BY SANDY STAGGS
The Mill Town Players once again prove their troupe is the best little theatre in the middle of almost nowhere and MTP founder and Executive Artistic Director Will Ragland and his gang are about to officially anoint Pelzer, South Carolina into the national scene.
For one night only in Pelzer Wednesday, June 19 the company will showcase the multiple award-winning adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet” brilliantly set in the Hatfields and McCoys-inspired Appalachia.
And bright and early the very next morning, the Montagues and Capulets will charter a bus and a U-Haul to perform at the prestigious American Association of Community Theatre Festival in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania this weekend.
“Romeo and Juliet” took top honors at the South Carolina Theatre Association community theatre festival in November 2018 and then again regionally against 9 other southern states in March at the Southeastern Theatre Conference in Knoxville, Tenn.
The Mill Town Players have traveled the road to regionals before – both in 2014 with their production of Dark of the Moon, and again in 2016 with Of Mice and Men, but nationals is uncharted territory for MTP.
“This has been a surprise for us,” said Ragland who, along with award-winning director Christopher Rose, will lead the gang of 20 “volunteer actors and crew of all ages (14 years old to retirees) and of different levels of experience” to the beautiful and historic Majestic Theater in Gettysburg.
Moreover, this marks the first time a South Carolina theatre has represented our region at nationals (held only in alternating years) since 1985 when Greenville’s Centre Stage was a toddling community theatre, known then as Centre Stage – South Carolina!, and took the two-man priesthood comedy “Mass Appeal” all the way to the national stage placing fourth in the country.
In honor of this historic achievement, Centre Stage founder Doug McCoy remounted Mass Appeal ten years later in 1993 and again in a 2003 production starring none other than Ragland himself along with longtime Centre Stage and Upstate Shakespeare Festival actor Richard Beveridge.
Ragland said he and his Appalachian clans never anticipated making it this far into the competition. And neither did the company plan for it fiscally.
This trip is costing in the neighborhood of $23,000 for travel, room & board, convention fees, and a brief field trip to see the Battlefield of Gettysburg.
Ragland does not know what to expect at the competition. Of course, the troupe didn’t expect to win at SETC either.
“We almost did not even go to SETC,” he said, due to the costs of the trip for such a large cast and production.
Still, only a few of the cast members were able to attend the final day’s dinner and ceremony, Ragland said, recounting the oft-heard tale of the Mass Appeal gang from Centre Stage sitting outside the venue at nationals, listening to the ceremony, because they could not afford tickets to the gala on their longshot, shoestring budget.
“They opened the doors and let them in to receive their award.”
But Ragland said the MTP Board of Directors immediately gave the production a vote of confidence as the venerable “underdog.”
“The Board was 100 percent committed to raise the funds and we have been asking for donations since our win in South Carolina,” he said, referring to the red buckets that ushers have been carrying all season.
In fact, the company only needs another $1,500 to make this venture a reality.
“Our audiences have been very generous, very supportive and excited for us,” Ragland added. “We are a young company in a small town and you can sense the pride.”
And Ragland sings the praises of Rose, who has two Best Director awards to his credit, as a “supporter, a nurturer and phenomenal director.”
Several members have also been recognized for their work on this project.
At SCTA the show brought home Best Ensemble, Best Costumes (Beth King, Will Ragland and Sissy Beck), a historic Supporting Actor win for Kelly Crittendon for her gender-bent role of Mercutio, and Supporting Actress accolades for Cindy Mixon for her role as the Nurse.
Rose said: “I am extremely proud of my cast and crew for all of their hard work. The actors understood every word of the language and presented a beautiful retelling of the classic tale. And to have a young woman receive the award for best ACTOR is a real thrill. I am so happy to be a part of breaking that glass ceiling one bold choice at a time!”
At SETC, “Romeo and Juliet” won Best Acting honors for Mixon again, Anne Robards (Lady Capulet), Ken Thomason as Capulet, as well as Best Ensemble.
“These are all local people and it’s a testament to the ability of community actors,” Ragland said. “They are doing it for the love of theater and everyone in this cast feels that way.”
The cast has been rehearsing for the last two weeks concurrently with two other MTP shows in various stages of production. Ragland even brought in a dialect coach to brush up on their Hatfields and McCoys accents.
“Our group is full of wonder and amazement,” Ragland said,” Most of us have probably never even been to Pennsylvania and what an amazing opportunity for everyone, especially our younger actors,” referring to the titular stars Gregory Middleton and Kat Bates.
Supporters can make a donation at the show or on MTP’s website.
“Romeo and Juliet” will run at the historic Pelzer Auditoiurm, 214 Lebby St. in Pelzer. Call (864) 947-8000 or visit www.milltownplayers.org.