Two hours before she was to take the stage at the Mill Theatre to play Vice Principal Delores on opening night for the musical The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee, Jenni McCarthy was already offering her own rave review. Not of the play—it was too soon for that—but of the theatre itself.
The performance of Spelling Bee would mark the debut of a new and improved Mill, the result of a quarter-million-dollar makeover this summer. For students like McCarthy, a senior theatre major from Downers Grove, the difference was, well, dramatic.
“It’s a whole new face for our home,” McCarthy said, standing stage right and surveying the space that would soon fill with theatre-goers. Behind her, a busy crew of students rushed to put one final coat of paint on the set and prepare for the opening-night curtain. The run-up to the first production of the season, with its attendant pre-show jitters and last-minute chores, is always a pulse-quickening time. But this year, McCarthy said, the improvements to the theatre only added to the excitement. “It’s creating a little buzz. People are stopping in to see us and check out the new space. It’s fun.”
The renovation makes it easier for students to put on good shows and for audiences to enjoy them. They were funded by a quarter-million-dollar gift from Meredith Wollenberg Morrison, a member of the class of 1972 and a longtime supporter of the College’s theatre program. The biggest and most visible changes are to the redesigned lobby—now twice as large as before. In a nod to the Mill’s lumber-industry roots, the new lobby features cedar paneling and restored original cement flooring. The resulting aesthetic manages to be at once hiply industrial and warmly welcoming.
More prosaically, but perhaps more importantly, the new Mill boasts expanded and improved bathroom facilities. McCarthy said that means an end to 45-minute intermissions at the Mill. The long breaks were sometimes made necessary by the glut of patrons and cast members who had to squeeze into the inadequate old facilities between acts. Mixing with actors during intermissions gave audience members the opportunity to say how much they were enjoying the night’s performance, but it also tended to slow down the proceedings.
“That’s one time you don’t want to run into Grandma,” McCarthy explained.
“It was sometimes hard to maintain a professional decorum,” said Assistant Professor Rick Arnold of the Mill’s old layout. “Now there’s a clear separation [of backstage areas and the house].”
Other improvements to the theatre include a roomy new lighting booth with clearer sightlines, a new box office and expanded seating. The Mill now accommodates 180, and more comfortably than before, thanks to plush new theatre seats.
“It’s so gratifying to have alumni supporting the students,” said Assistant Professor Janice Pohl, the director of Spelling Bee. “The students get it. They understand that someone is supporting their learning and so they ramp it up.”
McCarthy said that aside from all the practical ways the Mill Theatre has been improved, the renovations are proof that the theatre program’s efforts are appreciated.
“We’re a small community here and we’re set off across the parking lot from the rest of campus,” she said. “So it’s nice to know that people know we’re here and that they care about us.”
The Mill hosts five mainstage productions each academic year, along with a variety of music and dance performances and student-directed plays. The next theatre production at the Mill is an adaptation of Franz Kafka’s story Metamorphosis, which runs from November 29 through December 1 and from December 6 through December 8. For ticket information, call the Mill Theatre Box Office at (630) 617-3740.