Where there’s a Will
Chico State theater alum returns from Broadway to direct spring musical
The theater event of the year at Chico State is the spring musical. And this year the university’s Department of Music and Theatre is staging The Will Rogers Follies: A Life in Revue, a comedic extravaganza that relates the biography of the famed early 20th-century humorist in a series of production numbers based on the style of the legendary Ziegfeld Follies, which Rogers often headlined for at the height of his performing career.
A week or so before the opening, the CN&R stopped by to chat with the show’s visiting director, Tim McDonald, a graduate of Chico State and founder of the former Chico City Light Opera (now the home of Chico Theater Company) as well as a Chico State Distinguished Alumnus (2010), who has gone on to a successful career in New York City theater. He is an award-winning playwright and director, and an acknowledged authority on musical theater education, and is currently working with the President’s Committee on Arts and the Humanities’ Turnaround Arts initiative to transform underperforming schools through the arts.
Tall, affable, with a deep, authoritative voice and ready laugh, McDonald is an obviously charismatic director who, in his own words, exudes a quality of “leading with humility, patience and a sense of calm.”
Here’s some of what he had to tell us about the show and theater education in general.
CN&R: I loved the piano playing during rehearsal; it gave the musical numbers a rollicking, lively exuberance. How many other musicians will be accompanying the full production?
McDonald: There are 15 musicians in the pit orchestra and they’re phenomenal. It’s a great mix of seasoned Chico pros and students who can really play their faces off!
It’s a big production. How many people are in the cast?
We have 16 women, eight guys, four principal actors, four kids and a children’s choir of 15—so it’s a big show. I wanted the show to fit the grand scale of Laxson, so we’ve got a big cast, big set, and ridiculously fabulous costumes. The only thing we’re missing are animals. Hmm … maybe I should see if someone could loan us a calf, or maybe a live horse?
How does it feel to be back on campus directing the biggest show of the year?
I’ve proven the theory that you can go back to the future. I only had the opportunity to direct one musical in Laxson and it wasn’t my best work because I didn’t understand the grand scale needed in Laxson. So I’ve got a bit of a chip on my shoulder and I’m pushing myself, the cast, the crew and my creative team to aspire for nothing less than brilliance. No pressure. I don’t think anyone would have thought 1980s Tim had any chance of directing anything but traffic on a slow day.
Are the students currently in the theater program at Chico State much different from when you were a student? Has the digital age noticeably affected the way theater arts are taught?
The students seem very much like me when I was a student—young, a bit naïve, but eager. This age of portable everything means students can do their homework while waiting for their stage entrance and I think that’s pretty cool. Social media has made live experiences more valuable. You can only experience the Will Rogers Follies live in Laxson and for five nights. After that, poof, it’s gone forever.
Can you give us any hints about what might make this production special?
We’re doing one particular thing that as far as I know hasn’t been done onstage since the original Ziegfeld Follies in the 1920s in New York City. It involves gorgeously costumed actresses on two set pieces that rotate—and it’s pretty astonishing. For anyone who wants to know more, well, you’re gonna have to come check out the show!