Susan McMillan, CBT Production Team Live the Mantra: ‘The Show Must Go On’
Over the years, Susan McMillan considered many careers: musician, veterinarian, and scientist.
But she discovered her passion was theater and her star shone brightest behind the scenes.
McMillan is now in her ninth season as the production manager for UT’s Clarence Brown Theatre. She was honored with the 2021 College of Arts and Sciences’ teamwork award alongside her 16 production team members: Rental Coordinator/Assistant Production Manager Phyllis Belanger; Production Stage Manager Patrick Lanczki; Technical Director Jason Fogarty; Assistant Technical Director George Hairston; Lead Carpenter Jerry Winkle; Senior Carpenter Kyle Hooks; Scenic Charge Artist Jillie Eves; Electrics Shop Manager Travis Gaboda; Lead Electrician Jon Mohrman; Sound Supervisor Mike Ponder; Properties Supervisor Christy Fogarty; Lead Properties Artisan Sarah Gaboda; Costume Shop Manager Melissa Caldwell-Weddig; Cutter/Draper Kyle Schellinger; Costumer Amber Williams; and Costumer Liz Aaron.
“We have an amazing, amazing staff,” McMillan said. “We are the ones who realize all of the design elements based on what the director and designers are hoping for.”
And McMillan pulls it all together.
“I oversee the calendar, the schedules, and the budgets,” she said. “I am the central hub of coordinating everything for the production team―but don’t ask me to do the creating. I am not a specialist in any of the tech areas. I am here to help them do their art and magic.”
As part of the League of Resident Theatres, the Clarence Brown Theatre brings professional theater artisans to work alongside students. On stage and backstage, the theater’s mission is both artistic and educational.
Many production team members also teach, and students get hands-on experience helping bring shows to the stage.
The production staff’s strong sense of teamwork helped the theater persevere during the pandemic.
During the shutdown, production team members found creative ways to keep working. They did maintenance work and projects in the theater. Some taught classes via Zoom. Many worked with MFA design students to create costumes designed by the students even though there was no production. They helped create a virtual production by videotaping individual performances and knitting them together like a film. They helped scale down the annual production of A Christmas Carol from a cast of 30 actors and 30 crew members to a cast of 9 to 11 and 13 crew members.
This fall, Murder on the Orient Express was canceled when multiple members of the cast and crew fell sick.
The production team broke down the set and stored it along with the costumes, furniture, and props.
“The show was great, ticket sales were good, and we were all heartbroken to see it close so soon after opening,” McMillan said. “We are looking at the possibility of bringing the show back another time.”
McMillan played cello while growing up in Los Angeles and enrolled at the University of Oregon to major in music. Deciding to switch to veterinary medicine, she transferred to Oregon State University. Ultimately, she set her sights on becoming a scientist.
She took an acting class to practice public speaking. She even performed in two shows.
“I hated it. I was so scared. But it instilled a great, great respect in me for performers.”
When she got the chance to work backstage, McMillan found her niche.
“I was ready to graduate with two science degrees (biology and biochemistry/biophysics) and stayed in school another year to learn more about theater,” she said.
After graduating, she moved to Portland, Oregon, where she spent her days doing leukemia research and her evenings working in theater.
When more theater opportunities presented themselves, “I went through a lot of angst, ‘Do I pursue my science or follow my heart?’ It’s not like I didn’t like the science, but I felt the passion for theater.”
At the urging of friends, and with the support of family, she decided to pursue that passion. And it’s turned into a 32-year career.
Before coming to UT, McMillan was a stage manager at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival for 18 years and then was the production manager and taught stage management at the University of California, Santa Barbara.
–Story by Amy Blakely