“Once upon a time
, a girl had a dream
. And it was not to be a Broadway star. As strange as that may seem. She wanted to work with children
. And she loved directing plays
. So she went to the Wizards of Paper Mill
. To see what they would say. She wanted to start a program.
For kids who loved to perform
. She’d call them the Paper Mill Players.
And even write a theme song!”
at the Paper Mill Playhouse Visionaries Gala
by Rich McNanna
As I walked out of the building, epiphanies collided by way of a purple bloom. Perhaps…an explanation. I had just concluded a meeting with Paper Mill Playhouse Theatre School Director, Mickey McNany on her retirement from the Theatre School classroom, and my mind was processing what seemed like a hundred different thoughts going in as many persistent directions. Children. Warmth. Craft. Memory. Relentlessness. Mission. Legacy. I had a hard time wrapping my head around how I would tackle the task I was given. Having recently stepped in as the theatre’s new “citizen blogger,” I hardly felt qualified commenting upon, let alone encapsulating Ms. McNany’s long and inimitable career from Group Sales to Theatre School Director; however, finding the necessary courage, I put my best foot forward and began considering just how I would do it. This idea was both fortunate and potentially disastrous. For upon establishing this new resolve, my “best foot” nearly stepped on inspiration.
Beneath the sole of my shoe, a wee purple blossom erected itself – seemingly helpless at first, but upon closer inspection, it proved to be doggedly established in a niche between two cobblestones. I was on the stone and brick path which runs between the theatre itself and the sylvan stream and woods abutting it; and elbowing its way into the sunlight was a determined thistle bloom – a thin, green stem with rustic leaves at its base, and a symmetrical, light-purple orb surrounded by prickly spikes at its top. I was initially struck by its inviting color, but considering the plant in its entirety, my mind’s eye soon conjured up memories of Samuel Campbell, the ol’ mill that once churned and labored on this spot, and the floral crest that once adorned its iron doors – this very same thistle. To the Celts and the Scots, the thistle is a symbol of nobility, persistence, and stubborn toil – an object of beauty existing not solely for the sake of natural endowments, but for the virtues of patience, humility, and hard work. The thistle’s connotation is one of pride and self-determination because, while these plants stand alone, they will grow wherever they please and stand firm in their rightful, chosen spots. It was during these musings that I was reminded of something Ms. McNany wrote about herself in her Visionaries Gala poem: “She wanted to start a program; For kids who loved to perform; She’d call them the Paper Mill Players; And even write a theme song!” Yes, she knew what her plot of land was, too, and what she wanted to grow there. – She wanted to create something special. –She found a place to do it.–She created it…period. And what Mickey created has affected countless lives as is grew and germinated from the seed Mickey planted over twenty five years ago to the flourishing Theatre School it is today.
And so continues the long legacy of the Thistle Mill. From the industrious settlers who first worked this land to the early 20th Century when visionaries Antoinette Scudder and Frank Carrington bought the land off of their descendents to create “a greater interest in art, music, drama, history, literature, education, and the theatre” – Ms. McNany with thistle-like determination, made a difference with nothing more than an idea and the will to see it through. She not only embodies the spirit and mission of the Paper Mill Playhouse, she perfectly personifies the pretty purple blossom which inspired it from the beginning. Theatre teaches us, there are dreamers in this world, and there are doers. Mickey McNany is both. The following interview was conducted with Ms. McNany a short time after she announced her retirement from the Paper Mill classroom and was arranged through Mr. Shayne Miller, Director of Press and Public Relations. (For the record, Ms. McNany will still be operating administrative duties for the Theatre School for the foreseeable future.) I consider it an honor to present it to you not only because Ms. McNany, a Paper Mill institution, shared her story with me, but because her words here documented may serve as a case study on how to make one’s dreams a reality.
RM: Ms. McNany, it’s an honor to speak with you. According to my research, you have degrees in Fine Arts and Music Performance. What was your path to the education field?
