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Thoroughly Modern Theater Students

Theater Profile

The Wildwood Summer Theatre will present "Thoroughly Modern Millie," Aug. 3 and 4 at 8 p.m. at the Bethesda-Chevy Chase High School Auditorium, 4301 East-West Hwy, Bethesda. Tickets for Students/Seniors are $10; Adults $14. Tickets available online or at the door. Visit www.wst.org or call 240-396-4397. Cast member Claire Olszewski, a Bullis graduate, and stage manager Bridget Woodbury, a Walt Whitman graduate, answered questions.

Explain the premise of the story:

Claire: Thoroughly Modern Millie takes place in New York City in 1922 at the height of consumerism and in the age of the "modern woman." The basic story follows Millie Dillmount, a young woman newly arrived to the big city from Kansas, on her journey to find a rich boss and marry him for his money instead of for love. Along the way, she encounters many problems, one of which is presented by Mrs. Meers, the hotel owner, who is involved in an underground White Slavery operation. In the end, Millie must choose between following her heart or sticking to her plan of marrying for money.

Why did you choose to be involved with the play?

Bridget: This is my third summer with Wildwood Summer Theatre. I stage managed Cabaret last summer and was the assistant stage manager the summer before. I love working with this company because it's such a great learning environment. Not only do I get to teach people younger than myself, but I also get to hone my skills. A large part of the reason I came back to stage manage again was so that I would have an opportunity to try some new tactics out in a supportive, low-pressure environment. I definitely plan to stay involved with Wildwood in the coming years, at the very least in my position on the board of directors.

Claire: I performed in Wildwood Summer Theater's production of Cabaret last summer and fell in love with the company, so I couldn't imagine not being a part of this group again this summer. The show picked for this year was also a big pull. Millie is full of fantastic songs and big dance numbers that make the production exciting and fast-paced. I had seen the show on Broadway and loved it, so knowing the story line from before definitely made me thrilled to audition.

What were some of the challenges when putting together the play?

Bridget: The fact that we are an educational, youth theatre does sometimes work against us in that there's not the adult safety net that I have grown accustomed to in my high school and college theatre experience. It's a double-edged sword. It's great that there's no adult pressure and that we're thrown into learning things; however, that also means we need to do a lot of enforcing of rules and pushing people to meet deadlines. It's hard to have the same authority with your peers that an adult would.

Claire: WST is the only non-profit, all youth-run theater company in the D.C. area, and as you can imagine, that in itself brings challenges to pulling off a successful production. It's always just a matter of timing. Large-scale productions like Millie take a lot of resources, time, money, and people, so the weeks leading up to the show are usually pretty stressful. Just making sure that the company has enough money to open the show in the style and fashion that would make the company proud is one of the biggest challenges.

What stands out the most about this production?

Bridget: There's so much energy in this cast that you really want them to succeed. That's rare a lot of the time in theatre. Everyone gets along so well and I think that shows onstage.

Claire: I think the set stands out to everyone who comes to see the show. Our technical designer, Kat Pong, is phenomenal and has an incredible artistic outlook. The set is made up of multiple large pieces that are each able to revolve 180 degrees to become different parts of different scenes. We also made good use of the fly space available in BCC high school helping to increase the complexity of our set.

What is the most challenging thing about the stage management of this play?

Bridget: There was definitely a lot of stress going into tech week. The nature of our rehearsal schedule means that we have limited time in the actual performance space. We do most of our rehearsing and set-building off-site, so there's something like a week for the crew to go in and finish the set, then two days to integrate the cast and the technical aspects, then a week to run the show. With all that to accomplish in such a short window, things usually get a little behind. The hardest thing for me as a stage manager is getting off schedule. When you spend hours making sure everyone has exactly the time they need, having five minutes to create a totally new game plan on the fly always makes me cringe inwardly. I obviously like to stick to the schedule, and that's never easy close to opening.

What is the most challenging thing about your role?

Claire: I have a few different roles during the course of the show, so my challenge comes in making each different role distinct. My goal throughout the summer was to find motivations and needs for each separate character that would set them apart from each other. I tried to make it interesting for the audience in terms of being able to watch a variation of characters on stage.

What has been your favorite play-related moment (either on stage or backstage)?

