposed to film, and I got a call saying, “Ohhh, we’re not going to be doing that now.” So, that’s indefinitely postponed but hopefully, it will happen at some point.
There is a television HBO production project that I’m going to be a part of that is planning to start work in late September if all goes well. And they have a well thought, organized set of plans to do it in a safe and manageable way. Hopefully, that will be happening and will be a long-term project. I can’t tell you what it is right now but it’s gonna be kind of terrific, and it involves a lot of New York stage actors. That will be a helpful thing.
What’s been the most challenging element of this isolation for you?
It would be really training myself to just exist in the present moment and not be making plans and feeling like I need to do things. It’s funny, I’ve been saying for the longest time that I’ve wanted to slow down and wanted things to stop. I guess, be careful what you ask for.
So many of my friends and colleagues immediately jumped in and got into busy mode with self-creating projects. They were doing lots of camera and Zoom meetings and projects. I found myself busier while not working than I was working. Everybody had a podcast or a benefit performance they wanted to contribute to. I wanted to feel engaged and wanted to contribute something.
The most challenging thing, to answer your question, is considering what my usefulness is in a time when our understanding of who an essential worker is has changed overnight. The immediate feeling was, well, maybe what I do isn’t really essential, and we like to think of ourselves as essential to society, and the arts are an essential part of society. An immediate crisis like that maybe those skills are the ones that aren’t most necessary. This can leave you feeling a little useless and superfluous.
I had a lot of friends who became teachers and they were struggling for ways to provide service to their students so they would ask me and lots of actors to come visit their classes virtually and talk to their students. I thought, “Well that’s something that I can contribute to and positively offer something.”
And then there were lots of other projects like the Sondheim Birthday streaming that went a long way to help reach people in isolation and make them feel a little connected still to things that brought them happiness and pleasure. I said yes to everything and found myself exhausted. I was busy doing things all the time and my friends who were saying they were bored in quarantine I kept wondering how is that possible? It’s different for everybody.
Do you believe theatres might be shuttered until at least the fall of 2021?
That seems a viable possibility. It’s difficult because there are so many layers to the question of when theatres can re-open. And this may be an opportunity for Broadway and large-scale commercial theatre to do some re-thinking and considering the economics of theatre. This is something I thought back in 2008 with the financial collapse and really threatened Broadway and you heard people wringing their hands and saying, “This is going to kill Broadway.”
My thought was maybe this would make producers think differently of how they produce things to make them more affordable to more people, but instead, the opposite happened. Broadway got more expensive and business was better than ever. With a Broadway production, it can’t function at a 50% capacity. Broadway shows that are doing well in the 75% capacity range close all the time because even that is insufficient to keep them going in the business model the way it is now.
My hope is the opportunity to re-think that and where the money is going. More money should be spent on people who are working for you than on things, on spectacle and re-think profit margins while thinking about the comfort and safety in the seating area for the audience. In some ways, downtown, regional, off-Broadway theatres that consistently find ways to operate with ticket sales at 50% with grants and sometimes don’t fill the houses are able to survive, and perhaps this something that the larger theatres may have to re-examine again. This might be the way things can re-open.
The arts in general have shown an ability to adapt and change when it’s necessary. They just tend to drag their feet for as possibly long as they can. The theatres need to be more pro-active and forward-thinking rather than reactionary and responding to events, especially with the social justice movements going on right now and the technological advancements.
The combined moments of social conscious awakening along with the pandemic crisis has been a real opportunity to shake the dust off these things and to get more people involved with new ideas about what is possible. Hopefully, that’s what’s going to happen.
Equity is dealing with a case by case decision on whether or not to open a show given what the theatre is doing to ensure safety for all involved. It’s a challenge in so many ways, but this piecemeal show by show thing that different producers will have different ideas on how to do things might delay re-opening even more.
The history of commercial theatre isn’t a well-organized machine.
Any words of wisdom or sage advice you would give to other performing artists and recent theatre graduates who are concerned about Covid-19?
Well, that’s always been a difficult question to answer and now it’s really difficult. I’m encouraging people to take heart and to take advantage of this time to be reading a lot of plays, watching a lot of things, and educating yourself. You can be writing and developing projects for yourself, talking to friends, and just try to imagine the theatre that you want to see when it’s possible again.
My major words of encouragement: The fact that so many things we assumed to be true suddenly are not and things that could never be suddenly are (live performance could shut down for 6 months or longer). The positive side of all this? A lot of things that we thought could never change could now possibly change if there’s a will. That’s kind of exciting. I grew up with the idea that things are the way they are whether or not I liked it or not.
We’ve seen now how immediately and completely things can change. Drastic change can happen if people do things differently. I think in some ways it’s an exciting time to start a career in the theatre. If we’re making things over again, we should be making things that contribute more to our society and to our communities by giving more opportunity to do something new. That’s the place to look for hope and encouragement.
Do you see anything else positive coming out of the pandemic?
In my country, I see the potential for a positive regime change, although it’s anything but assured, I’m afraid.