MM: I have always loved, art, music and working with children and always knew this was the direction I wanted to go in. This was solidified throughout my educational experiences in college. I felt my art classes taught me through so many different mediums to enjoy the creative process. My education classes reaffirmed that I loved being in the classroom and showed me how exciting it can be to share the creative process with others. Adding my music and drama classes pulled it all together and truly set me on the most wonderful path I have enjoyed for the last 30 years. I am so grateful to my teachers who guided me, prepared me and gave me the courage to find opportunities, or create ones of my own, that would give me the amazing and happy career I have today. I have been so lucky to have a job that in addition to the administrative side gives me the gift of working and touring with children in my drama/production classes, working with a musical director and choreographer in teaching all the material and using my art training to design and paint all the sets. What could be better? After college I continued singing and performing but thought I would focus on being an art teacher. As I worked in the schools I found I loved working on the performances. I loved working on the sets and helping with the music so I decided that I needed to go back to school to become more proficient. While I was studying the music curriculum which was helping me understand harmonies and song writing and performance skills I took my first creative drama class with Peggy Dunn. This was a life changer for me. I loved my art classes and I loved my music classes but I had never experienced a class like this before. It was such a creative experience and when I saw how it could be used in the classroom to bond everyone to work together and teach life skills like confidence, being able to get up in front of people and be fearless, I knew that I wanted to learn more about this. I knew that I would definitely incorporate this type of teaching into my classes. The lessons were such a wonderful tool to begin the production process with and make everyone ready to invest in the class and trust each other and commit to working together. Creative Drama engages everyone immediately and you are learning so much and you are also having fun. Children love that. And we as teachers love to see our students excited about the learning! After I finished this degree I started a group called the Show Biz Kids. The absolute best part of this path was that it was one I could take with my children. I have 3 boys and if they were not willing to wear a king’s crown or a lion’s mane or a villain’s hook, this story would never have been written. They are the reason I was so passionate about this. What a bonding experience to share doing what you love with the people you love the most in the world. There is nothing better! We also would invite guest artists to work with the students and most important we would tour with the students to hospitals or senior residences so they students could know how important it is to use your talents as a giving back experience. Something we have continued until this day. And the miracles that giving back experience has shown us have been life changing.
RM: What an amazing journey. How did you subsequently end up at the Paper Mill Playhouse, some thirty years ago?
MM: I knew about Paper Mill and decided that it would be wonderful if we were able to start a program like this for them. They did not have any classes at the time so I went to the Children’s Theatre rep and asked if they might be interested in the idea. They loved the idea but did not think the time was right to take the chance so I got a job in the Box Office. The next year I spoke with the Company Manager and he also liked the idea but was hesitant to say yes. I was then the group sales manager. I was loving Paper Mill but very sure this was not what I was meant to do forever so when I was asked by a company in Montclair to come and start a program of theatre classes for them I went to Angelo Del Rossi, our executive producer at the time and I told him how much I loved working at Paper Mill but I knew what I was truly meant to do. He asked me many questions and looked at pictures I had with me of some of the shows I was doing with my Show Biz Kids. He closed the book after an hour and a half and said, Yes, I want this here! I was thrilled! I brought my 8 All Star Show Biz kids over to Paper Mill and we began our first class in 1989 and the rest is history.
RM: Over the years, you’ve given so much to New Jersey’s children through your work; you’ve had a profound and lasting effect on many young lives – frankly, the current social media movement to honor you with a Tony Award is full proof of this. But if someone were to turn the tables on you and ask: “What inspired you as a child to pursue the arts?” and, “Did you have a particular teacher or adult in your life who encouraged and nurtured your experience in the arts?” How might you answer these questions?
MM: What inspired me as a child…always loving to sing…(Being sent around the school when I was in second grade to sing the wedding of the knife and fork !) My Dad…. We would always be singing in the kitchen while we were doing dishes together. I loved watching old Fred Astaire movies as a kid. This love of music, performance and touring continued through high school and as a young Mom performing with the junior woman’s club.
RM: As Founding Director of Paper Mill’s Theatre School, one aspect of your tremendous work you seem to have championed is the Theatre for Everyone initiative, serving students with disabilities. In what ways has this meaningful program fulfilled you as an artist and teacher, and what motivated you to originally partner with VSA-NJ (the program’s collaborative organization) to create such an educational approach?
MM: Even though I love performing, once I started directing I found this so much more fulfilling. Seeing the transformation in the children and the life skills they gain is life changing and gives the work such purpose and fulfillment for me. VSA and Theatre for everyone class…. Actually my granddaughter Mary was my personal inspiration for this class. It was her birthday and she asked if she could have a theatre party. We both love the story of Sleeping Beauty so we decided that was the one we would bring to life and build the party around. We created the set complete with castles, a forest, enchanted cottages and dragon! Mary was mainstreamed at the time so we invited her classmates from her typical school and we also invited children from her early intervention school Stepping Stones. We had so much fun and it was so successful that after it was over the parents of the differently-abled children asked if it would be possible to see more programs like this. How wonderful that their children would have the opportunity to be a prince or a magical fairy or sleeping beauty herself! We thought….why not. Right on the heels of this Lisa, our Director of Education sent me link to a class out in Pittsburgh that was happening for autistic children that was very interesting so we both knew that the time was right. I reached out to VSA and asked about a partnership with them and they recommended Leslie Fanelli to come and teach the class. She is brilliant and the class was groundbreaking. Parents and siblings are welcome to all take the class together and the love, caring and energy in the room touched all of us in a very profound way. Theatre is for everyone and this was exciting and living proof!
