Co-directing can be a tenuously hit-or-miss proposition. To achieve the level of simpatico with another human being that is needed to create a cohesive production is a rare thing indeed.
Once in a blue moon though, a pair of like minds find each other and have the opportunity to create something bigger than either of them could alone. Patrick Mullins and Anthony Stockard, who have co-directed Virginia Stage Company and Norfolk State University’s co-production of The Wiz, give me the impression that such is the case with them.
“Our personalities and come-across are different, but we have very similar goals and views of how things should end up,” says Mullins. “We don’t finish each other’s sentences exactly, but it’s close.”
“It’s very close,” laughs Stockard. “Sometimes I feel like we’re cheating, because you get two people’s opinions at the same time instead of one. It keeps you on your toes, keeps things new in your mind. We’ll divide and conquer, work on music over here, check in with choreography over there, work with actors on a specific scene… It’s a huge benefit.”
“And we’ve had time to grow that,” adds Mullins. “I don’t think that comes naturally to anybody.”
Mullins, Associate Producer at VA Stage, and Stockard, the Director of NSU’s Division of Drama, have worked together often in the past couple of years, including having co-directed Tarell Alvin McCraney’s Choir Boy, presented last summer as a co-production between Stockard’s NSU Theatre Company and Mullins’ own company The Limbic System. Prior to that, Mullins had directed Stockard as an actor in several VA Stage productions and has also cast over a dozen NSU students in other plays on Stockard’s recommendation. The Wiz, which VA Stage and NSU present in tandem as the final show of both their seasons, is a culmination of that evolving partnership.
“It’s a huge show,” says Mullins. “There are thirty-seven NSU students just in the cast. There are eight students in the band and four or five on the crew.” That’s plus the four members of Actor’s Equity Association – the union of professional actors – joining the cast, two of whom are local, two of whom were secured with the help of a casting agent in New York. That half the union cast members are local also speaks to the inclusive spirit Mullins has sought to instill at VA Stage, but the lion’s share of the benefit this time around goes to the students.
“As an educator I couldn’t ask for much more,” says Stockard. “Your goal is to make them ready for professional careers on professional stages, and to immerse them in a production in this environment, they hear new stuff that gives perspective. I’m a one person show, so for them to see how a full regional theatre operates is huge. It’s a godsend. I knew that my students would be exposed to things that are very important for their education, and when this is all done and they come back to the classroom and to our regular productions, they’ve all been enhanced by the impact and perspective of being in a professional show. I wish I had this opportunity when I was an undergrad!”
“In addition to hiring locally I think it’s important that VSC take opportunities to let people rub up against each other in a way that helps everybody grow,” says Mullins. “When we have lots of different people working side by side, students and professionals, people of all races and ethnicities, orientations and genders, we make better work because we see each other’s viewpoints in a way that we don’t when things are siloed. And that’s what I think is great about this for Virgina Stage Company: it keeps us honest to the community. It gets energy flowing through this old building in a new way. And I think that’s really important.”
Matthew Marholin, VA Stage Company’s Production Stage Manager, tells me the process has been very rewarding for him as well.
“The kids at NSU are the most respectful hard working students I’ve seen at any university. That’s probably Anthony’s fault,” Marholin laughs. “I have one Assistant Stage Manager who was in the stage management class that I taught there last semester, and now she’s taking the knowledge she gained over the course of that semester and has run with it and made great strides.”
I ask Marholin his ASM’s name, in case she’d get a kick out of being recognized in print. “Keyiera Douglas,” he smiles. “She’s doing excellent work.”
One of the biggest personal impacts of the show however has undoubtedly been felt by Stockard himself.
“I was in foster care since I was eleven or twelve,” he tells me. “And it dawned on me a couple weeks ago while we were working on the show that Dorothy is displaced. She’s with her uncle and her aunt. There’s no mention of her parents. And at the top of the play we see that she doesn’t feel that she belongs where she is. And I could definitely relate to that, being in foster care and having to find a way to feel like you belong in a place that is artificial and you know it’s not the real thing. You want the real thing and you have other stuff but you won’t accept it because you want what’s real. And I think that’s what Dorothy is chasing in the play, and not realizing that Uncle Henry and Auntie Em might not be the real thing but they’re just what she needed, and to appreciate that. It just made me think of my godparents and foster parents and people who have filled that hole for me, and me in my youth being a little ungrateful, a little unappreciative. So it’s definitely reminded me that it’s important to appreciate those who want to be in your life, regardless of who they are and how they got there.”
During his tenure as VA Stage Co’s Interim Artistic Director, at which time he programmed the current season, Mullins demonstrated that he wants VA Stage to be in a lot more people’s lives by forging producing partnerships with several local educational institutions and artists. Personally, I feel that the theatre company which serves itself and its community best is the one that does the most to be inclusive, and I’m every bit as excited as the students working on The Wiz must be – not only to see the show, but to watch VA Stage Company and its past, present, and future producing partners meet the challenge that Mullins and Stockard have set.
In Anthony Stockard’s own words:
“I think that when you’re in a situation with such a wonderful opportunity, if there isn’t a little bit of fear of ‘what have I gotten myself into,’ we don’t grow. I think it’s a much more rewarding process when everyone involved has to step their game up. And this is a project that does that.”
Virginia Stage Co & Norfolk State University’s co-production of The Wiz is in previews this week, and will run thru 4/30 at the Wells Theatre in downtown Nfk. Tues 7:00pm, Wed, Thurs, Fri 8:00pm, Sat 4:00pm & 8:00pm, Sun 2:00pm. Call (757) 627-1234 or click here to reserve your seats. Let us know in the comments what you think of the show, and be sure to let us know if you also want to see more collaborations like this one the future!