PROLOGUEStephens College’s undergraduate theater program, established in 1899, is one of the oldest in the country. It’s also considered one of the best.
According to the Princeton Review’s new survey of 110,000 university and college students, Stephens has one of the top four undergraduate theater training programs in the nation.
Every good theater program must have a stage on which its students can shine. At Stephens, that stage is in Macklanburg Playhouse, a 350-seat state-of-the-art facility equipped with a modern sound system, a hydraulic orchestra lift and a trapped stage.
Boasting such famous graduates as Joan Crawford, Annie Potts and Oscar nominee Jennifer Tilly, Stephens College offers undergraduate degrees in
In October, the cast and crew of the Stephens Playhouse Company began working on “The Will Rogers Follies (A Life in Review).” The musical was inspired by one of America’s most beloved heroes, whose life was cut short at age 55 by a plane crash.
The play focuses on the life of Rogers, who starred in movies, created the annual “Ziegfeld Follies” show in New York and was known for his unforgettable rope tricks. Other characters in the cast include Will’s wife, Betty; his father; his children; four cowboys; and six Ziegfeld girls.
The company members brought in Millie Garvey from St. Louis as guest director and choreographer for the two-act, 12-scene play. Auditions were Oct. 2, followed a day later by call-backs. By that evening, Garvey had chosen her 30-member cast, including Jim Shipley in the lead role. Shipley is one of several male students selected from the mostly women’s college population.
“I think she took one look at me and said, ‘I think I’m gonna pick this little hayseed bumpkin over here,’” says Shipley, who grew up in southern Illinois.
A former athlete who says he never imagined himself as “a theater boy,” Shipley started acting when a friend persuaded him to audition for the musical “Chicago.” “The Will Rogers Follies” is his third play at Stephens.
“I didn’t have any acting, dance or vocal training at all, so I assumed I wouldn’t make it,” Shipley says. “I just thought I’d do it for fun, and I got in somehow and had a really great time.”
Although Shipley’s small-town roots gave him some knowledge about Rogers, he still had to research the role. To get a feel for the musical numbers, he says, he listened to the soundtrack from the play’s Broadway production.
Rehearsals began Oct. 25 in the Macklanburg Playhouse’s rehearsal room. With opening night five weeks off, cast members gathered for at least four hours five days a week.
“I work fast for (Jim’s) sake because he has so much to do, and he can’t have that (script) in his hand,” Garvey says. “And because they learn it that fast.”
Garvey transcends the stereotype of directors who sit in chairs, point to places on stage and read missed lines from a well-worn copy of a script. Garvey acts along with cast members, seeming to feel the music and the lines as much as the actors do. Every number they sing, Garvey sings. Every dance they perform, Garvey performs. Each time a cast member raises his or her hat during the “Campaign” number, Garvey raises hers.
“Stop,” Garvey yells over the piano during a rehearsal about three weeks before opening night. The 13 cast members in the “Campaign” number fall silent immediately.
“There are only eight hoorays,” Garvey reminds them, counting aloud and pointing at each person. “You gotta know the difference between these two endings. That’s all I gotta say.”
They practice the number seven more times before Garvey is ready to move on with the rest of Act 2.
The rehearsal room has mirrors on three of the four walls, with two functioning as vanities so the performers can apply makeup before and during the production. Rehearsal moves to the Macklanburg stage a week before opening night, when the rehearsal room is transformed with costume racks, tables full of cowboy hats and headdresses and countless safety pins and makeup brushes.
During rehearsals, those who aren’t working with Garvey and other cast members wait outside the Room. They give one another back massages and laugh at inside jokes. Those with longer breaks read books or brush up on lines and music.
Rob Doyen, who plays Will’s father, paces and mumbles his lines with a look of deep concentration. Alice Eacho, who plays Rogers’ wife, Betty, sits on a bench with a pink feather boa stretched across her shoulders, swaying to the song she’s rehearsing in her head.
Mason Scott, 11, and Reggie Tyler, 8, who play two of Will and Betty Rogers’ four children, kill time by playing computer games or with their Game Boys, eating popcorn or just hanging out in the lobby. Although rehearsals typically run later than 10 p.m. and they have school the next morning, they never complain.
Mason and Reggie are practically stage veterans. “The Will Rogers Follies” is Reggie’s second play at Stephens; in kindergarten, he played Tiny Tim in “A Christmas Carol.” He’s also performed with Columbia Entertainment Company. Mason has been in too many plays to count, he says, although this is his first at Stephens.