I don’t think of myself as an optimist generally, and yet I think I fundamentally am. I fundamentally want to believe the best of people and the best of situations. I’m very conscious and very clear about the perils and dangers about the really dark and unpleasant things that have been revealed about the country I live in. It’s not isolated to my country, it’s a global phenomenon but it’s especially heightened here.
It’s been really heartbreaking to have to come to terms with the realities of life in this country for a lot of people. To have spent the last four years to have the mask lifted from who we as Americans like to believe we are. But the positive thing is now we know what we’re up against. We know what the real truth is. And again, that gives us the opportunity to change it. We can’t change anything if we don’t acknowledge it to be true and needs to be changed.
That goes for everything from economic inequity to racism, sexism. These things are all tied together and incredibly complicated, but just thinking your country is the best with the best democracy, that kind of thinking blinds you to the problems that are there and need to be solved. Well, it’s pretty clear what the problems are and needs to be solved. Whether we can do that or not, it’s up to us, but at least now we know where the work needs to be. Depending on your half full, half empty glass perspective, that can be a positive thing at least a first essential step.
Will Broadway and the North American performing arts scene be changed or impacted on account of the coronavirus?
People are starved now for coming together. For a long time now, there’s been a move for more isolated kinds of entertainment. We get a lot more through our screens now, and I think we’re getting a little tired of it at this point.
For example, I hated Zoom and Face Time before all the shutdowns necessitated them. I would always try to avoid doing them. I can’t say I love them anymore now than I did then, but I’m at least used to them now and see the benefits of them. I think a lot of things will be done through these formats even after things slowly open up.
There are good things to that. We’re starting to find the limits of the satisfaction we can get from our screens. Theatre, live performance, even for people who say, “Well, I can get all that on my screen, why bother going back?” Well, I think the first-time people return to the theatre, and that theory is all going to be blown out of the water. They’re going to remember as though for the first time what that thrill is. There’s nothing to make you appreciate something like the threat of losing it or not having it.
I like to think and hope there will be more value placed on live performance and interaction. Certainly, that will be true in the beginning and, as humans usually are, will take it for granted again. I look forward to a time when we can take going to the theatre for granted because that would be nice.
The arts and theatre have often thrived in times of great social unrest and difficulty. I’m hoping there’s a lot of seeds of great art being sown right now that will flourish when there’s a place for it to flourish again. And I think that is possible. There’s certainly a lot to write about now, not just the pandemic but our very mortality and humanness. It’s fair to hope there will be a re-surging, flowering and a Golden Age of theatre when we’re able to come together again.
What are your thoughts about live streaming?
The streaming of filmed live productions that has already happened, hmm…maybe it’s because I grew up in the bootlegging concert era, tape your favourite band era. I’ve never had the aversion to those things being available. I’ve never believed that’s made people less likely to go and see something. I’ve always felt that it will more likely make you want to go see something. If you hear a garbled cassette performance of The Grateful Dead, you’re going to be more likely to go.
I understand and appreciate the economic concerns and people having their work compensated, so if somebody is making a profit from the streaming of your work then, certainly, that needs to be compensated. There are so many things I’ve done over the years that are archived at the Lincoln Centre Performing Arts Library. It wasn’t the thing to record a show for broadcast back in the day. I do wish those kinds of archives could be accessible to people. It’s very difficult to access those things. You either had to be involved with the production or an academic pursuit to watch them.
I would prefer that live streaming not be sold or commercially done. If you do, then you really have to pay everybody which will make it prohibitive. I wouldn’t mind if that’s the way things happen.
As far as creating work to be Zoomed or streamed, it doesn’t excite me as an audience person or as an actor. I watched a few earlier on. For the most part, I was disappointed and frustrated, and ultimately not all that interested. There were some things like Richard Nelson has done a series of plays called The Apple Plays, the Gabriel Plays, that were recorded. I would encourage people to go find these plays because they’re really great, but he since has written a couple of Zoom plays and those work well because that’s the premise of the play. These characters are on a Zoom call to each other, so it makes sense that it’s happening as to how it’s happening.
I haven’t really seen other things online that I’ve found particularly satisfying. I’ve done a couple of readings and they were really just kind of pale and unsatisfying, the technological challenges are a big hurdle. It’s hard to get any sense of pace when there’s a delay between people’s microphones.
I would be more in the camp of “I’ll wait until we can actually do it.”
Despite all this confusion, drama, turmoil, and change surrounding our world now, what is it about performing you still love?
It’s pretty obvious the live human communal experience of it. Both as a part of an ensemble working together to make the performance and the event of having an audience, the stage crew, dozens of hundreds of people that make it magical, even if it might have occurred only once out of say 500 times.
We go to experience with other humans. It’s part of our DNA to gather. Our society has drifted away from that for a long time. It would be nice if this was a bit of a turning point of how much we missed that, and how much we need that.
That’s the fundamental thing about performing.
Follow Michael on his Facebook: Michael Cerveris Actor/Musician or his Instagram: michaelcerveris. You can also visit Michael’s website: www.cerverismusic.com.