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March 27, 2001

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Newsmaker Interview

The following interview with Michael McKee, director of Mobile Theatre Guild, was conducted last week.

Harbinger: Can you give our readers a brief history of the Mobile Theatre Guild?

McKee: Mobile Theatre Guild began during the 1950s as an outgrowth of a summer drama project when campers at Battles Wharf presented an original script The Tea Party, written and directed by Father Anthony Zoghby. Father Zoghby headed the theater group for the next fifteen years of growth and organization, during which time a number of his original plays, musicals, skits, and revues were presented. In 1954, the group received its state charter, and during the 1957-58 season moved into its present home at 14 North Lafayette Street. Before then, plays were presented in various halls, theaters, libraries, and once even in a county courtroom.

Several additions to the original structure, including a green room, make-up room, dressing rooms, and expanded backstage areas, have been made through the years. Last season the prop loft and stage floor were rebuilt, the orchestra pit was "rediscovered" and put back into use, and the patio and front walk were re-landscaped. This season, new lighting and newer seats have been installed in the auditorium.

Beginning with Dames at Sea in the summer of 1972 and continuing through the decade, Tom Pocase presided as resident director. His most outstanding directing credits at the Guild included Private Lives, The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, Cabaret, and Sweet Charity.

I joined the Guild as resident director during the 1984 season. Throughout its fifty-year history, the Guild has been fortunate to see many of its participants depart to work in legitimate professional theaters and garner many prestigious awards. These include: Louise Quick who became Bob Fosse's assistant choreographer; Linda Zoghby, an internationally acclaimed operatic soprano; Vicki Powers, a stage, screen, and television actress/singer; Vanessa Nolan O'Meara, who worked in Los Angeles as casting director of Sesame Street's animation department; Hiram Taylor, playwright; Beth Stomps, Alabama's Miss America 1998; and Myra Barginear, Mississippi's Miss America 1998 and National Miss America finalist.

Harbinger: Can you tell our readers something about your background and how you became involved with the Mobile Theatre Guild?

McKee: After receiving a Master of Arts degree in theater from the University of Alabama, I stayed there as temporary faculty for two years. I then took position at University of South Alabama (USA) for five years. This was during the heyday of the Bethel Theatre. I left Mobile in 1979 and spent some time in New York and returned to graduate school at University of Georgia for an Master of Fine Arts degree in Arts Administration.

When I returned to Mobile in 1982, I taught part time at USA and the University of Mobile. After Tommy Pocase left MTG they went through several seasons of guest directors, some for whole season (Penny Dennis, Rommy Vistart) and some on a show-by-show basis. Their search committee for full time director knew my work from Theatre USA and approached me about the position. This is when the Guild took its new direction in smaller, newer, out-of-the-mainstream plays -- Mobile's Off-Broadway Connection. This concept was appealing to me, and I started with the 1984-85 season. Seventeen years later I'm still here, through thick and thin. Mobile Theatre Guild also became an active and widely recognized participant in the American Association of Community Theatre (AACT) festival -- a competition arena for amateur theaters. The Guild has since won numerous state, regional, and national honors with its production of A Walk in the Woods, A Life in the Theatre, Marvin's Room, Womenfolks, and Smoke on the Mountain. The culmination came with 1997's production of Smoke on the Mountain placing first place nationally and I was cited for outstanding direction. As a result, I was awarded the Marian Gallaway Award for outstanding contribution to the state of Alabama by the Alabama Conference of Theatre and Speech.

Harbinger: Tell us how the Mobile Theatre Guild got selected to participate in the Monaco Festival?

McKee: The American Association of Community Theatre involves a state to region to national to international progression. The Monaco Festival (Mondial du Theatre) founded by Princess Grace extends invitations to only 24 countries. The U.S. arm of IATA (International Amateur Theatre Association) then submits its recommendation to Monaco for approval. If Monaco accepts the recommendation, an official invitation is extended to the company -- thus the time lapse. We knew we had been recommended by Theatre USA/IATA months before the official invitation arrived.

Sander's Family Christmas did not go through the competition process. Our Smoke on the Mountain two years prior did, and took first place and six other awards at the national level, continuing to represent the U.S. internationally in Ireland.

Sanders' Mobile run was attended by a member of the U.S. international committee whom we had brought in to conduct acting workshops in the Mobile public schools. He recommended to the committee that this production be sent to Monaco.

Harbinger: Tell us something about the play the Theatre Guild will be performing at the Monaco Festival.

McKee: Sander's Family Christmas is a sequel to our award-winning Smoke on the Mountain, wherein the Sanders Family return to the gospel circuit at Rev. Oglethorpe's Mount Pleasant Baptist Church after several years' absence. The sequel takes place three years later, Christmas Eve 1941, shortly after Pearl Harbor. The Sander's witnessing, storytelling, singing and playing, take on extra poignancy, as this will be the last time they sing together until after the war. It's a feel-good show for the entire family.

Harbinger: This is the second time that the Theatre Guild has been selected to participate in an international festival. To what do you attribute its success and fame?

McKee: During the 90s, we had five productions performed in festivals at state, regional, national and international levels. We have brought home 28 awards, including many of the top honors. We have been to Ireland's festival twice (Marvin's Room and Smoke on the Mountain) and now will perform at the crown jewel of international festivals, the only recognized world festival in Monaco. We just received word that we have been selected to open the festival on July 26. Our participation in these festivals, networking with other community theaters, attending workshops, and seeing other productions, have given us many ideas, potential scripts, etc. to incorporate into our organization. We have also discovered that our work stands up with theaters across the country, and that we continue to improve. We strive to uphold the artistic integrity of the script and at the same time entertain and perhaps educate our audiences. Perhaps we're succeeding.

The Guild is involved in festivals and competitions primarily to maintain its dynamism by continually educating its core volunteers -- actors, technicians, and board members. We also feel the competition enables us to act as cultural ambassadors to the rest of the country and to the international community who honor us and our city by inviting us to perform. People may not readily see the benefits of competition, but we at the Guild feel that competition has given us new life and an enhanced national reputation. The success of Smoke on the Mountain and our other competition productions has clearly and positively impacted our own volunteers, board members, and patrons. We have also carved outstanding impressions within other communities near and far on behalf of our beloved community.

The Mobile Theatre Guild is seeking corporate sponsors to show solidarity promoting Mobile as a "cultural/artistic environment in which to enjoy life."


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