Staff Highlights: Zhana Morris

When you’ve worked at the Hall for 20+ years, you have a lot of stories! Our Production Manager Zhana Morris shared a few stories with us, historical tidbits, and more on the world behind the curtain.

You’ve worked at the Hall for 23 years! How did you end up at The Music Hall and why did you stay?
I had been working in theater in Portsmouth for a few years when a technician friend of mine mentioned that The Music Hall was looking for an Assistant Production Manager. I applied for (and got) the job even though I had never worked on the music side of the industry before, and shortly after I was hired, the Production Manager (PM) Paul Armstrong was asked to step into the Executive Director role and so I actually got promoted from assistant before I even started work! Fortunately, Paul asked me to function as his administrative assistant for a few weeks before the season started (this was before we programmed year-round) so I had some time to become at least a little familiar with the differences in PMing in a venue like this and in a traditional producing theater.

As to why I have stayed? Well, I’ve always known that I wanted to be at one theater for as much of my career as possible but I don’t know that I could state why it turned out The Music Hall has been that theater in a few short sentences. I will say that a lot of people (who aren’t in the business) think that staying in one place so long must mean that I don’t have job growth or the desire for it. That can’t be farther from the truth at a place like The Music Hall. My job is so different than it was when I first started and I am definitely not the same person I was back then. I don’t think I would have been happy in a producing theater for this long and constantly remind myself how lucky I am to be a part of The Music Hall.

You’re our resident historian! What have been some of the coolest stories you’ve uncovered over your time here?
Well, in truth, one of the most fascinating things I have uncovered is that it is not always the people we recognize as having been famous in the past who make The Music Hall’s history so interesting. You have to understand that places like The Music Hall were social media, continuing education, TV, and the internet all rolled into one. If you wanted to be entertained, you went to a theater. If you wanted to learn about places in other parts of the world, you went to a theater. If you wanted to see the latest invention by Thomas Edison, you went to a theater. If you wanted to watch a political debate, you went to a theater. Therefore, if you wanted to entertain, get the word out about other places around the world, show off your invention, or debate your political rival, you did so on a theater stage and people around the country knew who you were because of it. Unfortunately, only a handful of those people are remembered now for what they did. It’s kind of like how today, there are hundreds of thousands of people who make a living (or hopefully will again soon!) as extras on shows like Law and Order. Millions of people have seen them countless times, but have no idea who they are nor would they recognize them on the street. There are some famous people and interesting stories in our past of course and I do try to get those stories out there when I come across them. In the near future, I hope to get them out to the public on a more regular basis so keep your eyes open!

Backstage can be a bit crazy at times. What makes for a well-run show?
It really all comes down to having the right people around, preparing for things you know are coming, and being flexible when things you didn’t expect happen (because they will). There is no such thing as perfection when doing something live in front of an audience (even if the audience doesn’t realize it wasn’t perfect), and I think one of the reasons visiting artists/crews like coming to The Music Hall is because we strive to balance a relaxed and fun experience with professionalism. People very quickly forget about small bumps in the road, whether it is a technical glitch like a microphone cutting out for 2 seconds, or not being able to find the exact flavor of yogurt asked for on the rider. Especially when you have people who obviously know their stuff and show that they want to be there and do their work as best they can. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had tour managers tell me what a pleasure it was to work with our production team when we had to work through some sort of challenge. So often we hear stories about other places they’ve been where the staff just didn’t care and even if the show went well, it leaves a bad impression on the tour staff, which can very easily travel to a booking agent the next time a venue wants to bring in that artist. The goal is to strive for perfection, learn from what wasn’t perfect, and for everyone to leave the theater (both artists and patrons) with positive memories.

When you’re not at the Hall, where can we find you? What do you do in your free time?
Umm, well, theater and historical research. Seriously. I was the Production Manager for Kent Stephens’ Stage Force for many years and have designed costumes for numerous theater companies in the area. Just this past February, I costumed a film (due out this summer we hope!) for StageWright Films. I am an avid amateur genealogist and I spend a lot of time researching either my own or friends’ family trees. I am fortunate to have a number of people in my family who kept journals that I am now in possession of and I have spent hours reading and transcribing them. Currently, I plan on reviewing a selection of letters and journals from a relative who worked for the US Sanitary Committee during the Civil War. In addition to fundraising efforts, the USSC followed the Union Army and provided triage and civilian assistance in the hours and days immediately following battles. (I have one entry in which my relative describes writing a letter home for a soldier to inform his mother of his father’s death in the same explosion that took both of this soldier’s own hands, mere hours before my relative sat by his side.) At a time where we are (or at least should be in my opinion) reexamining how racism influences everything we do, I think reading these unfiltered and unpolished-for-history-books writings by my white, upper class, male relative from this era in particular, in conjunction with intentionally educational works could be very enlightening.

What have been some of your favorite shows/ moments over the years?
This question is almost as hard to answer as the question I get on history tours about what famous people have played here! After 20+ years, I have to admit that many shows sort of blend together, and so I find myself recalling some of the shows from early on when I was still relatively new to the business. I’ll list a few of them here but there really have been so many. My first true legend, Harry Belefonte. He was the consummate performer and a genuinely nice guy. Exactly what you hope a famous person would be like. Then there was my favorite “I am so glad I can laugh at myself” moment when the Bacon Brothers were here. I had spoken with Kevin Bacon at various times throughout the day and honestly, had never put him on any higher of a pedestal than any other famous person particularly, but at one point in the show, everyone came off stage to watch Michael Bacon do a solo and crowded in the wing near me. I turned to clear out of the way and Kevin was literally about six inches away from me watching his brother. Suddenly I was 16 years old, Footloose had just come out, I got flushed and my knees buckled! Fortunately, I don’t think anyone saw me, but even now it makes me smile knowing that even I, who is fairly well known for not behaving like a fan-girl, does have just a little fan-girl in there.

Some other moments I will always recall fondly? Returning a wallet found during the restoration lost 50 years before to the family of the original owner, working with J. Dennis Robinson on his recent book about The Music Hall, hearing a member of the Indigo Girl’s crew say “this is the place Mariner Moonlighting was written about, right?” while coming in the stage door, Brandi Carlile’s bandmates asking for our help playing a practical joke on another bandmate (during a show!), oh the list could go on and on!