An interview with Mark Minnick on Directing ‘Nunsense’ at Toby’s Baltimore by Amanda Gunther

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Director Mark Minnick.
Director Mark Minnick.

A madcap musical revue is taking to the stage at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore. An outrageously hilarious musical featuring 5 singing sisters of the cloth is just the tip of the iceberg as the smash hit Nunsense gets underway. I had the chance to sit down with Director Mark Minnick before the convent opens its doors, and I got the scoop on what unconventional habits these nuns are getting up to.

Amanda: So you’re back in the habit, so to speak, so what is it like getting to direct a show that you directed at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Columbia almost three years ago?

Mark: Back in the habit — oh no, here come the nun puns! There have been a few shows I have directed multiple times and it has always been a completely different experience every time. Different space, different cast members, different me. Nunsense is a great, fun show and it allows for a lot of freedom while still sticking to the script so it’s exciting to discover new things that didn’t come to mind the last time around.

What’s it like working with Musical Directors Ross Rawlings and Pam Wilt?

I have worked with Ross on numerous shows and love him. He is to the point and gets it done well. Ross is quiet and unassuming but…don’t sleep on him! He is ALWAYS on it and expecting the best. I like that Ross tells it like it is. If something isn’t working, he tells you – in the right way – but he tells you.

This is my first time working with Pam so I don’t have as much history, but I see that she has a passion for what she does – I’ll take it. We are all working together but I am in the driver’s seat. In rehearsal, my mind is always racing and anyone who works with me figures me out pretty fast. Some can find me intimidating at first because I speak my mind, expect the best work at all times, and I need people to jump in right away. I take it seriously but always with humor and great pride.

I got off track – we are not doing anything crazy with this show or making any severe left turns. We are staying true to the simplicity of the score. This is a show about five nuns putting on a fundraiser musical show so it would be wrong to back that up with overblown orchestrations or over the top vocals – simplicity is our friend.

Do you find it more challenging to direct a show that you’ve previously directed or does the fact that you’ve recently worked with it make it easier for you?

Easier because I have had my hands on the piece before so I do have starting knowledge. But I will start from scratch again to find what works and what doesn’t for this particular production. I tried to stay away from “last time we did this” because that was then and this is now. I also do not want to put what worked on one actress onto another different actress. This is not a remount or a restaging. This is a new production of Nunsense. Yes, it will have my stamp on it and some similarities – but it is a new production.

The last production I did was also at Toby’s Dinner Theatre, but at the Columbia location, and the round makes for a totally different show than a proscenium stage show. So we actually can’t pull the “last time we did this” card that often. What I did that made things a tad easier was to cast a majority of actresses who were involved in my previous production. I was really proud of the show in Columbia and happy with that cast. Two of the cast members from the previous production were not able to return so I cast two women who I have worked with before, Elizabeth Rayca and Celia Blitzer, to fill the roles of Sister Amnesia and Sister Leo. Since four of the five ladies have done the show before, either at Toby’s in Columbia or elsewhere, we were able to set scripts down faster and really get to work on “the show.” It is hard to get real work done with everyone holding scripts and trying to remember lines. This did speed up our rehearsal process and also allowed us to relax a bit and have more fun figuring things out.

Top- Sister Mary Amnesia (Elizabeth Rayca) and Sister Robert Ann (Heather Back). Bottom- Sister Hubert (Jesaira Glover) Reverend Mother (Jane Boyle) and Sister Leo (Celia Blitzer). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
Top – Sister Mary Amnesia (Elizabeth Rayca) and Sister Robert Ann (Heather Back). Bottom – Sister Hubert (Jesaira Glover) Reverend Mother (Jane Boyle) and Sister Leo (Celia Blitzer). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

You have three of the sisters reprising their roles from the first time you directed the show, so what’s it like working with each of them?

Returning for this production are Jane Boyle as Reverend Mother, Heather Beck as Sister Robert Ann, and Jesaira Glover as Sister Hubert. Jane is a good leader, she comes in prepared and calm but with a wink in her eye and is ready to embrace what is being asked of her with a knowing “YES.”

Jesaira is fun and always ready to learn and embrace something from each rehearsal, and sometimes it’s not about the show, but just something in general.

Heather is quite interesting to me. You don’t know what you are going to get from Heather when diving into a process. She doesn’t give you the obvious. She gives you something unique that makes you look at things in a different way. I like that.

As you mentioned before, for this production we’re welcoming Celia Blitzer and Elizabeth Rayca to the cast. Have  you worked with them before?

Well, I have worked with both of these sisters before. I choreographed Celia in Toby’s production of Hairspray and she was an understudy for the last production of Nunsense. Celia is charming, quirky and doe-eyed. She brings a fresh feel to Leo, a novice, and she made a delicious pound cake with strawberries and whipped cream for Jesaira’s birthday at one of the rehearsals. DELICIOUS.

