Four years ago I heard about this great theater in — Rancho Cucamonga. “Where?” and “Really!?” I thought those were reasonable responses, but my friends were glowing with praise and my curiosity was piqued. More friends returned from the desert with tales of a fantastic theater and great work. I determined I, too, would one day work there.
It took longer than I thought. It took open calls and more auditions and a grueling callback that lasted a couple of hours and, hurrah! I received the phone call, “I would like to offer you the role…” I was thrilled. They say some things are worth waiting for; some things, when you wait for them a long time, disappoint once you get there; this did not disappoint. This was more than I had imagined.
On our first day of rehearsal we were given a tour of the facility. The actors in The Gingerbread Man were all first-timers to The MainStreet Theatre Company. The door to the stage opened and we entered into a beautiful jewel of a proscenium theatre, complete with orchestra pit that lowers and rises, a balcony and plush seats. Pausing center stage, I think we all savored a moment of looking out to where the audience would be reacting, loudly we hoped, to what we were about to create.
The rest of the tour was so full of doors and corridors, dressing rooms and stairwells, it reminded me of the scene in This Is Spinal Tap where the band leaves their dressing room and, fully psyched up to perform, can’t find the stage. I made a note to ask for an upstairs dressing room.
We returned to the rehearsal room where we had started the day to find the production team ending its meeting. Wow, I thought. The table at which we had sat for our first read through was now occupied with talented designers (Michael Smith, set design; Tina Haatainen-Jones, costume design; Brian Gale, lighting design; Bill Froggatt, sound design; Tony Schondel, tech director) discussing the magic they would be creating for our show. They shared with us elements of the music, set and costumes. Also present were Murry Hepner, producer; Annette Mumolo, marketing; and tech crew heads, filling out the team that would bring The Gingerbread Man to life.
Oh, yes, I haven’t yet mentioned my role in The Gingerbread Man. I play The Old Bag. Before you come up with a snappy joke, I just want to say it is a Tea Bag, thank you very much, who lives on the high shelf in a teapot. I have to put up with a very noisy cuckoo (Gary Lamb, a longtime friend, happily also cast) who cuckoos on the hour, every hour while Salt (Michael Faulkner) and Pepper (Lauren Whitney) thankfully live on the shelf below. A sneaky Sleek the Mouse (Greg Bryan) occasionally terrorizes us, and today The Gingerbread Man (Jonathan Le Billon) arrives.
When I was auditioning with Jonathan, I thought, “I sure want to work with this actor.” Delightedly, I am, along with the rest of this amazing cast who fills rehearsals with creativity, humor and talent. We are guided by a terrific director, Craig Belknap, who I am lucky enough to be working with a second time. He watches the frenetic lunacy of discovery with a wicked smile and encourages us to think up even more silliness. Like the Marx Brothers scene in the ship’s cabin, we keep adding more and more, and more. A lot will be cut before opening, but it’s been great fun in the mean time. How wonderful to be a part of this remarkable group of seasoned professionals.
Every day I arrive at rehearsal, I thank my lucky stars I am part of this production. I am delighted to be working under an Equity contract, to be working with a great team and to be working for, and with the vision of, Murry Hepner. She gave a speech at the callbacks, which I have nicknamed her Henry V speech. It was filled with the passion she feels about the work at MainStreet and, specifically, about the direction she wanted us to take.
“A show at MainStreet,” she said, “might be the first time they [the children] have ever seen a live performance and that is a huge responsibility.Â We give them the same production values and care we’d give adults. I want to capture their imaginations early. I want them to experience the magic and specialness of live theater at an early age so they’ll want to come back.Â I really believe we are creating the audiences, and maybe the artists, of the future.” It is a rousing call to action. I find it incredibly inspiring.
Murry has a special story about this particular show. While living in London, over 30 years ago, Murry ushered at the legendaryÂ Old Vic Theatre. During the Christmas season the show was David Wood’s The Gingerbread Man. As an usher she saw the show every day and sometimes twice a day. It was a musical, longer than what was required for MainStreet Theatre productions but it had stuck with her.
In the intervening years a job gave her the opportunity to be in touch with Wood. They worked together and became friends. He become known in the UK as “The Children’s Dramatist” and is an OBE (Order of the British Empire). “He sent me the photo of him with the Queen when it happened!” Murry said.
Although Main Street has presented adaptations of Roald Dahl books by Wood, it wasn’t until a new version was recently created for another theater company that Murry was able to bring The Gingerbread Man to Rancho Cucamonga. “So doing this play, an entirely original story that really put him [Wood] on the map, brings this all full circle for me.”
Once I was cast, another surprise awaited me.Â It turns out, while in London, Murry had studied with a professor I had studied with there as well! He was one of those professors who makes a difference in your life for all the right reasons.Â I had become friends with him but hadn’t seen him for many years until just this past October at a college reunion. And, as it happens, I find out he and Murry are friends to this day. This added connection to my own London experience and long ago friendship brings this new adventure full circle for me.
Four years was a long time to wait but I am really glad to be here.Â I know you will be glad to make the journey here as well to see The Gingerbread Man.
The Gingerbread Man, produced by Mireya Hepner for MainStreet Theatre Company, opens Jan. 29; plays Sat., 1 and 4 pm; Sun., 1 pm; through Feb. 13 (no performance Jan. 30). Tickets: $17-$14. Lewis Family Playhouse, 12505 Cultural Center Dr., Rancho Cucamonga; 909.477.2752 or lewisfamilyplayhouse.com.