“For some reason, I just love being on stage,” Mason says. “I don’t get stage fright, and I’m never nervous because I’m just looking forward to it.”
Shelby Ringdahl, 12, and her sister, Sydney, 9, exhibit similar fearlessness. Shelby knows if she reads her lines before bed, they’ll sink in. Sydney played Alice in “Alice in Wonderland,” so memorizing her four scenes doesn’t seem like a problem to her at all.
“We really enjoy the show,” Sydney says. “We think it’s a good musical, and we think that it’s one of the best shows we’ve been in. I mean, we have a lot of favorites, but this is one of our favorites.”
With such a busy schedule, it seems almost cruel that most of the cast members have to deal with homework as well. Many are students at Stephens and have to balance hours of class work with their roles as entertainers.
Kyle Groff, who plays one of the production’s four cowboys, battled a sore throat about three weeks before opening night, as did two other cowboys. Groff has been involved with Stephens theater for about 3½ years and says the grueling schedule can be difficult.
“Last year I was in every Playhouse show, which means every night I was here until 10:30, so it was like 13 hours every day,” he says, “And then when I would get done, I’d have to do homework.”
After going over a scene repeatedly, Garvey gives the cast a five-minute break. “Thank you,” most of them reply in unison before rushing to the water fountain or walking into the lounge area.
Megan Buck, a Ziegfeld girl in the play, says deference to the director is part of theater etiquette.
“When you go to be a professional in New York or whatever, you’re expected to be respectful to your director. That’s just what you’re supposed to do,” she says. “But it’s also nice to have a break, too.”
On opening night, Dec. 3, people begin filing into Macklanburg Playhouse around 7 p.m. It is the first of six performances, and the crowd is a mix of older people reminiscing about their days watching and hearing Will Rogers and younger people there to support friends in the production.
Backstage, the cast members are getting ready. Most of the actresses sit in front of the vanities, applying makeup and fixing their hair, all the while singing show tunes and laughing. Shipley straightens the yellow cloth draped over his shoulders and then goes into the hall to use his phone before coming back in and asking one of the cowboys for a “decent electric razor.”
“Are other people afraid of the stairs besides me?” asks Carly Rappaport, who plays Ziegfeld’s Favorite in the play, referring to the nine steps that span the entire width of the stage.
“Um, it’s more of a terror,” says Laura White, one of the Ziegfeld girls. Rappaport soon seems to get over her jitters, though, singing “Christmas Time Is Here,” from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” in a perfect-pitch soprano.
If anyone is nervous, it’s difficult to tell. Benjamin Britton, another cowboy, does a tap dance in his boots. Some of the actresses pose for pictures between powdering their noses.
Garvey arrives, and the entire cast stops everything to sing “Happy Birthday” to her. The director smiles and sways to the verses. When they’re finished, she gives each of them a card and a hug.
“I’m not going to take any notes,” she says. “Be beautiful.”
At 7:30 p.m., the curtain rises. After a song-and-dance number by the Ziegfeld girls, Shipley comes out and begins his routine. The two-hour play is filled with songs, dances, rope tricks and colorful costumes. The actors and actresses walk quickly up and down the stairs, never stumbling or stuttering.
During Act 2, Eacho, as Betty Rogers, appears atop a piano wearing a black flapper-like dress with a black boa around her shoulders. She performs the routine she was practicing in the hallway weeks earlier, but this time there are a lot of people watching and she is actually singing the song instead of imagining it. When the number is over, the crowd responds with a loud cheer.
Those watching the production seem to be as involved as the actors and actresses. They laugh at the jokes, clap after the songs and remain silent during the scene in which Rogers discusses the Great Depression. The crowd especially loves the children, and a loud moan is evoked when Rogers mentions that his son died during the diphtheria epidemic.
The only opening-night problem arises when Shipley’s microphone begins to fade in and out. The crew rushes to fix it during the short time he has offstage, but the replacement doesn’t work. Harry Morrison, the musical director, reacts quickly and pulls the orchestra down so Shipley’s vocals aren’t overpowered. The other cast members turn their microphones off as well.
If audience members notice the glitch, it doesn’t affect their reaction to the play. After the curtain call, most of them rise to give the actors and actresses a standing ovation. They leave Macklanburg Playhouse smiling.