NEWS

For this director, the stage is right

Margaret Smith

Nancy Curran Willis of Burlington has been directing plays for community theaters for 20 years – but theater has been a part of her life since childhood. She has directed more than 85 productions and currently is directing “Moonlight and Magnolias,” a comedic play about the back story of “Gone With The Wind,” at AFD Theatre in Arlington.

When did you get started in theater?

I grew up in a theater family. My parents were both professional actors and my mother had been a professional director. Then, they got married. They gave up theater and raised a family, and moved to Wakefield. When we were a little bit older, they joined the Quannapowitt Players [in Reading.] … When I got married and my own children were old enough for me to have a hobby, if you will, I went back to Quannapowitt. That was in 1972. But when it came to directing, it took me 15 years to say, “I think I’d like to try that.” [Laughs] I think it came from getting too many rejections as an actress.

What was your directing debut?

“The Boys Next Door,” at Quannapowitt Players, in Reading. We did the workshop, and then in 1990, it was in the theater’s season.

Would you do anything different now from what you’ve done in the past?

I would be more collaborative now. When you are a new director, you are afraid not to have answers. What I have learned over time is you need to have a very clear understanding and concept for your production, but you don’t have to have all the answers yourself. You can bring in people who have the answers in their individual areas -- for example, technical, lighting, sound, and costumes.

What is the prep time involved in a typical production?

For a director, it’s six to nine months out. You have to get your audition, and start gathering the designers and other people committed tot eh show. The auditions themselves are normally three to four months out before a show. Once the cast is chosen, it depends on what you are doing. In this case, [with “Moonlight and Magnolias,”] we did a three-day-a-week rehearsal. I had been overlapping with another show at Newton South High School. I was going back and forth, between a Greek tragedy at the high school, and a Hollywood farce at AFD.

Are there challenges with balancing theater life and family commitments?

I am retired, and my family is grown and on their own. My husband, Bill Willis, is a photographer. We are two perfect people to end up together, because we understand when you are creative, you need to have time to create.

How does a director manage issues such as conflicts with people in a production?

You avoid a lot of conflict if you have a very clear vision up front of what you expect the end result to look like. That is not to say that there aren’t disagreements. When something doesn’t work, you have re-think it and not just be stubborn. Yet, as director, you are the ultimate decision maker. You can’t say, “The lighting wasn’t what I wanted.” You have to be responsible and get what you want.

It seems like theater is a small community.

Judy Forgione, who is managing [“Moonlight and Magnolias”] for me, also lives in Burlington. This is our third or fourth production together. We carpool, and she is a very drear friend. A lot of the designers I work with are familiar – some I know stylistically, and know that this or that person is better for this type of show. I have also brought in a couple new people for the Arlington show.

What is your favorite production so far?

The first big breakout show I did was “A Piece of My Heart,”[about nurses who had returned from serving in the Vietnam War] at AFD Theater in 1995. We used rear projection, and that had not been used in community theater before. We had a set of ramps and platforms, and at the end, we showed the Vietnam memorial. It won several awards from the Eastern Massachusetts Association of Community Theaters, including Best Production.

What was the most difficult production?

One of my fondest shows was “Equus” in Jamaica Plain. When we went to the theater in February, the traffic wasn’t bad. But it was near Fenway Park, and in the spring, the traffic every night was terrible. The show was great, but the commute was terrible.

You’ve directed some plays more than once. Is there a challenge in keeping it fresh?

This is what is so fascinating to me about live theater. You can see three versions of the same play, and none of them would be alike. It can’t be the same -- it is not the same people or directors, or the same space. With almost every single performance of your own play, audience reaction is different.

‘Moonlight and Magnolias’

“Moonlight and Magnolias” is on stage at Arlington Friends of The Drama, AFD Theatre, 22 Academy St., Arlington, Friday and Saturday, Dec. 4 and 5, and Dec. 11 and 12, 8 p.m. and Sunday, Dec. 6 and 13, 4 p.m. Tickets $18. Visit afdtheatre.org or call 781-646-5922 for more information.