I returned to Millbrook Playhouse after 2015's DIAL 'M' FOR MURDER because it was one of the happiest artistic experiences of my entire life. This year, Artistic Director David Leidholdt chose me to direct Robert Harling's STEEL MAGNOLIAS. It was the first (non-musical) play Millbrook had programmed on the mainstage for a while; DIAL 'M' was in the cabaret space.
Working so intensely for such a concentrated period on a play I know so well and love so much really got me back in touch with the fundamentals of why I love theatre in the first place. Millbrook, for me, is two weeks in a beautiful place doing the work I love best. Practicing my craft alongside all these talented, kind, hardworking people is indescribably rewarding. I meet new people and make new friends. Now that I'm most definitely middle aged, I really appreciate the young people I get to work with at Millbrook. They give me hope for the theatre of tomorrow.
It was a pleasure to revisit STEEL MAGNOLIAS after producing Judson Theatre Company's 2014 production. At Millbrook, I was directing, which is so different from producing. Their timetable is 11 days from the first day of rehearsal to the first preview. So, we blocked the show in two days (one act per day). Then, there are two work-through days as actors attempt to be off-book and really engage with each other.
Day Five is a start-and-stop run through and then a run-through with no stops, in prep for the Designer Run on Day Six, followed by a production meeting, then after dinner some table work and dialogue coaching. To me, it is a sign of respect for the designers to have the show smooth and as ready as possible for the Designer Run, so everyone can see what we've got. Unsolicited, several of the designers commented something like, "that was one of the smoothest designer runs ever," which made me so proud of the cast and our stage management team.
Days Seven and Eight are really for polishing--note, there's no weekly full day off! So these days there are run-throughs as well as start-and-stop working of challenging moments, and fight call. Also on Day Eight is changeover, as the preceding show on the mainstage (in this case, SMOKE ON THE MOUNTAIN) closes.
Day Nine we're in the space on the actual set, getting our spacing correct so all marks are hit accurately and so the furniture is placed and spiked. And of course, with STEEL MAGNOLIAS, the plans for how the hair is to be done onstage have fallen into place and require honing and practice. Day Ten, the actors have the full daytime off to start tech that night. We did a full run (with a 7:30 "go") with a production meeting after, and were still walking out of the building at 10:30--not bad at all.
Day Eleven is two run-throughs with notes. At this point, the production has found its own unique identity and the actors are beginning to need an audience to really relax into character...and they get that audience on Day Twelve, with a Company Preview followed by a Senior Preview--which was attended by a critic.
And then Day Thirteen: Opening Night. STEEL MAGNOLIAS didn't have a lot of last minute hullabaloo, so the actors had the daytime off until their call that evening. The Opening Night audience enjoyed the play. A reviewer was there. Millbrook Board members always go the extra mile, so there was a bleeding armadillo red velvet groom's cake with gray icing, just like they talk about in the show!!! Along with several other yummy southern delicacies at our Opening Night party in the courtyard. We toasted with champagne and had lots of fun.
Day Fourteen is a sad day--the day I drive away from all my Millbrook friends, many of whom I do not get to see during the year. In the summer stock world, my job as director is done, and the show belongs to the actors, crew, staff, and other artists who make each performance happen. And of course, it belongs to the audience most of all.
A day or so later, THE LOCK HAVEN EXPRESS publishes a review. This critic really, really "got it"--the goals I had of realistic acting alongside lots of humor, and also she responded positively to Millbrook's goal of trying a play on mainstage:
"The ensemble shows a fascinating development in their acting from beginning to end. As the play goes on...the actresses seem to vanish altogether in favor of the characters whose stories they tell.
The staging was beautifully subtle and well executed. This is not the first time that Millbrook has produced a straight play (as opposed to a musical) on the Main Stage but it cannot be stressed enough what a pleasure it is to enjoy the simplicity of a play. Somehow the stage does not seem so large, and the audience is gifted with an intimacy far greater than what you tend to get during a musical. If you are hesitating about going to see Steel Magnolias because you don't know what a play will be like on the Main Stage, I can only say don't worry. The experience is a treat and I think that you will leave Millbrook feeling differently about its potential as a venue for straight plays as well as musical, especially as you watch the actresses navigate comedy and tragedy with dexterity."
The Williamsport Sun-Gazette had this to say:
"Gauging the opening night audience's reaction, 'Steel Magnolias' may prove to be a plus in filling lots of the Upstairs Main Stage seats. Morgan Sills ably directs this dramedy, which has a brisk running time of only two hours, including an intermission. The characters display a heartfelt camaraderie and resilience as "Steel Magnolias" heads to its emotional finale...very pleasant, summertime entertainment."
So, if you're near Mill Hall, PA this week--come and see us!