November 17, 2021
Friends and colleagues on-stage and off
Theatre connections are long-lasting.
Just ask Merry Renn Vaughan, associate professor and director of theatre at St. Scholastica. On Nov. 12, she opened The Octette Bridge Club at the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s Manion Theatre. The cast is a mix of actors: some she has known since she was a teenager, some who are former colleagues, some she has directed before and others she met for the first time a few months ago. All of them are UWS alumni, including Vaughan.
And the crew? Also alumni. All from St. Scholastica. All involved because, when she sent out a test message looking for help, they responded, “we’re in!”
She calls it a “my alma mater meets my current school” type of production; one big, beautiful collaboration of like-minded folks, all connected in their eagerness to return to the theatre after a long, pandemic-related hiatus.
An announcement…and a request
The show itself has been a long time coming. Three years ago, Cathy Fank, Vaughan’s counterpart at UWS had an announcement and a request: she was making plans to retire and she wanted Vaughan to direct her in a show beforehand. She also wanted Julie Ahasay to be in the cast with her, a connection that dates back to Vaughan’s childhood.
“When I was 12 or 13, my parents realized I was definitely going to do theatre for the rest of my life,” recalled Vaughan. “They bought season tickets to the Duluth Playhouse and Julie was in Blithe Spirit, one of the first shows I ever saw.”
And she left an impression.
“All through high school, Duluth Playhouse was Julie Ahasay and Roger Morris,” Vaughan said. “For me, they were iconic.”
Vaughan and Ahasay would later work together at St. Scholastica, yet despite their history, the two had never done a show together. Ahasay was in and helped Vaughan and Fank land on a script, a quirky comedy about eight Irish Catholic sisters who play bridge every other Friday. The pieces were beginning to fall into place before the pandemic disrupted their momentum and postponed the show until summer 2021. Finally, Vaughan was ready to pick up where she had left off: finding the rest of the cast.
She acknowledges that casting was done in an unconventional way.
“We didn’t have auditions, but Cathy had a list of women she wanted to work with,” said Vaughan. “Then it was a matter of me going through that list, approaching people, finding out where they would all fit.”
Once she had a cast of nine people who were committed to doing the show, she needed to identify roles. “How do I figure out, from what I know about these women, which sister fits them the best?” she asked herself.
But somehow, it worked out. Shockingly well, Vaughan described. The actors knew the direction they wanted to go in with their characters which meant no missteps along the way. And while Vaughan had never had them all in a room together until the show’s first read-through, their “sister connection” was undeniable.
“The only way these characters live off the page is if you allow them to,” she said. “And we’re at the point where the actors are starting to disappear from me and I’m starting to see the sisters. They’re giving life to these characters.”
Scott Minor Smith, another former St. Scholastica colleague and UWS graduate, is also in the production.
“Scott plays a journalist who comes in to take their picture, and through his questions, that’s how the exposition happens. It’s how we meet all the sisters. He anchors that for the audience, delights in their relationship and sets the tone for the audience to like their quirkiness, too.”
Even though his part is limited to less than ten pages, Vaughan said, his role is integral to the accessibility of the story.
Bridging the past and present
As Vaughan prepares for the show’s final run this weekend, she is hopeful that the experience has been a meaningful one for Fank and the rest of the cast and crew. It’s given her a dose of nostalgia, too.
“To go back to the Manion again is like putting on an old comfy pair of shoes,” she said. “But I’ve also become acutely aware of the passage of time and the people who are no longer with us. Two of my mentors that I was very close to have passed on, yet their presence is still very much in that space.”
You can’t help but feel it, she said.
“The connection to that legacy, to have grown up in that space with these people and then to have my students there, doing the things I used to do there, it’s been really special to me.”
The cast and crew
The cast features Julie Ahasay, Cathy Fank, Kirsten Hambleton, Kathy Laakso, Liz Gray Larson, Victoria Main, Tanya Moore, Sara Marie Briggs Sorenson, and Scott Minor Smith. Assistant directors are Cassidy Duray ’21, Mitchell Gertken ’20, Dawson Ness ’20, Natasha Wagner ’20 and Richard Scrivner ’20. Ethan Skare is assistant stage manager.