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The sweat equity theater

Jan 01, 2015 02:54PM ● Published by Kerigan Butt

Courtesy photos Scenes from a recent production of Spring Awakening.

Gallery: The sweat equity theater [7 Images] Click any image to expand.

By Richard L. Gaw

Staff Writer


It is late in the afternoon at the Milburn Stone Theatre on the campus of Cecil College, and the box office phone is practically ringing off the hook.

The company, which completed a successful run of the musical, Tarzan, in September, is now in its second week of The Addams Family, a musical that brings the television characters of Uncle Fester, Gomez, Morticia, Lurch and Wednesday and Thing to living, breathing life. The word of theater travels rapidly in Cecil County and so far, the news on the show is very good -- so throughout her conversation, Production Manager Serenity Rowland secures ticket reservations for the upcoming weekend.

It's nothing new for Rowland. Over the past several years, a constantly busy box office has become a way of life for the Milburn Stone Theatre, who has built an outstanding reputation as one of the best community theaters in the Northeast on the strength of power-packed seasons filled with leading musicals and compelling dramas, brought to the stage by some of the best theater talent in the area. The last few seasons have offered a wide scope of productions, including the musicals Young Frankenstein Spring Awakening; the drama Dinner With Friends; and Shakespeare's comedy, As You Like It. In addition to Tarzanand The Addams Family, this year's season will see the thrilling Night of the Living Dead; the family favorite Shrek: The Musical; the drama August: Osage County; and the Broadway sensation, Monty Python's Spamalot, all coming to the stage at Cecil College.

Productions like these, crafted and designed by a talented troupe of directors, choreographers, set builders and technical designers, have led many local theater audiences to assume that the Milburn Stone Theatre is a professional theater company. In truth, the company operates as a community theater, whose funding comes from a combination of ticket revenue, individual donations, corporate sponsorships and Cecil College, but those who run the place do not mind the comparison.

"I love it when people say that about us," Rowland said. "It's always nice to have that recognition. I think we strive to operate as a professional theater."

"Our shop foreman told me once, 'We don't view ourselves as doing community theater. We view ourselves as doing theater for the community,'" said Artistic Director Lee Lewis. "That is probably the biggest difference between Milburn and other community theaters in the area. If you treat it like its community theater, it's going to be community theater. There's no one on the entire staff who has ever viewed what we do as community theater."

The primary mission of any community theater is to come up with the answer to, "Who are we, and how do we wish to go about accomplishing that?" Along with the creative mix of deciding which shows would best define a theater’s mission is the necessity of helping to pay for that definition. For selection committees everywhere, it's a theatrical juggling match, and in recent years, many community theaters have been taken to task for choosing to load their seasons with edgier works that don't play to general audiences, while others are criticized for seasons that are top-heavy with surefire chestnuts -- shows that are guaranteed to sell out the house but too often are the nutritional equivalent of a piece of wet kitsch.

The Milburn Stone Theatre has found an effective way of giving audiences the best of both worlds: a potpourri of large-scale, family-based musicals, mainstream comedies and dramas, as well as cutting-edge theater.

"We treat this as a business, an idea that tends to get lost in community theater," Lewis said. "It's great to do the mickey and judy thing and say, 'Let's do a show in the barn,' but that's not realistic. We approach it not only from a creative viewpoint, but from a business standpoint.  It's part of the job to select a money-maker and use it to widen the breadth of your theater's mission. You have to realize what the community wants, and in general, our audiences like "Shrek" and "Tarzan," for instance. But it's shows like these that pay for the other side of what we do, which is to produce edgier dramas."

To some, seeing the plays of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O'Neill, Sam Shepherd, David Mamet and even Shakespeare are likened to being forced to eat one's vegetables, but dramas have been and always will be considered the lifeblood of the American theater. At their finest, they are the mirror reflection of the human identity -- its fall and its rise. From the standpoint of box office appeal, however, they are less likely than a popular musical to sell out a house -- namely, the 438-seat theater at Cecil College.

So recently, Lewis and his staff, understanding the need to showcase these works and the plays of contemporary writers, collaborated with Cecil College's Performing Arts Department to form The Milburn Stone Theatre @ Elkton Station. Tucked into Cecil College's Elkton campus, the 100-seat theater is opening next year to daring, bold productions of contemporary plays: Walter Kronkite is Dead; Dogfight: The Musical; God of Carnage; Vagina Monologues; Farragut North; as well as an Emerging Artist(s) Showcase.

