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Interview:
Guest: Director Danny Mollise
Interviewer: Joshua Nicholson

JOSHUA NICHOLSON: All right, why don't you start by telling everybody who you are and what you do.

DANNY MOLLISE: Well, I'm the director of the Playhouse in the Park, and I've been there for 17 years. It is a community theatre for young people. Our ages are somewhat flexible, but we start at about six, and we go through, I guess, mid-twenties. Our mission is to educate youth in the arts, on stage, backstage, and in the audience, too. And, to facilitate that, we offer four main stage productions a year, classes in acting, drama, scene design, dance, puppetry, and some instructions in scene craft.

JN: Being a director, what is it you look for first when people audition for you?

DM: Well, I think it depends, somewhat, on the vehicle of whatever it is you're trying to do…what show it may be. I do appreciate good cold reading skills; I think most directors do. I think that the audition process, by its nature, is sometimes a little unfair. But, that ability to be able to pick up a script, scan it, grab an intention, and go for it in an intelligent and fluid way is an important thing. I think it shows that the person is at ease, experienced, has some dramatic flair. And, of course, that's sort of what you're looking for. Then, other things enter into it, too, you know…how does the person look?…do they fit the role…do they fit the style of production you're doing? Then, of course, you reach into other areas. If it's a musical…can they sing?…can they dance?

JN: Do you have any tips on what people could do to improve, to be more prepared?

DM: Well, one of the biggest mistakes I see in auditions are people who are so intent that they won't ask questions. I think it's fine to ask questions. I think that when someone gives you an opportunity to look over a piece of material, you look it over, and if you don't understand something, then you ask a question. I think that it's probably also worthwhile to have a couple of pieces ready for an audition, so that you give the director the option (and, of course, giving yourself some added advantage) by saying, "Look, I do have a piece prepared. Would you like to hear that?" Because, more often than not, I think I would always say, "Yeah, sure. Show me see what you can do," because, ultimately, of course, that is the idea. We're just trying to see what someone can really do.

JN: Does this go for both monologues and musical pieces?

DM: Well, certainly, I think that actors need to have some songs. When they're considering auditioning for musical theatre, they should have some songs ready, for sure. But, also, they should have some monologues ready. You know, a couple of good contrasting pieces…a nice comedy piece and a nice dramatic piece that shows a little bit of your range and maybe some of your special abilities. I think it's always impressive when a director sees that an actor has read some plays and done some work.

JN: You started out as an actor, right?

DM: Yeah, I started acting when I was seven years old. I was a puppeteer, a ventriloquist; that was, really, the first things I did. Then, I started auditioning for plays. I performed as a ventriloquist for a number of years; I performed at talent shows, fairs, civic events, and all of those type things. It was just a great Vaudeville kind of way of getting some real experience working an audience and learning about timing and how to get a laugh and how to hold for a laugh and how to make an audience listen to you.

JN: What was your first puppet's name?

DM: The ventriloquist dummy that I first started using in kind of a professional way when I was being paid to do things was named Harry O'Grady. Ventriloquists try to look for names that don't have consonants that can't be used without moving your lips. So, Harry O'Grady has no difficult consonants in it.

JN: How long did you do the ventriloquist thing?

DM: Oh, probably about six or seven years. When my voice started to, I sort of moved from that because it became sort of difficult to do at that point in my life. So, I moved from that a little deeper into music. I've been playing the guitar since I was about nine and got really seriously into it when I was about 13 and played for years and years; I played in bands, taught, studied in college some, and studied music quite bit, and I still use that a lot, too.

JN: Do you have any tips for budding actors who are just beginning?

DM: Well, I think that first thing is to just get out there and get experience. In the city we live in [NOTE: We live in Mobile, AL.], there is an opportunity for young actors to work all of the time in our theatre. And, of course, there's a lot of competition, too. But, someone with a modicum of talent can kind of get a foothold and start learning and working. And, I'm sure that a number of other cities have similar opportunities, maybe not quite on the scale that our theatre is, but they can still do school plays and audition for roles in community theatres so forth.

JN: And, even if they don't get a role, it's still good to even work in the background as a tech person?

DM: Oh, well, I think the thing is that some people are attracted to theatre, and they want to be involved no matter what. I think I've always felt that way. I was, really, always involved as an actor, but as I got older, I became very interested in lighting and in scene work and sound reinforcement. So, there are a lot of opportunities to do a lot of different things in the theatre that are compelling and challenging and very creative other than just being on stage.

JN: Do you ever think about going back to acting?

DM: Well, my plan has always been, when I retire from doing what I do now, to turn into being a professional repertory actor. Being an old guy at that point, I could play a lot of roles that I've always fancied but been way too young to play. So, I sort of see that a possibility. It's still very much in my blood, I think. And, owning a puppet company as I do, I still do a lot of performing…a lot of voice work. Right now, I'm getting ready to work on a new CD-ROM for the University of South Alabama. I do voice work for them and puppet work on their educational CD-ROMs. So, certainly, I still keep my hand in the performing aspect of the business.

