Bright Enough: A Conversation with Steve Holloway

(Photo by Steve Holloway)

Drummer and percussionist Steve Holloway grew up in a small town in Nebraska, where he began playing percussion with dance bands while still in high school. By the time he got to college in the 1980s, he had worked more or less professionally every week for years. After graduation, he decided to pursue the unconventional career path of a working musician, where he could be a part of somebody else’s vision, providing what he could to it.

For years following, he found gigs playing with jazz musicians, cover and wedding bands, doing recording sessions, and going on the occasional tour. Although he admits there were plenty of lean times, he was satisfied.

He got his first taste of a Broadway level show around 20 years ago subbing on the touring version of the musical Rent. A bit later, while in Philadelphia for work, he developed an affection for Irish music. This led him to a gig with Riverdance – On Broadway, combining his love of celtic music and theater, for which he played the bodhrán – the instrument that became his unexpected niche. 

When Come From Away began its run on Broadway in 2017 at the Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre, Steve’s unexpected niche brought him the opportunity to sub on the drum chair and percussion book. Later, he was asked to join its National Tour.

But, when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down shows across the globe in March of 2020, actors and musicians, including Steve Holloway, were consequently put out of work.

I had the opportunity to sit down with Steve and hear about his experience as a touring musician during this time. In our conversation, he discussed his experience finding out Come From Away was being paused, how he’s dealt with quarantine, how Broadway has been affected by the pandemic, what he thinks lies ahead for the future of entertainment and theater, and he answers my burning question: Will Come From Away return?

Below is his story.

The Inevitable Intermission

How did you find out that Come From Away was being paused because of the pandemic?

“I think it was March 12th, a Thursday. We’d had a meeting before the show that night, the full cast and crew around 6:30pm and they laid down the whole plan. Unless we were shut down, we were going to keep running. Our prop man was sanitizing everything. We had gone into new protocols of no meet and greets, no cast parties or anything like that. We were already preparing to work under new conditions. But, then the city of Dallas said no gatherings of 500 or more, which immediately put us out of work. So, between 6:30pm and 10pm, by the time we got back to the hotel, we had found out that we were being shut down. By then, Broadway had also announced that it was shutting down effective immediately. I think we all figured it was inevitable at that point.

We just left everything in the theater in Dallas. We went back the next day and we packed up all of our instruments. We left them in the theater because it’s climate controlled and they weren’t going to do any shows there in the meantime. As far as I know, our instruments and certain more delicate things are still in the theater. I think the crew moved all the sets into our trucks, so the set is probably somewhere in Texas. 

At a certain point, we will have to go back into rehearsals probably for at least three to four weeks, then probably some tech rehearsals. I don’t know if that’ll be in New York, or in whatever city we remount the tour.”

The Bright Sides

How has your professional life been affected by COVID-19?

“It’s given me a chance to rest, recover from a long stretch on the road, and get excited about doing it again. Now we have a chance to start over, so when we go back to work it’ll be fresh again and I think we’ll all have the energy and the enthusiasm to get back to work.

For that whole year and a half, I was living in hotel rooms, and they would become my sanctuary. When we got laid off I came back to my apartment. I love it here. I don’t really go stir crazy, there’s no place I would rather be than my little space. In a sense, I probably was better prepared than a lot of people to quarantine because I’m very comfortable being by myself for long periods of time. I’m in my apartment and I’m okay with not getting out and going to a party. That’s not been my problem.

Steve Holloway and the cast of the National Tour of Come From Away (Photo by Steve Holloway)

Our producers are awesome. They’re just as good natured as the show. They have kept our insurance going through this whole thing. I know that there are millions of people in our country and around the world who are dealing with financial issues and lack of access to health care, but I’m grateful to say that I am not one of them simply because of my good fortune of working with this great show. So, rather than to just tell you how terrible it is to not be working, I have to admit I’m luckier than most.

