Taking a closer look at Madison theater
Jun 18, 2014
03:15 PM
Stage Write

Exit Interview: Mercury Players' Bonnie Balke Contemplates the Big 2-0

Exit Interview: Mercury Players' Bonnie Balke Contemplates the Big 2-0


Bonnie Balke is Mercury’s president and primary producer.

Pro sports teams do it, just like many theater companies do: At the end of a season, they sit down and talk to their players/actors to debrief, take a pulse and gauge where they are and where they’re going. Given that Mercury Players Theatre just wrapped up its historic twentieth anniversary season, it’s a perfect time to ask Bonnie Balke, Mercury’s president and primary producer, her thoughts on what rocked the boards, what she learned and what, if anything, she’d do differently given a time machine and a stack of Stage Write posts.

The Season:
Mercury Players mounted its usual three productions, starting with Thornton Wilder & Companions, a set of short plays that married works by Wisconsin’s own Wilder with five new companion pieces written by local playwrights. In March and April, it was all roller skates and an enormous prop Pegasus in director Steve Noll’s fun and campy production of Xanadu: The Comedy Broadway Musical. The season wrapped in May with playwright Gary Henderson’s Skin Tight, a taut and affecting drama that relives a couple’s relationship, complete with scripted stage combat.  

What Went Well:
Balke wanted Mercury’s big 2-0 season to showcase the company’s range and diversity, and by her lights, 2013–14 was very much mission accomplished. With the Wilder show, the company was able to hit its annual goal of incorporating local playwrights into the mix, while Xanadu further cemented Mercury’s rep for taking on bizarre and unusual fare.

“When we announced we’d be doing it, everyone said, ‘Who else but Mercury would do that?’” says Balke. “It was a big show and a big success.”    

What Did You Learn?
Mercury’s lesson reaffirmed something Balke already knew: “If there’s even one person on a production team who has a passion for the project, the work is pure joy.”

Nowhere was that more evident than Thornton Wilder & Companions, a show that, in a rare instance for the company, Balke actually had nothing to do with producing. In this case, Gretchen Wheat and Christine LeMay brought the passion to the picnic. “It’s the one ingredient you can’t fake,” she says. “And they definitely had it.”

Gimme a Do-Over
Skin Tight scored solid reviews, but Balke wishes she’d given herself a little more time between the show’s opening and the closing of Xanadu—the four-week window wasn’t quite enough to successfully ramp up publicity and draw packed houses to the show.

Xanadu was like the giant elephant in the room—everybody was talking about it,” she says. “Meanwhile, Skin Tight was a play that nobody knew. People would ask me, “What’s it about?’ It was hard to describe, and that made it challenging to promote.”

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About This Blog

Once upon a time—okay, it was the mid-'80s—a boy saw a performance of The Two Gentlemen of Verona at the annual summer Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada, and a spark was ignited. Decades later, that spark’s only grown stronger, burning brightly every time the lights go up and the actors begin to tread the stage.

I’ve spent a long time—okay, more than 15 years—watching and writing about Madison’s theater scene. Now, more than ever, it’s clear our bustling burgh is packed with vibrant theater companies doing important, cutting-edge work, whether it’s original and daring content, stunning musicals or thought-provoking stagings of modern and classic plays. Stage Write is a place where we’ll talk about those plays and the people who make them happen, maybe look behind the curtain a little and gain some new perspective on how and why it all comes together. Theater has the power to transform, to educate, to show us who we are and where we’re going in a way no other medium can. Hey, look: The curtain’s rising.

– Aaron R. Conklin
Follow Aaron on Twitter @arconklin

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