While our Smile Politely theater beat continues to provide you with engaging preview interviews and thoughtful reviews, we thought it was time to add something new to the mix. Herein you'll find the first in a series of interviews with the men and women behind the curtain. These hardworking technical, creative, and business-minded members of the theatrical world are responsible for much of the magic we experience from our seats. We see their names on programs, but much of what they do remains a mystery. They are the unsung heroes and sheroes of any production. So every now and then we'll be opening up this space to them, sharing their stories, detailing their craft, and deepening our appreciation of the invaluable roles they play.
So where better to start than with a producer, and who better to start with than first-time producer Dr. Mary Welle. You and your animal companions may know her from All Creatures Animal Hospital, where she brings her warmth, intelligence, and deep commitment to the health and wellness of pets and their people. You may have also seen her out and about at local arts events supporting the many talented members of her family. She juggles many roles and makes it looks easy. And midway through her first production, The Last Five Years, at the Station Theatre, Dr. Welle took the time to talk about what inspired her to take up the producer's mantel, her long-time commitment to Chambana's arts scene, and, what exactly it is that producers do.
Smile Politely: Many of our readers may know you as one of the beloved veterinarians in the area. Have you always been interested in theater or the arts in general?
Mary Welle: Yes. As a child growing up in the Philadelphia and DC metro areas, my parents were always taking me to historical landmarks, art museums, science centers, and performing arts. As a parent, I have tried to share an appreciation of art, science, and history with my children. And I hope that has helped them to appreciate all of the beauty and wonder, diversity and challenges of a wider world.
SP: What inspired you to take it to the next level and sign on as a producer of The Last Five Years?
Welle: Like many parents, I have helped out with what ever my kids were involved in. So I was a Girls Scout leader for two of the girls’ troops. I was the parent liaison for Track and Cross Country throughout their high school years. I helped with make-up and sets for many shows at Holy Cross School. Later, I helped produce Battle of the Bands first at high school then one city-wide competition. I then produced several Madrigals and musicals at high school. Finally, I produced the CUTC Kathy Murphy student productions from 2015 to 2017. My husband, Phil Strang, and I were ready to try a production with adults, with more mature content and intimate setting.
SP: What made you choose that play? What made you want to work with the Station Theatre?
Welle: Phil and I are long-time fans of the Station Theatre. My oldest child, Laura Welle, has performed there off and on for the last 10 years. My husband also performed frequently at the Station in the 80's and early 90's. We wanted to give back to the theater and this summer production was the perfect way to start. The directors propose the shows, and then the Station recruits the staff. New to directing at the Station Theatre, our director, Chelsea Collier, was fabulous to work with and had a clear vision for the production. The story is relevant and relatable to anyone who has loved and lost. The music is beautiful, and expertly performed.
SP: Many of us, myself included, are dying to know exactly what does a producer do?
Welle: In general, producers are the management-side of performing arts. We recruit staff (lights, sound, graphic design, crew), help set the time-line for various stages (auditions, announcements, move-in, performances, and tear-down), maintain budgets and accountability, facilitate promotion and advertisement for the show. I want to handle or delegate all of the business stuff so that musicians, actors and directors can focus on creating art.
SP: How did you prepare for the role (so to speak)?
Welle: First of all, I have been running my own small business since 1992, including human resources and accounting. At the same time, I have been by participating behind the scenes in performances with my children over the years. As the kids got older and started doing more community theater, CUTC offered a producer training session, run by Prue Runkle. That really helped me to understand the whole task of producing, and gave me the confidence to go for it.
SP: What have been some of the biggest surprises? Rewards?
Welle: Surprises: That I could learn how to run lights in a pinch (this show).
Biggest rewards: Working with so many gifted and wonderful actors of all ages. When you participate in something as intense as theater for four to six weeks, you share a very special bond, that together we created something amazing that we could never do alone.
SP: I know you are and have been a strong supporter of your children's artistic careers. What advice do you have for young actors and artists? And for their parents?
Welle: My husband is a local artist (abstracts and painting on glass), my oldest is a graphic designer and artist (painting, watercolors, and computer-enhanced art), my youngest is a vocalist and musician. And my other children include an athletic trainer, a neuro-scientist, and a gamer-extraordinaire. My only advice is find something you love doing and stick with it. And as a partner and parent, I just try to encourage and support the people I love as best I can.
SP: What's up next for you after this production?
Welle: We will be producing the second show of the new Station season The Realistic Joneses by Will Eno, directed by the amazing Deb Richardson at the Station Theatre, October 31st to November 16th.
SP: Have you ever thought about stepping out from behind the scenes and entering the spotlight yourself?
Welle: I was in a lot of musical theater in middle school and high school. And, I have done a couple small performances with Phil such as a CUTC murder mystery and the University of Illinois graveyard walk in 2017. But my skills are best suited for production.
SP: Anything you want to share with our readers? Anything else about how they can get involved and support our local arts community?
Welle: Now more than ever, art, music, and theater are vital to our society to help open our hearts and minds to our fellow humans and a wider world. Support local visual and performing arts. Keep it in our schools, public spaces, and community organizations. Help make art accessible to all.
Our community is better because of the energy and dedication of people like Dr. Mary Welle. May her words inspire you to get involved in some big or small way. You might want to start by catching one of the last shows of her first production.
The Last Five Years
The Celebration Company at the Station Theatre
223 N Broadway Ave, Urbana
August 1st through 17th
Photo courtesy of Dr. Mary Welle