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Friday
Aug032018

New Season Aims to Revive Foothills Playhouse’s Fortunes 

By Paul Hyde/Anderson Observer

Will Ragland, who created a hugely successful community theater company in Pelzer in mere a few years, has taken the reins at Easley's Foothills Playhouse.

On Friday night, Ragland unveiled the first season of the playhouse's new era. 

The series includes two big musicals to open and close the season, a classic comedy, and three shows that will appeal especially to children and their parents: 

-- "Godspell" (Oct. 5-21). Stephen Schwartz' 1971 musical, with a spirited score, is a retelling of parables from the Gospels with references also to the Passion of Christ. Directed by the Market Theatre’s Noah Taylor, this “Godspell” production will be set in an abandoned cotton mill. 

-- "Elf Jr.: The Musical" (Nov. 30-Dec. 16). Based on the beloved holiday film, the musical follows Buddy the Elf in his quest to find his true identity.

-- "Steel Magnolias" (Feb. 8-24). The 1987 comedy-drama, a staple of regional theaters, follows a group of small-town southern women who come together in a beauty salon to find friendship, humor and the strength to endure through personal tribulations.   

-- "Charlotte's Web" (March 29-April 14). The play is based on the classic children's novel by E.B. White about a pig named Wilbur and his friendship with a barn spider named Charlotte, who protects Wilbur.

-- "Willy Wonka" (May 31-June 16). Roald Dahl's timeless story of the world-famous candy man and his quest to find an heir comes to chocolate-covered life on the Foothills stage. 

-- "9 to 5" (July 26-Aug. 18). Dolly Parton’s high-energy musical centers on three hard-working women who take revenge on their tyrannical boss. 

Ragland, the playhouse’s new executive artistic director, scrapped the Foothills’ earlier planned season when he came on board in July. 

The series of shows he announced Friday was based on surveys Ragland sent out by email and through social media.

“I was really interested in input from the community,” Ragland said. “I wanted to regain the trust of the community. I asked people, ‘What would you like to see?’ 

“I got over 500 responses.”

Ragland also is reducing individual ticket prices from $15 to $12.  

Emphasizing quality and affordability, Ragland has devised a motto for this season: “Expect great things.” 

Expectations certainly are running high. Ticket sales at the playhouse, now in its 37th year, have plummeted in the recent past, with some performances seeing only 20 percent attendance, Ragland said. 

The playhouse’s finances have been shaky at best, with debt piling up and some concerns that the theater would have to close its doors. 

“My two goals are to increase attendance and to boost tickets sales,” Ragland said, adding with a laugh: “butts in the seats and money in the bank.” 

SUCCESS AT MILL TOWN

Ragland hopes to replicate the success of Pelzer’s Mill Town Players, which he created only four years ago.

Mill Town has thrived not only through support from the Pelzer community but also by attracting audiences from Greenville, Anderson and Simpsonville. Ragland hopes to tap into wider audiences at Foothills as well. 

In Mill Town, ticket sales numbered 13,000 in the theater’s first year, and grew to 23,000 in the second year and 33,000 in the third year. 

“We’re on track to beat that again this year,” Ragland said. 

About 5,000 people saw the theater’s recent production of “Dearly Departed” and the current production of “Beehive” is packing the house as well. 

Mill Town and Foothills are about 30 minutes apart by car. It might be efficient for the two theaters to share productions, but Ragland has no intention of doing that. 

“I don’t want to be predictable and overdue things,” Ragland said. 

None of the shows scheduled for Foothills has been performed at Mill Town, Ragland said. 

“I’m excited about all of them because we’ve never done any of them,” he said. “I really like that. I don’t like repeating shows.” 

Foothills and Mill Town have officially merged, with Ragland serving as volunteer executive artistic director at Foothills while retaining the leadership of the Mill Town Players. 

FOCUSED ON COMMUNITY

Foothills, like Mill Town, should have a close connection with the community, Ragland said. 

He’s particularly aware of the Upstate’s cotton-mill past. That’s why he named the Pelzer theater Mill Town. 

That’s also why he decided to set the first show of Foothills’ season, “Godspell,” in an abandoned cotton mill.

That setting, and perhaps the current financial state of the playhouse, dovetails with the theme of “Godspell”: hope in a place of desperation, Ragland said 

There was another reason to choose “Godspell”: Easley is home to more than 60 churches, Ragland said. 

“We’re really trying to connect with the community,” Ragland said. 

Three of the six shows planned for Foothills – “Elf Jr.,” “Charlotte’s Web” and “Willy Wonka” –should appeal to young people and their parents. 

“Foothills Playhouse has active youth participation,” Ragland said. “In the past few years, youth plays have been the most popular.” 

With the season set and stage directors already identified, Ragland believes he has the makings of a successful year. 

“I began this process,” Ragland said, “with the question, ‘What can I do that will be great for the whole family and would appeal to the majority of the community?’” 

He added, “We want to give Easley exactly what it wants.” 

For information or to purchase tickets, see the website foothillsplayhouse.org or call 864-855-1817. 

Paul Hyde, a veteran Upstate journalist, writes about everything under the South Carolina sun. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter: @PaulHyde7. Write to him at paulhydeus@yahoo.com.

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