Upstate Programs Sweep SC Theatre Competition

Mill Town Players, Woodmont High Advance to Regionals in Kentucky

BY SANDY STAGGS
ARTS WRITER

The Mill Town Players in Pelzer and Woodmont High School Wildcat Players in Greenville led an Upstate sweep at this weekend’s South Carolina Theatre Association’s 50th Annual Convention in North Charleston. And both teams have earned a spot to represent our state at the Southeastern Theatre Conference in March in Lexington, KY, and a shot at national prestige.

The Mill Town Players’ acclaimed production of John Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men,” directed by Christopher Rose, won first place in the Community Theatre Festival. And Woodmont High aced the high school contest with Suzan Zeder’s bilingual play (American Sign Language and spoken English) “The Taste of Sunrise,” directed by Harry Culpepper. The convention was hosted by the Charleston County School of the Arts

The American classic “Of Mice and Men” recently wrapped up a two-week run Nov. 6 and was also seen by almost 1,000 area students at Pelzer Auditorium.

“We were unsure how our audiences would react to this production,” said Mill Town Players Artistic Director Will Ragland. “It was a bit of a departure from our regular offerings of musicals and comedies, but we believed in the idea and were pleasantly surprised to see the turnout and hear the positive feedback.”

“People were truly moved by the show and many left in tears,” said Ragland, who at the convention was also elected new chair of the Community Theatre Division and also represented his Palmetto Stage Company’s “Macbeth” in the high school division.

Ragland said the play was timed (and designed) to travel to North Charleston, where the play was condensed to under 60 minutes and the set had to fit into a 10’x10′ square.

“The success of this production is a testament to the hard work and commitment of its cast, crew, and production team,” he said. “Every person gave 100 percent and believed in the project from day one.”

“Of Mice and Men” won also Best Ensemble, Best Lighting Design (Ashley Pittman), Best Costume Design (Sissy Beck), Best Sound Design (AJ Weaver), Best Set Design (Will Ragland), Best Actor (Brock Koonce), and Best Supporting Actor (Matthew Merritt).

The Mill Town Players have participated in the Community Theatre Festival for all three years of their existence now winning first place with “Dark of the Moon” in 2014 and seven of the nine awards for “Robin Hood” last year.

Now the troupe will have to raise money to cover the cost of the trip to Kentucky.

“We have to transport the set, costumes, and props and pay for registration and lodging for not only our team, but also our canine actor, Doodles,” Ragland added. “We’ll be competing against nine other states for a shot at the national competition.”

Other participating theatres include Greenwood-based Wild Hare Productions with “Ghost World,” the Flowertown Players with “The Zoo Story,” and Chapin Theatre with “Heck the Dolls with Chardonnay.”

“The Taste of Sunrise” was first mounted at Woodmont the weekend of Oct. 28 and is Culpepper’s first production since returning back “home” to Woodmont High School in August after teaching on Hilton Head Island for several years.

“I knew coming into quite an established program with Woodmont’s legacy that I needed to make a statement and put my fingerprint on the program and this production did all of that and much more with these kids,” he said. “They believed in taking the leap and risk and the rose to the challenge and I am so grateful for that.”

Culpepper, who currently serves as SCTA Board President, said his kids “poured their hearts into telling the story of idea that anyone, no matter their ability or disability, has dreams and desires like anyone else and they have the ability to go after them.”

The cast learned sign language in five weeks and also voluntarily attended two Silent Suppers at the Haywood Mall to be able to fully immerse themselves with deaf community members and use their skills to communicate and better understand the culture.

American Sign Language recently got a theatrical boost at the 2016 Tony Awards with Deaf West Theatre’s performance from “Spring Awakening,” but the story in “The Taste of Sunrise” is personal to Culpepper, who, unlike his young cast, is fluent in American Sign Language and considered a Child of Deaf Adults, or CODA.

“Both my parents and grandparents were deaf and shared many stories with me of their experiences of growing up at the SC School for the Deaf and Blind which was a residential school,” he said. “One of the central characters is a CODA as well and her story is exactly my experience of growing up in two worlds, the hearing and the deaf, which brought significant challenges and joys.”

Culpepper, who early in his career launched the theatre program at the SC School for the Deaf and Blind,  directed “The Taste of Sunrise” once before, but said he didn’t think he really “got it” until recently (after his parents’ passing) and knew in my heart it was time to direct it again.

He said his team (which includes Woodmont colleague Jonathan Long) had to figure out how to collapse the large raked stage decked in old weathered wood to fit into a 10×10 foot square and transport a 16-foot star that drops from the ceiling.

The Wildcat Players have been approached by Colleges and community groups about the possibility of touring the production, Culpepper said, and more future public performances are planned to raise travel funds for Kentucky.

Other Upstate winners include:

The Montessori School of Anderson’s “Bocon!” won second place, as well as Best Director for Mary Nickles and Best Lighting for William Joseph and Morgan Merriman.

Julie Richard and her team from Powdersville High School in Anderson won Best Ensemble for their production of “Antigone Now.”

Reed Halvorson brought a team from Christ Church Episcopal School for the first time and won Best Set Design with their hilarious production of “Epic Proportions.”

Ragland was on the sidelines with “Of Mice and Men” but did enter his production of “Macbeth,” Palmetto High School’s first Shakespeare play since 1953, in the high school competition.

And the South Carolina Theatre Association inducted four new members into into the SC Theatre Hall of Fame: Dr. Philip Hill,  former Furman University professor and a founder of SCTA; Columbia-native Ted Swindley, former artistic director of Greenville Little Theatre and author of “Always… Patsy Cline;” Sally Cade Holmes, alumni of SCTA and Broadway producer of “Anastasia;”  Randall David Cook (world-traveled playwright; and Erskine Johnson III, SC State alumni and actor on Tyler Perry’s “Have and Have Nots;” and

And to commemorate the occasion, Katie Rockwell and Cindy Mixon reprised their roles for a selection from the Mill Town Player’s recent hit production.

“[In the Upstate] we have some of the most talented, skilled, hard-working, knowledgeable, experienced, giving, dedicated, and brilliant theater artists anywhere. I’m thankful to call them friends,” said Ragland. “This recognition proves that greatness can be found anywhere, whether it be on Broadway or in Pelzer.”

For more information about the South Carolina Theatre Association, visit https://southcarolinatheatre.org/

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