by Anna Ferraro
For several years, MacMurray College has been a performing arts “ghost town” since the music and theater majors were cut. Jeannie Zeck, a member of faculty, was there for all of it in the past 19 years. She saw the success of earlier decades that carried the school through the 90’s, and then, the low points of more recent years when they were forced to drastically cut the budget. Zeck shared that even after losing their theater major and minor, “we kept up with a few plays. … quite a few productions that were directed by Rich McCoy, and a few by other people, just on an ad hoc basis. … but it’s been spotty.” And she’s still there for what is hopefully the dawn of a new era for the liberal arts college under the new administration.
With that, today is a new day for the MacMurray performing arts team, and thus, a new day for the school. Zeck continued, “We have gotten a new administration in the last few years, and the provost, Beverly Rodgers, is a pro-performing arts person, as the president is. We now have much more backing for the performing arts.”
Under the new administration, MacMurray College hired Christine Smith in 2017, and things started to happen. Her job description: performing arts director. Her job requirements: bring a band and a choir back to MacMurray – and put on a musical and theatrical production. In the future, she hopes to get more music classes going to round out the curriculum, but for now, she and Zeck are working closely to get their musical off the ground.
“I always trying to think six months ahead,” said Smith. “That’s just the way I work. Last year, when I was doing the production at the high school, I stumbled across a musical named, ‘Spitfire Grill.’ I was looking at something for smaller cast, and I came across it. When I looked into the soundtrack, I just fell in love with the music.”
Smith went on to describe this charming musical as “haunting, acoustic, and endearing,” saying, “there’s a very endearing quality about this musical. When I found it, I just kind of knew that this was the right deal.” Smith took the score and script to Zeck for some input. Zeck shared, “I had never heard of it before; I read it and was charmed by it. When I heard the music, it was so intense, deep and rich.”
From there, Smith really started the ball rolling. She shares, “There’s a lot of leg work before the audition process – getting copyrights, materials, and permissions. That was a little difficult because we haven’t had this program here.” Pulling the legal and financial side of the production together required her to basically work from scratch.
The materials for the production arrived just before the students left for their Christmas break – so Smith and Zeck auditioned all roles before the school emptied for the holidays. Smith had her little choir group, and Zeck had some students she had worked with during a past MacMurray play of Albert Camus’s. Together, Zeck shared, “I felt like we had a strong core group that we could work with to distribute the parts.”
In discussing the play, Zeck shared about some of it’s inner workings, saying, “The leading role is a young woman named Perchance Talbott – called Percy – who is in her 20’s. In the first scene, she is in prison and about to get out. Upon her release, she chooses to go to a small Midwest town – Gilead, WI – where she can be surrounded by nature and have some sort of community.” Smith continued the synopsis, saying, “[Percy’s] parole officer finds her a job at the only little restaurant in town – ‘Spitfire Grill’ – which, obviously, is the only place for people to eat. Once there, Percy becomes the hub of gossip for everyone in town.” As the story continues, Smith shared, you find out why she was in prison and what kind of trauma she experienced. In the play, Smith summarized, “She ends up helping other characters in the community through her life lessons. It’s a really neat story about redemption and changing your life.” Zeck commented, “We see characters in Gilead who are stuck through emotional damage they’ve experienced. There are some connections to the Vietnam War, that sub-story is very complex and it adds a lot to the play.”
Despite the depth and requirements of the plot, the students are all over it. Zeck said, “What we saw for several of the students is that they just embodied those characters so quickly. It was reassuring to me, as we have a couple actors that have never acted before, and they’re doing a really good job. That brings us directors relief, and some pleasant surprises.” Speaking of pleasant surprises, Smith glowed as she stated, “I love watching the process of a musical coming together. It starts with nothing, then, you get a set, and characters.” Rehearsals began the end of January, and already at that point, “The kids are already seeing the end product, even through we’re not close to being there. Last night at rehearsal, there was a terrific energy.” Zeck concurred with that, saying, “The play is really an ensemble piece, and you can see the actors joining forces, and enjoying all kinds of good humor and good will as they work.”
Looking at their upcoming preparations, Zeck shared, “Our greatest challenges are that we have little infrastructure for theater. No acting classes, no scene shop, no costume shop – those technical aspects are challenging for us. Fortunately, the theater people at IC have been very generous in supporting us with people, and several IC students are doing light work and building work. Dr. Nancy Porter is helping us with costumes and props. Without them, we could not be doing this.” For Smith, scheduling has been her biggest challenge, saying, “Kids are so busy with work and classes. … But now that the kids have seen it coming together, they’ll put the time to it.” Between the long evening rehearsals, Smith pulls students together through the day to help them learn lines, parts, and songs.
As the show day approaches, Zeck and Smith both gave an enthusiastic “hats off to our new provost and president for seeing the importance of the performing arts in our liberal arts college.” Together, they’re thrilled about the production of “Spitfire Grill,” but more than that, the return of performing arts to MacMurray College.
Spitfire Grill is a full-length musical that will be performed at MacMurrary College on Friday, March 9th and Saturday, March 10th at 7:30pm, and Sunday, March 11th at 2pm. Tickets for the public are $5 and are available through Jeannie Zeck at MacMurray (217.479.7119), or at the door. ###