Pelzer Theatre to Launch Sister Company in Fountain Inn This Fall
BY SANDY STAGGS
In three brief but bountiful years, the Mill Town Players have packed the historic Pelzer Auditorium dozens of times, brought home tons of awards for its productions and founder Will Ragland has been named Best Actor in the Upstate three years in a row.
And today, the Mill Town Players proudly announce the troupe is effectively doubling its programming by branching into Greenville County in the fair city of Fountain Inn.
Simply called the Mill Town Players at the Younts Center, the new campus will present similar family-friendly plays and musicals in the vein of Pelzer audience favorites like “Greater Tuna” and “Smoke on the Mountain.”
The theatre is planning to produce six shows a year and will announce the inaugural season at a kick-off celebration in mid-August at the Younts Center.
And Ragland, in an exclusive interview with Carolina Curtain Call after signing on the dotted line, says acting and production roles will be filled hopefully by local Fountain Inn theatre artists, many who are still recovering from the demise of the Younts Center’s former resident theatre, the FIRE Theatre Company.
The FIRE (Fountain Inn Repertory Experience) Theatre Company was founded in 2008 and produced full seasons of community theatre until May 2017, when facing a growing deficit at the performance arts center, Fountain Inn Mayor Sam Lee and the City Council voted not to allocate any more funds in support of FIRE Theatre.
FIRE Theatre was effectively disbanded, at least at the Younts Center, home also to the Fountain Inn Chorale and Fountain Inn Symphony Orchestra.
“I had seen what was going on with the Younts Center and what was happening via social media,” Ragland said. “My colleagues (Anita Sleeman, for instance) and friends started the FIRE Theatre Company ten years ago about the same time as the Wildcat Players of Woodmont High School” where Ragland taught for many years prior to his current post at Palmetto High School.
“Many of my former Woodmont students were in shows there and a lot of my friends worked at FIRE,” he said. Ragland even worked with FIRE Artistic Director Zachary Pelicano (as a teenager) in South Carolina Children’s Theatre’s “Pinocchio” in 2000. And he said Pelicano and FIRE Theatre were very helpful when he was starting the Mill Town Players.
“FIRE Theatre and the (Younts) Civic Center were the reasons for the revival in Fountain Inn,” he added. “They brought in restaurants and shops and the face of Fountain Inn changed within the first six years.”
“It was sad to see them have to shut down,” he added. “FIRE touched so many lives over the last nine years and we really wanted to find a way to continue that.”
Ragland said this partnership with the Younts Center began with a chance meeting after a show at the Pelzer Auditorium.
“I had just finished a performance and Debbie Alphin, the new Executive Director of the Younts Center and member of the Cultural Arts Foundation of Fountain Inn approached me in the lobby and asked if I ever thought about bringing Mill Town shows to other places,” he said.
“That was always the dream to bring quality affordable live theatre to small towns that don’t have it. And wouldn’t it be great to have multiple campuses? I have seen other theatres do it like the Flat Rock Playhouse,” he added.
So Ragland and Ms. Alphin (with the blessing of Melvin and Dollie Younts, the generous donors whose gift of $1.5 million funded the renovation of the elegant Younts Center lobby) forged a plan to bring what is being done in Pelzer into Fountain Inn.
“The Mill Town Players understands its audience, loves its audience and wants to give its audience what it wants to see,” he said, comparing the similar demographics in Fountain Inn. “It is very important to continue the mission of quality low-price live theatre.”
Tickets to MTP in Fountain Inn will be slightly higher than Pelzer ($12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $8 for students), but that is still a significant reduction from previous ticket prices at the Younts Center, which was built in 1939 as a high school. The Younts Center with 416 seats is somewhat smaller than the Pelzer Auditorium with 657 seats.
The performing arts center is dedicated to keeping music and dance as part of its programming, he said, and will remain a place for local artists such as The Fountain Inn Symphony Orchestra and Fountain Inn Chorale to perform, as well as outside touring acts.
Ragland says his group also has plans to launch the Mill Town Conservatory for youth at the Younts Center. And, that is in addition to Mill Town’s intent to renovate the former Pelzer Elementary cafeteria into a rehearsal and performance space likely called the Pelzer Playhouse.
“Nothing will change in Pelzer,” he said. Ragland will still continue to teach at Palmetto High and likely delegate some MTP duties to trusted personnel.
“The transition will be challenging,” as will getting everything up and running, he admits. But he has done this before.
“We’re excited to get this thing started,” Ragland professed. “But it is very important to us to pay tribute to what’s taken place already in Fountain Inn. We are just trying to continue that tradition and are honored to be asked to come there to build community through the performing arts.”
The Younts Center is one of the few venues in the Upstate Ragland has never performed. “Oh, I intend to,” he retorted, likely with a juicy part already in mind for his Fountain Inn debut.
The Mill Town Players are currently running “Bye Bye Birdie” as part of the Anderson Theatre Festival through Aug. 6 at the Pelzer Auditorium, 214 Lebby St. in Pelzer. Shows are Thursdays-Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 3 p.m. Tickets are $8-10. Call (864) 947-8000 or visit http://www.milltownplayers.org.