JN: How long have you been doing the CD-ROMs?

DM: I think the first one we did was a couple years ago. And, they're interesting. They're educational, but they're exceptionally well put together. There's a lot of money spent on them. They get a lot of major grants from corporations. So, they look really good. We do all of the video live. I get to do the voices of the puppets live when I need to, working the puppets at the same time with television monitors and so forth. And, it's good quality. I'm very proud of the first one we did, and I think that this one will be even better.

JN: Nice. What's this one about?

DM: I don't know yet.

[laughter]

DM: We're just getting to the point where we're going to start recording in about two weeks.

JN: Are there any more tips you'd like for everyone to know?

DM: Well, I think that it's really easy to get discouraged in this hobby or business or however you want to approach it because, of course, the competition can be extremely fierce, even on a local level. If I do a show like The Wizard of Oz or Oliver!, I mean, people really want those roles. And, of course, there are only so many roles to go around. So, ultimately, you have more people that are more unhappy than happy, and I think that it's important to have a perspective on the value just in auditioning, getting up, trying to get better at what you do. Take some classes; learn from that. Don't give up if it really means something, if your heart is really in it; continue to work at it. Some people may never achieve what they want to, but ultimately, I think, talent sort of wins out. So, if you have some talent, some desire, I think it'll eventually work for you. I directed my first show 24 years ago, and that's a lot of shows to do in those years. And, for 17 years I've done full seasons of shows. So, I see a lot of people come and go, and one of the most important things to me is that you hope that you're never going to crush someone's love for performing or the theatre. But, I think that, when you go into this, you have to have an understanding that there will be times when you're not used, and there will be some disappointments involved with it. And, you just have to learn to pick yourself up and go on and understand that it's not a personal call. Sometimes, certain roles require certain attributes, and the mix of a cast might need to be a certain way. And, ultimately, you have to accept that, sometimes, there is someone better for the role than you are. So, you take all of those things into account and proceed; try to find your way as best you can. And, if you really love it and believe in yourself, then you have to hope that it will happen for you.

JN: What was the first show you directed?

DM: The first show that I ever directed was called Piccolo and Piccolo, which was an English fairytale. Then, right after that, I did the straight version of Oliver Twist [NOTE: "straight version" means the non-musical version of a play].

JN: Where was this?

DM: This was at the Playhouse. I was 19.

JN: Wow!

DM: I directed a full season of shows there when I was 19. Of course, it was a much different place then. I was the guest director for that year, and then they had some other guest directors to come in after that. I went back to school. And, a few years later, when I got back to Mobile, I had an opportunity to do a summer show there, and we did Annie. And, it was super popular. And, I sort of really fell in love with the concept and had had some years to be away from it because I grew up at the theatre and had some ideas that I could, maybe, put into practice and take a theatre that was a recreational, fun thing and turn it into something that was more legitimate and educational. So, that was my aim. Seventeen years later, we've done a huge renovation to the theatre. We've got the third largest budget in the state for a community theatre…all digital lighting and sound, and I have a number of employees, and we reach a lot of people. So, my basic premise for making the theatre an educational, conservatory-style training program, I think, has come to fruition. And, we continue to try to refine it and work it in the hopes that we can continue to build it. I've still got bigger and better plans along the way.

JN: Who are your favorite actors, and who do you think other actors should study after?

DM: Well, that's a very personal thing, and certainly there are a number of exceptionally talented actors working today, but I think that my personal favorites, the ones who I look to and whose films I watch over and over and over again, would have to be Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Laurel & Hardy…and, moving away from that style of comedy, the actors that I watch closely are Spencer Tracy, Fredrick March, Orson Wells, whose work has always been really important to me. I think that those people are the cornerstone of what I've always look at as the genius in the craft of acting and directing.

JN: I've seen your collection of these older films, and it's huge. Don't you have a complete collection of some of these people's work?

DM: Well, my silent collection is pretty vast. I have most all of Buster Keaton's films…most all of Harold Lloyd's…Chaplin's…Laurel & Hardy's…and I'm a collector of the silent films, too. So, there are just different films that I find really important, that I really like. I have a lot of Douglas Fairbanks's work…a lot of the more important, serious silent films, like The Wind with Lillian Gish, which, in fact, in April, we'll be running that at the theatre as part of the film festival. So, we'll have a comedy night and a night of The Wind with live accompaniment.

JN: Nice! Well, thank you very much for taking the time out to be interviewed and everything.

DM: Alright, Josh.


[I first saw Danny and his wife Pam when I was in early elementary school. They did their version of Rumplestilskin with marionettes. And, I thought that it was the coolest thing in the world. They still perform that same show to this day, and having seen it a few months back for the first time since, I still think it's pretty cool!]

 

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