Bridegt: I wouldn't even know where to begin to answer that. At this point, the good and the bad have all blended together in my mind. Seasons go by fast; it's all a blur.

Claire: I've been very happy with the closeness of the cast. We've really been able to bond quickly and have helped each other in any way possible. Every member of WST is working hard all summer, and even during the shows, there aren't people just standing around backstage. I think one of the biggest indicators that our cast has become a family happens during quick costume changes. We don't have any extra hands backstage who are there primarily to help with costumes, so it is during those quick seconds of changing outfits that the cast has pulled together and helped each other prepare for the next scene. Costumes and shoes go flying as a result of multiple cast members helping each other get on stage in time!

How does the set and lighting affect the play?

Bridget: The set is definitely a huge asset to this production. The versatility lets us make scene changes faster, which helps the audience into the face-paced feeling of Millie's world. It amazes me how many different ways the set designer managed to use each piece.

How does the music affect the play?

The music for Millie is fantastic. Our orchestra is so incredibly talented and they really seem to feel the upbeat and jazzy sound of the 1920s. The music gives life to this story and enhances not only the emotions of the characters, but also the emotions and feeling of N.Y.C. in that era. It transports the cast and audience to the time of flappers and speakeasies and changes beautifully and seamlessly between scenes.

What got you involved in theater?

Bridget: I've always been generally artistic. I dabbled with a lot of mediums in elementary and middle school. I did drama camp for a week one summer. I had sort of the general well-rounded experience when I was younger. I took some largely theoretical theatre classes in middle school and I briefly considered auditioning for the first production my freshman year at Whitman. I ended up signing up for stage crew, expecting to work with costumes or set painting. At the end of the year, the senior stage managers graduated and though I had no idea what the position actually entailed, I volunteered to try it out. I ended up stage managing (and in the process taking on several other roles) every show my high school did for three years. Still, I didn't decide to go to school for theatre until fall of my senior year. I'm at Maryland now, majoring in theatre design and production and I couldn't be happier. WST had a large impact on my decisions.

Claire: I can't say exactly what got me sucked into the theater world, but I would guess that it had to be a mixture of my love of dancing and singing as well as being exposed to theater performances at a young age. The freedom and exhilaration of being on stage is irreplaceable and something that cannot be explained- only experienced.

What do you hope the audience will get out of it?

Bridget: With a show like 'Millie', you really just hope the audience has a great time. It's a fun, smart show that definitely applies today. The element of racism in the Meers and Bun Foo, Ching Ho juxtaposition shows how flawed stereotypes can be in a way that's not beating you over the head. The messages of the show are really subtle, which is something I think today's audiences can appreciate.

Claire: Millie is a very light-hearted show, unlike last summer's performance of Cabaret which was extremely heavy. With that said, I hope the audience has FUN! This show is full of hysterical lines and outrageously lovable characters. In the end, it is a love story at it's best that will hopefully have the audience leaving the theater singing and dancing!

Have you worked with any of these actors before?

Bridget: I worked with several of the actors in my previous years with WST. There were a lot of new faces though, which is great. Everyone ages out, so I love to see younger kids that can eventually step up to the plate.

Claire: WST is special because there is an age limit in terms of participation (14-25). It is because of this short span allotted that so many actors come back each year that they're able to. This is only my second year with the company, and I was happy to see so many of my friends’ faces back again. I know people who have been with the company for 7-plus years and have continued to work with some of the same people each year. With that said, many new faces show up at auditions and those faces are part of the beauty of WST. Everything keeps changing and growing!

What is the funniest line/situation in the play?

Bridget: My favorite parts are based more on my experience with the actors. After a while even the funniest lines get old, but it's the little inside jokes that really get me. I do love the scenes at the end where Graydon is drunk at the Cafe Society and the concluding scene where the plot is untangled for us.

Claire: We have extremely talented actors taking on the challenging roles of Mrs. Meers, Bun Foo, and Ching Ho. Their story line is definitely the funniest in the show for many reasons. Mrs. Meers is an ex-chorus girl from New York who dresses up as a Japanese landlord when she really intends to be Chinese. Bun Foo and Ching Ho are brothers from China who are bound to aid Mrs. Meers' white slavery operation in exchange for bringing their mother to N.Y.C.