Understatement alert: NYU is a big, big place. Think of the dozens of people you might nod hello to on a typical day—in the dining hall, at the library, between buildings, or behind a particular desk. How many do you know by name? What do you know about their lives?
By day they are office administrators or landscapers, technology specialists or event managers; by night they’re parents and poets, activists and athletes—and so much more. They’re the dedicated staffers who keep this place running, and in this series NYU Stories goes behind-the-scenes at their day jobs—and also reveals how they let off steam after work. (We’re coming for you, dude in the Bon Jovi cover band!) Know someone you'd like to see featured here? Send suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Name: Amy Coombs
Titles: Operations director, Skirball Center for the Performing Arts; Yoga instructor, MindfulNYU
At NYU since: 2003
Hometown: Queens, New York
What’s a typical day like in your job?
One of the nice things about it is that there’s no “typical” because there are different groups here almost every day—we do more than 300 events a year. When we started here it was just myself and an executive director, but now we’ve got a full-time staff of about 15 or 20 people, and another 40-60 part time, many of whom are NYU students. So a lot of my day is in the office upstairs dealing with potential clients who are looking to come in and rent the space, giving them price quotes, sorting out the staffing for those events, and then for all events of the past week I’m doing reconciliations for the business manager. Or giving tours of the theater quite often to various constituents who might want to use it. Oh, and putting out fires—looking at the screen in my office that shows what’s going on in the theater, and listening in on the headset, and being called down to deal with...whatever.
What brought you to NYU?
I was a stage manager and a lighting designer for a number of years, off-Broadway, touring around the country, and then for 10 years or so I was the technical director at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center. After 9/11, I was open to the idea of not being in Lower Manhattan anymore, and in 2002 I was brought on here as a consultant leading up to Skirball’s opening. They were looking for someone to advise them on productions and operations of running a performing arts center. And then I stayed!
Did you fall in love with theater as a child?
Yeah, I wrote puppet shows with a friend of mine as a very young child. We did birthday parties. I wanted to be a performer, and acted in shows in junior high school. When I got to college [Fordham at Lincoln Center] they said, well, if you're going to be in the acting program, you have to go build the sets and paint the walls and come in at midnight after the show is over and take the set down. I was absolutely horrified. I remember going home and saying “this is not for me, I cannot believe this, other people can go and sit in a class for three hours and get the same credit, when I have to go and take down the walls and climb on ladders.” Of course I hated it so much that I ended up loving it—I spent my college career doing lighting and scene design and directing—every possible backstage activity you could do.
What have been some of your most fun—or most challenging—experiences working backstage?
I had a great deal of fun working as assistant lighting designer for a one woman show staring Colleen Dewhurst that we did at The Public Theater and then at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C. By the time we got to Washington most of the hard work had been done and there was lots of time for sightseeing and even enjoying a Tony Awards party in Ms. Dewhurst’s hotel. Less fun was a show called Stand Up, Shakespeare, directed by Mike Nichols, where the set changed nightly and the lighting crew had to work every night until dawn to re-light the ever-changing set. That one made me want to quit the biz—at least for awhile!
One of the proudest moments at Skirball involved building a dark restaurant (where everyone eats in pitch black as if you were blind) in our rehearsal room. This was part of a production on the stage called Not By Bread Alone, where blind and deaf performers not only performed but also baked real bread in real ovens on the stage. You can imagine all the planning and logistics that went into that!
Do you ever feel starstruck by big name performers at Skirball?
I guess because of innate shyness but I'm not one of those people who runs up to people to ask for an autograph. And then because of the nature of living in the backstage world, you tend to see people warts and all, without that shine on them—you might see [celebrities] as people who make your life harder, perhaps, because they’re demanding. I don’t interact with the performers that much—more their director or their producer, who are in their own right quite famous, but not people you would notice on the street. I am secretly pleased when someone I like comes through, though. When they brought Stephen Sondheim here—that I got excited for, and I did buy [a signed copy of] his book.
When and why did you become a yoga instructor?
It’s because of NYU! I started practicing at Coles, doing classes at 7:30 a.m. before work, and had some really good teachers. It was real yoga, not just gym yoga. Then in 2006 or 2007 the teachers I really liked left, so I ended up at YogaWorks. I did their teacher training program—not looking to change careers, but really just to learn and deepen my practice, to get the full experience. Then on a whim I sent my resume over to Coles, and ended up teaching the classes I used to take! I taught every Monday and Wednesday morning at 7:30 in the wrestling room. You haven’t lived until you’ve done yoga in the wrestling room. There came a time when I was teaching 8 classes a week in addition to the fulltime job—at Ishta, YogaWorks, at a gym in New Jersey, and here. Now I’ve cut down to two classes at Ishta, two at yoga works, and Tuesday evenings at the Global Center for Academic and Spiritual Life. That gives me enough yoga to balance the stress and the other side of my brain that gets a work out in my job.
Do you find common misconceptions about yoga among your students?
I teach a fundamentals class at YogaWorks that’s specifically for people coming to it without any prior knowledge, and the most common thing people say to me is, “I’m not really flexible.” I always say, “But you’re here. That means you’re flexible in mind.” People often come to yoga because they want to stretch and lose weight and build strength and all that good stuff—that’s why I started doing it too. But there’s something special that you get from a yoga practice that is not what you get from spin class or calisthenics or jogging. The important part of yoga is literally union. It’s about getting the mind to be quiet, but because of the nature of the kinds of beings that we are, we have to move our bodies to get there.
Is it difficult to change gears from the fast-paced world of theater to the meditative realm of yoga?
Sometimes, though there is that moment where I feel there is a very specific transition. As a yoga student, you can feel it at the beginning of the class, when you come in and you sit for a minute and close your eyes. Hopefully the teacher is either saying something that allows you to move your focus or there is a breathing exercise that allows you to bring the senses in. As a teacher I can feel that shift in a room: the zzzzzzzzz kind of ripples out and flattens.
I love walking into the yoga classroom and teaching. What’s more challenging is when there’s a tough or frustrating situation here at work—a client that hasn’t paid, say. Those business things make me wish I had started yoga sooner in my life, because there’s still this tough New Yorker part of me that will want to yell, “Oh, just stop it!”—and I can feel my nervous system jump up, like to there. It would be nice to always be calm, but I don’t think that’s possible.
What’s the first thing you do to relax after a long day?
I have a pretty big menagerie of pets—three dogs and two cats—and usually I see the dogs even before I get home, because of this interesting commute my husband and I have worked out. He has his own business, so he can take the dogs to work with him, so they’re often in the car when he picks me up from the PATH train. And then the first thing I do when I get home is usually make dinner—I do enjoy cooking and baking. At one time I seriously considered opening a teashop that would have been called Amy's Tea and Tarts—perhaps some day. And I also knit, which is something I’ve come to in the past four or five years. I enjoy that very much in a way that I feel also corresponds to the yoga experience—the repetitive movement of the knitting is kind of similar to the watching of the breath in yoga. There’s scientific evidence to back this up—it actually does induce a relaxation response.