Exclusive Interview with Bright Star Director Mary Nickles and MTP Founder Will Ragland

Seth Crawford and Kelsey Crews star in Bright Star. Photo by Escobar Photography, LLC.

Mill Town Players present the South Carolina premiere of Bright Star, Inspired by a real event and featuring the Grammy-nominated score by Steven Martin and Edie Brickell.

Broadway’s Bright Star tells a sweeping tale of love and redemption set against the rich backdrop of the American South in the 1920s and ’40s. When literary editor Alice Murphy meets a young soldier just home from World War II, he awakens her longing for the child she once lost. Haunted by their unique connection, Alice sets out on a journey to understand her past – and what she finds has the power to transform both of their lives. Propelled by an ensemble of onstage musicians and dancers, the story unfolds as a rich tapestry of deep emotion, beautiful melodies and powerfully moving performances. An uplifting theatrical journey that holds you tight in its grasp, Bright Star is as refreshingly genuine as it is daringly hopeful.

Directed by Mary Nickles (who also directed the company’s smash Ring of Fire), with musical direction by Joshua Morton, Bright Star features a live 8-piece Bluegrass band and boasts 17 local actors including Hannah Thompson as Alice Murphy, Seth Crawford as Billy Cane, John Mark Elliott as Jimmy Ray, and Will Ragland as Mayor Dobbs.

Tickets are only $12, with discounts for seniors, military, and students, and can be purchased online at www.milltownplayers.org, by calling (864)947-8000, or at the door.

Carolina Curtain Call recently chatted via email with MTP founder and Executive Artistic Director Will Ragland and Bright Star director Mary Nickles about this groundbreaking musical.

CCC: In a nutshell, what is Bright Star about?
MARY NICKLES: It is a story of a woman searching for something precious that has been taken away from her. For me this story represents a wide range of life and human experiences: love, loss, hope, ambition, dreams and family. The show reveals and emphasizes how the community in which we do ‘life’ is so important and influences how we behave. That community of nurture can offer grace and forgiveness or it can deliver condemnation and judgment. The ensemble represents this community and weaves this tapestry around each of the characters, whose lives are influenced by it. There are several themes within the story – grace and redemption, certainly – but ultimately, I feel that Bright Star is about hope; hope that is given and hope that is received.

CCC: What kind of research have you or your cast conducted in order to get a better understanding of this story inspired by true events? 

MARY NICKLES: I pulled and shared articles and pictures of the Iron Mountain Baby and read and viewed interviews of Edie Brickell and Steve Martin to see what their thought processes were as they were developing this story. The cast and I talked a lot about the small community of Zebulon, NC and what kind of pressures and influences would lead to an event like this. What was the mindset, religious beliefs, the moral compass. Since many of us grew up in small towns in North and South Carolina, we had a lot of personal experiences to pull from and share.  We began to create our own community by creating stories of our lives together. . . and I had each parent come up with and share a birth story for their child within the play.  The actual event that the story was taken from was important but creating the community/ensemble that would influence/force such an event was my focus.  Will did a beautiful job of giving us the setting of the Blue Ridge mountains and I loved the idea of telling the story with minimal props and all ensemble.  We also looked at what was happening in the world during these two time periods and in between.  In 1923-24, they are in a small town in North Carolina, conservative, christian community. How have the attitudes changed from the 20’s to the 40’s? They’ve been through the depression, WWII, what changed for women? What was the difference between Asheville and Hayes Creek?  Lot’s of asking and answering of questions, lot’s of ensemble building exercises.

WILL RAGLAND: We have done a great deal of research into the time periods and into who our characters are. The true event that inspired this story is of the Iron Mountain Baby. I encourage those interested in the story to look it up to gain insight into what happens in Bright Star. Also, as the scenic designer, I wanted audiences to be transported to another place and time. We have re-created the Blue Ridge Mountains on our stage. I can’t wait for our audiences to enjoy it! The message of this story is absolutely one of hope. No matter what happens to you in your own story, the sun will always shine again! 

CCC: Bright Star has a huge cast (16 members). What where the most challenging roles to fill?
MARY NICKLES: The role of Alice was challenging because we needed to find an actress who not only could sing the role but also had the ability to flip between 16 and 38 as well as have the acting chops to pull off the loss and love that Alice experiences. When she is the older Alice, the audience needs to believe that she is a good bit older than the actor playing Billy. So finding the right physical combination between Alice and Billy was hard as well.  Also, because there are several shows [in the Upstate] that are man heavy running at the same time [such as Newsies and Mamma Mia!] finding men in general was hard.  

CCC: This show has 7 live musicians. Are any of them speaking parts and did you have any trouble filling these roles? 

MARY NICKLES: The musicians do not have to be speaking roles. So our first priority was to assemble a strong core of musicians. Fortunately, the bass player, Taylor Wells, was willing to also play Doctor Norquist, which was very helpful from a practical point since our space is limited. I love that we were able to have one of the musicians step out and become a role. The music is such an integral part of the story telling, it in itself is a character.  This is an ensemble piece and the musicians are a part of that ensemble. 

CCC: Will, in addition to designing the beautiful scenery, you also play Mayor Dobbs in the musical. What can you tell our readers about this character?
WILL RAGLAND: He is the villain of the story. He is the mayor of a small town in NC and has a singular focus of advancing his son to prominence. He is a dominant, powerful man who has a very clear, black and white view of what the future must hold. He ends up doing something unthinkable at the end of Act 1. I won’t spoil it for our audiences, but it’s a scene you can’t forget! 

CCC: What makes Bright Star a perfect fit for Pelzer audiences?

WILL RAGLAND: We’ve been blessed with the best audiences over these past 5 years. They come from all over the Upstate. Bright Star will be appealing to our community because of the beautiful storytelling through song and dance. It’s bluegrass music and set in the Blue Ridge Mountains. That in itself is part of our own story. These are characters we’ll recognize and relate to. There’s humor, heartbreak, and hope. As actors, we get to speak with our own Southern accents and play characters set in both the 1920s and 1940s. These could have been our parents or grandparents. There is an emphasis on family, on relationships, and on dreams of a bright future. A large part of the show is also set in Asheville, just a drive up the mountain! I really couldn’t imagine a better fit for our audiences. I so very proud of our all-local cast of 16 actors and 7 band members on stage, one of which is Charles Wood, a well-known banjo player from Seneca who actually played with Steve Martin and Early Scruggs on David Letterman! The Upstate is full of talent, and bringing it together on our Mill Town stage is one of my greatest joys. 

CCC: This is a SC premiere. What was the process like in securing this premiere?

WILL RAGLAND: I’ve had my eye on this show for a while now. I harassed Theatrical Rights Worldwide repeatedly with emails, and they were kind enough to offer me the rights when they immediately became available. I snatched them up the same day! I knew this was a perfect show for our Mill Town audiences, and I wanted to be the first to produce it.

CCC: We have spoken before about your reconnaissance mission to another production of Bright Star. What can you tell our readers about your experiences?

WILL RAGLAND: I took a “secret” trip up to Barter Theatre in VA to see the Southeastern premiere of Bright Star. I also drove out to see a production at The Wetumpka Depot Players in Wetumpka, Alabama. We’ve made good friends with them since Wetumpka and MTP were both named winners of the SETC Community Theatre Festival earlier this year and traveled to represent the Southeast at Nationals in June. Our friends in Wetumpka are actually coming to see our own production of Bright Star! The show is now making the rounds all over the Carolinas. Coastal Carolina University, Clemson University, Charleston Stage, and Tryon Little Theatre are all producing Bright Star this season. I love this show so much that I’d honestly like to see all of those productions! 

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