"Theater is sometimes two very different animals," said Andrew John Mitchell, Milburn's director of marketing. "On one side, you have large musicals. On other other, you have comedies and serious plays. We did a marvelous production of Dinner With Friends Cecil College last year, but it's a four-person drama, the type of play that appeals to 100 people a night, not 400. At the Elkton stage, it's still a production by the Milburn Stone Theatre, but it allows us to produce shows that won't fit the larger stage with a new home."

The breadth of the Milburn Stone Theatre does not end with its main stage line-up of shows and its cutting-edge plays at Elkton Station. Throughout the year, its season is dotted with a variety of shows that make up its Performing Arts Series at Elkton Station. On its main stage at Cecil College, the company is devoting much of its current season to the works of Composer and Lyricist Stephen Sondheim, beginning with Sondheim on Sondheim March, followed by Follies, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Company and Merrily We Roll Along.

"We're doing a whole year of Sondheim, hitting a majority of his most important work," Mitchell said. "By the time it all wraps up, nearly every major aspect of his work will be covered. If you like Sondheim, then the Milburn Stone Theatre is the place for you."  

A theater production has been compared to a swan; the side of it that we can see is that of pure grace, gliding through the water, while beneath the surface, its feet paddle furiously in order not to drown. Similarly, what audiences at the Milburn Stone Theatre get to see are superb performances complimented by Broadway-level set designs and expert lighting. What they do not see are, essentially, the legs of the swan -- the late nights spent in rehearsal; the endless hours spent building sets; the heated discussions between directors and actors and choreographers; and the machinations of somehow getting it to flow in perfect harmony, even if it takes all weekend.

If there is an unworn hat of duty during any the production of any Milburn show, someone who is already wearing several other hats will often pick it up and place it on their head.  

"Every single person in the this building wears many more than just one hat, often more than two," said Tyler Bristow, production assistant and master electrician. "It's a lot of late nights and a lot of cups of coffee. There are times when we're all just at each others throats, but at the end of the day, we somehow get it all done. We're constantly challenging ourselves to do more shows, to be better at what we do.

"Because we've been experiencing a growing success rate, we're taking on the challenge of building other sets while another show is still going on," Bristow added. "The real challenge isn't building The Addams Family, but building other sets and holding rehearsals while The Addams Family is currently on the stage."

Rowland, in addition to serving as the theater's production manager, staged managed The Addams Family. During the run of Tarzan, she not only performed her regular job, but was a production manager for the show and was one of the lead actors.

"You don't last long here as a director, as a choreographer as a backstage crew or an employee, if it's just a job to you," Lewis said. "You have to be willing to give your blood, sweat and tears to make the product that we do. A lot of it comes from the staff. We want each production we do to be better than the one we did before. We always joke after each production, 'Well, how do we build the next show bigger than the last?'"

There is a moment Bristow gets to experience with every production he is involved in -- a moment he knows is shared between the dozens of people responsible for acting, directing, choreography, lighting and sound, set construction, and running the box office.  

"It's a sense of accomplishment we feel after the show's set is finally completed, and we begin to see the numbers going up in tickets sales," he said. "It's that moment you know that these people are about to see and appreciate all of the effort that you've spent the last month losing sleep over...the feeling of satisfaction that everything is working the way it should. It overpowers the amount of dread and difficulty of tech week, the times when you swear to yourself that this is going to be the very last show you'll be involved in.

"Somehow, every time, all of our hard work pays off in the end."  

Their Biggest Season Yet

The Milburn Stone Theatre is located at One Seahawk Drive on the campus of Cecil College in North East, Md. 21901. The Milburn Stone Theatre @ Elkton Station is located at Cecil College-Elkton Station, 107 Railroad Avenue, Elkton, Md. 21901.

The Milburn Stone Theatre Box office is open at Cecil College Mondays through Fridays, from noon to 5 p.m.

For complete information about the 2014-15 season at the Milburn Stone Theatre, call 410-287-1937, or visit www.milburnstone.org.

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail rgaw@chestercounty.com.


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