Mississippi Bend Players at Augustana College is off again this summer and may be gone for good.
It was gone in 2022 since Jackie McCall — the professional summer-stock company’s producing artistic director and Brunner Theatre Center’s outreach coordinator — left the Rock Island private school in February 2022. She became director of development for the Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville.
Then McCall’s position wasn’t filled, said Jennifer Popple, the college’s chair for the Department of Theatre Arts:
“COVID hit and we had a smaller incoming class so non-essential things were put on hold to get through those budget shortages, Jackie’s contract was up and she took another job and we didn’t get a replacement contract for her particular contract,” she said this week, noting it was paid through donor money and not through the academic budget.
“We are starting a film program and want to figure out those particulars, as it will be housed in our department, before we make decisions again about a summer experience for students,” Popple said.
The department website still promotes MBP (which launched in 2017) this way – “The company gives students and community members the opportunity to work together on commercially proven and original musical and dramatic works for summertime audiences.”
Each MBP season, all casts, crews and area college student interns (typically 10-12) were paid a stipend. Popple is not sure if MBP will return in the future.
“We have a lot to figure out with the introduction of the film program and have to get this ‘COVID class’ through their four years,” she said by email this week.
Even given COVID, MBP staged three small shows in summer 2021 – “Red” (two actors), “Mary and Ethel: How I Learned to Sing” (one-woman musical revue with accompanist) and “No Child” (one actor). The abridged season in June and July also offered each production over one weekend.
McCall “did such good work, but it just stinks that she came in and COVID-19 happened,” Popple told Local 4 in April 2022.. “So she never really got an opportunity to do MBP in the way that I know she could have done, which is, without restrictions – without any of the things that have been standing in the theater communities’ way, all along.”
Augie is launching a new film major, for incoming students this fall, in the renamed Theatre and Film Department. In December, it announced details at Brunner, including the program’s director Stacy Barton, and commitment of $250,000 to build new state-of the-art film production facilities on the first floor of Sorenson Hall (at 38th Street and 7th Avenue), which is undergoing exterior renovation.
It will include a new shooting studio, professional lighting and grip equipment, iMac computers, high-quality, high-definition video cameras, audio equipment and LED lighting. It will also offer equipment for student checkout.
The program will include narrative fiction and documentary formats, Barton said, to help students build a strong portfolio of work.
Shelley Cooper, Augie assistant professor of theatre arts, treasured her involvement with MBP, as a director and performer.
“One of the most invaluable experiences, my favorite MBP experience actually was ‘Big River,’ because I felt like we were able to engage with artists,” she said recently of directing the musical, based on the Mark Twain “Huckleberry Finn” tale in 2018, co-starring LaRon Grant as Jim.
Grant has performed across the U.S. and the globe, appearing in New York, Hong Kong and Florida in productions of “Dreamgirls,” “Festival of the Lion King” and “Avenue Q.”
“I had to reach out within the community and a bigger community as well and that felt really important and I loved what my students learned from having LaRon Grant come in to play Jim, and then be my choreographer and do professional workshops with the students,” Cooper said. “That was huge for the students.”
She loved being in the Aaron Randolph play “Green River” in July 2019, and then in her own one-woman musical revue (and autobiography), “Mary and Ethel: How I Learned to Sing” in July 2021.
Cooper praised the abbreviated 2021 season, the last one that McCall led as artistic director.
“I thought that she did a really great job of programming shows that maybe wouldn’t necessarily get produced,” she said. “When I think of a big musical, I think of Music Guild or a large straight play, you know, something like Playcrafters. So it was filling a need and a niche, which I really appreciated.
“Especially coming from COVID times, I thought she did a really nice job,” she added of McCall.
Remaining mainstage shows this year
The Brunner Theatre main stage will present two more productions this semester:
Small Mouth Sounds — March 16-19, 2023
Six runaways from city life embark on a silent retreat but their vows of silence conflict with their need to connect. Playwright Bess Wohl says in her notes that everyone in the play is in some kind of agony, “not unlike the rest of us.”
Directed by Ben Gougeon of Quad City Arts.
The Memo — May 11-14, 2023
This 1965 work by Czech playwright Václav Havel is a black comedy that parodies bureaucracy and conformity, to be directed by Jennifer Popple.
This satire of communist rule centers on the introduction of a new language that is meant to make work more efficient but has the opposite effect.