Beth Rayca has been in many shows I have been involved with at Toby’s of Columbia – she actually was Helen Hayes nominated as Supporting Actress in a Musical for her role as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! that I had Directed and Choreographed. Sister Amnesia can go all sorts of wrong in the hands of people who aren’t very smart. Beth is honest and real and she can BELT! Let’s just say that I am a fan!

Do you have any personal affiliation with the show— are you Catholic or maybe have a nun in the family?

Ha ha…Ha. No. I am not Catholic and I have no nuns in the family…that I am aware of. Someone asked me how I could direct a show like this without being Catholic and I explained that Nunsense is a musical not about being Catholic <LIGHTNING> OK, Ok…maybe a little bit…but it is actually about these zany, five sisters who are putting on a fundraiser show to help with a recent catastrophe at their convent. So song and dance and zaniness ensues! Does anyone say Zaniness anymore…or have they ever??? Yes, there are a few moments where we get to see why the sisters chose this path in life, but it is a musical comedy so we embrace that side of things. We make sure we have answered any questions we may have had in the script so we are not being disrespectful or inaccurate and we found the honesty in every moment. My affiliation is that I enjoy the show and respect the show.

What are you as the director doing to inspire your actors into making this ‘zany’ fun musical an all out unconventional comedy for the audience?

 (l to r) Jane Boyle(The Reverend Mother), Heather Beck (Sister Robert Ann), and Jesaira Glover (Sister Hubert). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
(l to r) Jane Boyle(The Reverend Mother), Heather Beck (Sister Robert Ann), and Jesaira Glover (Sister Hubert). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

If they don’t do what I ask of them, I beat them with rulers. Oh, that was supposed to be kept behind the fourth wall. In all seriousness…I do beat them. No, no, no. Seriously, this time <wink> I do have to say that we are having a good time but making sure that we are being respectful. Yes, it’s a musical comedy but they are also playing nuns. We can push the boundaries a bit but we can’t cross any major lines. OH, I have had a few ideas that would set me on fire and to the depths of hell, but we won’t go any deeper into that. HA.

The script really is funny. The show was first performed in the 80s so there was a small amount of updating required. For example— in the original script the sisters talk about a Betamax. There were actually a few cast members who didn’t know what that was. Ahhhhhh. I DO know what that was and had one growing up. Google it.

Do you have a favorite scene or a favorite song in this production?

My favorite scenes/songs are actually the moments that have a bit more meat to them (but not on Friday performances), and are the ones I think will really touch the audience. The show is filled with quirky, silly fun so when we get to the moments that have more heart to them, they really stand out. Those are “Growing Up Catholic” and “I Could’ve Gone to Nashville.” These are moments that feature Heather and Beth, and they really do a great job of keeping it honest and easy. They draw you right in.

What has been the most challenging thing about directing these five ladies?

Challenging? Oh boy…I don’t think you have room for this answer. Just kidding. Challenging…I would say getting up I-95 to be on time for our 6pm rehearsals. That was challenging. Aside from that, there really haven’t been many challenges. That may sound odd but when I take on a project I really focus on the positives and get excited about what is happening. If I have something challenging arise, I never look at it in a negative fashion. I get excited about how we figure it out or what we come up with on the spot. These ladies have embraced our motto— Keep Calm and Just Do It!

If you could be one of the sisters, which one would you be?

I would not want to be one of the sisters. I’ll stick to male roles, thank you. Although, I do shine in all roles! You should see my Celie from The Color Purple. Actually, I was thinking about how funny it would have been if Toby had decided to do the all-male version of this show called Nunsense A-Men. I have the cast in my head now. Larry Munsey, Darren McDonnell, Jeffrey Shankle, and David James would all be precast and I would hold an open call for the role of Sister Hubert. That evening would make me laugh. I would need my depends to make it through that evening at the theatre!

 (l to r) Elizabeth Rayca (Sister Amnesia) and Celia Blitzer (Sister Leo). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.
(l to r) Elizabeth Rayca (Sister Amnesia) and Celia Blitzer (Sister Leo). Photo by Kirstine Christiansen.

Any words of wisdom for us Nunsense novices out there?

It does not matter if you are Catholic, Jewish, 25 years old or or 60 years old, I guarantee you will have a great time. The show succeeds at being for anyone and everyone. I don’t want to give too much away but you will enjoy nun ventriloquism, tap dancing sisters, and even learn to bake with the BVM. Come on now, what can be more enjoyable than that?’

So it sounds like there’ll be nun funnier in town during this limited five-week engagement, so be sure you get your tickets to Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore for Nunsense, there’s dinner, singing and dancing nuns, what more could you want for such a good weekend habit?

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Nunsense opens June 7, 2013 and plays a limited five-week engagement through July 14, 2013 at Toby’s Dinner Theatre of Baltimore – 5625 O’Donnell Street at the Best Western Travel Plaza in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, call the box office at (410) 649-1660, or purchase them online.