RM: You’ve worked with countless individuals planning and teaching at the Theatre School over the years. In your experience, what aspects of performance craft do you find most important to teach your students – whether they be beginners or individuals with a bit more experience? (In short, what do you most hope kids take away from your program?)
MM: Lessons to take away from class….The life lessons that you can learn from theatre can certainly be life changing so I encourage my students to be generous, supportive and respectful of your cast mates and use your talents as a giving back experience. Fame is fleeting but if you enjoy the giving back experience, you can continue to do this for the rest of your life! This will bring happiness and a wonderful sense of fulfillment. I encourage my students to work hard, be kind, and enjoy the journey.
RM: How has the Theatre School evolved in the three decades you’ve been at the helm?
MM: Evolution of the Theatre School….We began with 8 students and have continued to grow over 500. We are at full capacity but if we were able to build an education center the possibilities are endless! We began with just Creative Drama & touring offerings. Susie Speidel was instrumental in helping us expand our offerings and we added Musical Theatre next, and then more each year up to 57 classes. We offered classes at an alternate site for a few years but have come back to the Theatre. Our newest offerings are the wonderful Theatre for Everyone class and we are hoping to expand that to a production class within the very near future. We have also added another component to the outreach experience which we call the Lend Me Your Voice Project. It is a partnership we have with the Horizon school in Livingston for children with profound disabilities, many of whom are non-verbal. Our students do all the recorded voices so when the horizon students are up on stage doing what every child loves to do “Act in his own school play’, they now have the voices to complete the full experience. And after the show, when our students meet the children they have shared a voice with, I challenge you to watch that and not have your heart feel just a little bigger!
RM: You’ve run the Theatre School for years now…how have “kids” changed in the time you’ve been teaching? How are they the same?
MM: How have the kids changed? We find the kids are so much more involved now. There are more school plays, more class opportunities, community theatre productions, auditions. It is a little harder to get everyone to every rehearsal but the good thing is that this forces them to manage their time so they can do it all and do it all well. The energy and appreciation for inclusiveness and celebrating everyone’s abilities is more accepted now. We know more now and are more sensitive and tolerant. We are more willing to celebrate the uniqueness of everyone and all the different abilities everyone has to share. What is the same?…The passion is the same. The excitement and sense of pride when they work hard and get the applause they deserve. The joy in discovering what they can do and surprising themselves along the way. And…the friends they make . There is something very special about a theatre kid being able to share that passion with other children just like you. Being allowed to be yourself and not be judged but celebrated and embraced. This doesn’t always happen in a typical school for some of these students but here bonds are made which last forever. I remember a story a little boy told me at the end of his class. He said at school he had no friends because none of the kids could understand why a boy would like to sing and dance. He had no friends. He was laughed at and bullied. But…He was so happy when he left our class and he was so grateful to be able to be let down his guard and be himself. His words as he left were….I love my life now!…and that is pretty great!
RM: In your tenure at Paper Mill, what have been the most profound professional challenges that you and/or the organization have faced?
MM: In 2007 the Theatre was in a financial crisis and there was the imminent threat of us closing our doors. We seriously did not know if we would have a job in the morning. We organized a huge rally and through the generosity of the many Paper Mill supporters we were able to continue and enjoy the exciting growth that has happened since. It is an exciting time to be at Paper Mill today! Our biggest challenge today is lack of space. I am a dreamer and a believer though and I am confident that our new Education Center will happen.
RM: Employees of Google were polled recently, and they collectively stated that the most satisfying aspect of their jobs were not “perks” but being surrounded by some of the brightest and most innovative people in the world. Those who know Paper Mill know that you have been surrounded by some of the brightest and most innovative talent in American theatre. How would you characterize working in a place with such people for all of these years? Can you articulate the meaning of such relationships?
MM: For me, the most impactful people have not necessarily been those on stage. I have learned more and been inspired more by the people behind the scenes who have built and continue to run this theatre. People like… Mark Hoebee, Lisa Cooney, Todd Schmidt, Patrick Parker, Shayne Miller, Beth Johnson, Michele Mossay, Bea, and the development department, the crew and so many more because these people are smart and passionate and talented and so committed that it is a certainty that the best product will be up on the stage and the highest quality programs will continue to come out of the education department and I am certain that our mission of being all inclusive will continue to grow and make a lasting impression on the world.
As far as main stage thrills for me, I would have to say seeing my students performing Aladdin as an Autism friendly performance, and seeing them interact with the audience after the show! It was extraordinary. Others would be seeing many of other students like Christine or Kathryn and Kyle and Anna and Sydney being cast in various Paper Mill main stage productions. Certainly seeing Annie Hathaway who took her first class here in the Theatre School and then the Conservatory be so brilliant in Jane Eyre and Gigi. Celebrating Rob McClure in Honeymoon in Vegas because we applauded him as a Rising Star winner and worked with him as a teacher in our conservatory and knowing that he is one of the most genuine, gracious, talented and brilliant stars to ever grace our stage. And finally…it was a thrill for me to meet and thank Alan Menken for the gift of his inspired music that I have been sharing with my students for years. That was an unforgettable and treasured moment.