There’s been opportunities to practice some things that I might not have gotten around to before, like learning some other skills. I’ve been doing a lot of video work and stuff just for friends that need help. That gives me a chance to keep a little busy. I think that probably a lot of the other folks are doing some version of that, just basically just trying to keep from going crazy. So, I think there’s a bright side to having a lot of free time on your hands. It’s always good to try to make the best of whatever situation you’re in. I think it’s really important to keep positive and to keep yourself from spiraling downward. I know that’s easier said than done.”

Weathering The Storm

In your opinion, how has Broadway been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic?

“It’s really been slapped down and injured. It’s just the simple fact that there is no theater. How much worse can it get than being completely shut down? It seems that in Broadway and in the United States, the model for musical theater is to get as many bums in as many seats as you can. That’s the only way for the bills to be met. That, in addition to the skyrocketing cases we have of COVID-19 right now, is why I don’t have high expectations that we’ll get started any time soon. The hit shows will probably be able to weather the storm, but as far as I know, the landlords of the Broadway theaters are still expecting their rent. I would hope that there’s some negotiation available, but nonetheless bills still need to be paid when no income is coming. It boils down to the producers to decide whether or not they want the show to continue or not.”

Holding On

What do you think lies ahead for the future of theater and the entertainment industry as a whole?

“I think there are going to be new protocols. I still imagine that the audience will be expected to wear masks whenever we do get to start, that we will get tested regularly and maybe even audience members will need to submit a vaccination report. But, at this point, who cares? Let’s just do it. Even if we can’t shake people’s hands after the show, and even if we can’t let people backstage for tours. 

I think anybody who works in the arts already knows how resilient they have to be to be in this industry. It’s never been a career that anyone has gone into for a high level of security. In that way, being unemployed is not an unfamiliar experience for most of us. There have been times where actors and musicians sometimes go seemingly years without really even a nibble, and if you can get through that you can get through this. It’s never been a get rich quick scheme. We do it because we love it. Giving it up doesn’t really seem like an option for most people. I would imagine that once shows start running again, opportunities will return. If you had them before the pandemic, you’ll have them after the pandemic, as long as you can hold on until then.

On the other side of this, I anticipate a time of being less bothered by things. I don’t think there’s going to be much complaining after a year and a half of being laid off. I mean, sure, you’ll still find things to be upset about. But for the most part, just to be able to do it again, like, who cares about the hotel? Who cares about this restaurant that we just had a bad meal at? Who cares about what that person said to you? We’ll all just be more grateful for what we do and what we have. I’ve always felt I was lucky that basically my whole life I’ve been able to play drums or percussion of some sort for my living. I think all of us are lucky, we just don’t always remember that. We’ll just be so grateful to be able to be in a show again, to play for people again and to have that experience again.”

The Light At The End Of The Tunnel

Will Come From Away be returning?

“Absolutely. That’s never really been a question. It’s never been ‘if’ we get to go back, it’s always ‘when’ we get to go back. It will be as soon as possible, even if that’s not as soon as anybody would like. I mean, in show business, nothing is for sure, so I’ll offer that caveat. Since the theaters we play tend to book in seasons, they’ve already pretty much written off 2020-2021. How can you route a show during a pandemic? You can’t really. But, our producers have said we will be back and I have no doubt that that’s the case. Come From Away is one of the shows that people are most clamoring for because it’s such an uplifting story that it changes you. People leave the theater feeling differently than they did when they came in and I think it sticks with them for a long time. It’s not something you forget all about.

That’s just another stroke of luck for those of us who are fortunate to be involved and be part of the show. We do have that shining light. Even if it’s far away, it’s bright enough. You can still see it through the tunnel, even if we don’t know when we’ll get there. There’s really no question that once it’s possible, we’ll be back.

People are already anticipating just breaking out into tears at the top of the first show we do. I think that because of the emotion that has been built up for what could end up being 18 months or longer between our last performance and our first performance coming back, we may all be crying during the first scene. But hey, the audience will probably be crying too. It’s going to be unbelievable. 

At this point, we’re all just standing by. We were not holding our breath, but we can’t wait to get back to work.”

Since interviewing Steve for this article, The Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, Minnesota has announced that the National Tour of Come From Away will open on September 7th, 2021.

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