RM: As stated earlier, there’s a pretty robust movement on Facebook which seems intent on making sure you are honored with a Tony Award. What message do you have for the woman spearheading this movement (Director of Education, Ms. Lisa Cooney) and all of the students and coworkers who are sharing their appreciation for you?
MM: Message for Lisa…She is one of the people I mentioned as being so inspirational to me during my years here at Paper Mill. She is smart and has leadership skills off the charts. She knows how to inspire people and she is an expert in finding everyone’s unique strength and setting them up to succeed. She is fearless, funny, passionate and has the most caring heart you could imagine. I have watched Lisa handle very difficult situations with true strength and grace. She is the epitome of a true star. When I heard that she had started this post I was surprised, and very humbled. After all, I am truly a quiet, behind the scenes kind of girl and always felt so lucky to be doing what I love, with students that I adore and able to do it for so long. What could be better than that? Nothing. I know that even in the most ordinary lives extraordinary things happen and I am certainly a believer now. After I was able to catch my breath I was so grateful because it gave me the opportunity to touch base with former students and I was so thrilled to hear how well they are all doing and to hear that they enjoyed our journey together as much as I did. We all had so much fun together and learned so much from each other. Their words have touched me so deeply and I will be forever grateful that they shared so much of who they are with me over the years.
RM: What have you learned most from your students?
MM: I have learned from my students to trust the creative process and that magic can happen from collaboration. It never ceases to amaze me to watch the process as the students do the work and get more and more comfortable and invested in their characters, they begin to make it their own and the direction they go with it and the choices they make as actors are so impressive. What a joy! I have learned trust. We respect each other and when the kids say they will be memorized by a certain date…they are. When I promise them a set by a certain date, it is there. We collaborate on costumes and all opinions are welcomed. We are all committed to each other. We never want to disappoint each other. We all want to make each other proud of the work. I have learned admiration of their generosity in the way they share their time and talents. I have learned humility. Students today are so savy and well informed and they teach me new things every day. I have learned the joy in always being surprised. There is always a moment in rehearsal when a scene or number goes perfectly and I will just need to jump up and start clapping! We laugh and continue and we go on with excitement and commitment. They teach me joy and passion because we all love what we do and that is contagious and very powerful! They teach me a whole new way to look at the world. It is a new and exciting adventure with each new play we experience together.
RM: Ms. McNany, you were recently awarded with special honor at the Paper Mill Playhouse Visionaries Gala for your service to the Paper Mill community. Can you adequately articulate your experience at this event?
MM: The Gala was the perfect ending to the happiest of stories ever written. I was so grateful to be there and have the opportunity to thank Paper Mill for giving me the opportunity to meet and work with the most wonderful people. Having our students sing was the highlight for me. I am such a Mama Rose and I was so proud to share them with everyone there and especially my own family. I am one of the lucky ones who loved to go to work every day and just seeing the impact that the students had on everyone that night was a glimpse into how magical they are and how blessed I have been. This has not been a job but a labor of love and I have loved every minute of it! Listening to our Artistic director Mark talk about our autism programs so genuinely and from the heart made me so proud to be a part of this incredible family. Paper Mill is great because of the people who are here. The Mark’s, the Lisa’s, the Patrick’s, the Todd’s, The Education Department, the crew and the entire Paper Mill family. Yes, the product is stellar but that is because all of these smart and talented people are so caring and capable that they will accept nothing less than the best for everyone. They are the heart of the Theatre and that is why it is so easy to fall in love with Paper Mill!
RM: Why is this the “right” time to retire?
MM: I have had the gift of working for 30 years in a place I adore and has given me the opportunity to meet and work with so many outstanding people. I have seen people transformed through the magic of theatre and students who are differently-abled rise to their true potential and have so much fun and it has been glorious. I am surrounded by a loving family and friends and cannot possible ask for anything more out of life. I am living the life out of every day I am given and so grateful for all the miracles I am noticing every day. Thank you for helping me shine the spotlight on our programs and amazing students. Who could ask for anything more? It is certainly bitter sweet that I am retiring from the classroom now but be assured that I will have my Paper Mill family in my heart…Always!
Having originally hailed from Newark and a graduate of Seton Hall University, Rich McNanna grew up a stone’s throw from Paper Mill Playhouse in Springfield, NJ. Now a teacher in and resident of Westfield, he and his wife and son experience theater, music, and art with the same vigor as they do baseball. Paper Mill Playhouse is one of their favorite destinations.