As a theater director and choreographer, Marcia Milgrom Dodge (aka MMD) typically spends a lot of time away from home. That’s been especially true in recent years, ever since she was nominated for a Tony Award and a Drama Desk Award for her 2009 and 2010 Broadway revival and Kennedy Center production of the musical “Ragtime.”
“I’ve been doing so much traveling. I’m always on the road,” Dodge said last week when reached by phone. “I was set to fly on March 11 to Chicago to do ‘Evita’ at the Drury Lane Theater.”
But of course, mid-March saw the beginning of the pandemic. Within days, as COVID-19 spread like wildfire, most of the country and indeed, the world, shut down and nearly all commerce ground to a halt.
Naturally, that included theater, and as a result, Dodge saw an entire year’s worth of work gone in an instant. Not just “Evita” in Chicago, but the “The World Goes Round” at the Marriott Theater in Lincolnshire, Illinois, “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” at The Muny in St. Louis, Missouri, “Murder on the Orient Express at The Cape Playhouse in Dennis, Massachusetts, and finally, “Beauty and the Beast” at the Olney Theatre Center in Maryland.
“Basically, once I realized I wasn’t going to be working for the next year, I started hoping it would all just shift to 2021,” she said.
But there’s nothing like forced downtime to inspire a busy person to focus on organizational tasks, and in recent months, Dodge has been spending her days at home, rifling through old boxes in the small Manhattan apartment she shares with her husband, Anthony Dodge.
And in those boxes, Dodge has discovered forgotten gold — buried treasure in the form of scripts, photographs, playbills and opening night congratulatory messages. In short, every one of those boxes, which have names like “Hair,” “Fit To Print,” “The West End Horror,” “Once On This Island” and “Ain’t Misbehavin’” Sharpied on the outside, represented one of the plays Dodge directed and choreographed for Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor between 1999 and 2013.
“For each show, I have a box,” she said.
Now, Dodge is taking a deep dive into those boxes and inviting Bay Street audiences to come along for a ride down memory lane. In the coming weeks, she will host “Backstage with MMD: Random Notes & Anecdotes From Productions Directed By Marcia Milgrom Dodge,” an eight-part online Zoom interview series (one for each Bay Street show she directed) in which she shares stories and recollections from the various shows. The series kicks-off on Monday, July 13, from 7 to 8 p.m. and continues every Monday through August 31.
“I pitched this idea to Bay Street because I’m losing my mind,” confessed Dodge. “I thought, ‘How can I create content for theaters I loved, to keep their subscripted base interested?’
“I have boxes of stuff from the eight shows I did,” she continued. “I have some great stories about who came backstage and what they said.”
The series will also include discussions with special guests like Dame Julie Andrews, Tony Award-winner Randy Graff, Q. Smith, Emmy Award-winner Peter Scolari and many others who worked on these productions at Bay Street with Dodge.
“I called the people I thought would be the most entertaining. We’ll have impromptu reunions,” said Dodge, who even worked up the courage to reach out to Julie Andrews to see if she’d come on the series to talk about “Simeon’s Gift,” the world premiere musical Dodge directed for the theater in 2007 which was adapted from a children’s book by Andrews and her daughter, Bay Street’s co-founder, Emma Walton Hamilton,
“Her people said, ‘Usually, she’d say no, but this year, it was yes,’” reports Dodge.
Though it’s been more than 20 years since Dodge directed her first play on the Bay Street stage, she finds there are some things that happened back then that feel familiar today, and others that were eerily prescient.
“It will be mostly fun and talking about what went on backstage, or what guest came to the theater to take people by surprise, but we will also talk world events and how shows left an impact,” said Dodge. “When we did ‘Hair,’ we closed on September 6, 2001. I’ll tell a story about something that happened post-9/11 related to Max Von Essen, who was in the cast, and his dad, Thomas Von Essen, who was the New York fire commissioner at the time.”
A couple years earlier, Dodge directed her first play at Bay Street Theater — “Fit to Print,” a series of eight 10-minute plays written by eight different playwrights. In one of those short plays, Dodge recalls there were some obscure references that the whole world would soon come to know.
“I’ll confess, I didn’t understand it,” said Dodge. “It was about Bin Laden and I didn’t know who that was. Terry George wrote it. He’s an Irish writer and was writing about impending doom in a kind of SNL goofy, silly way.”
Remember, this was 1999.
“There was a stage direction in which reporters were to show up wearing burkas,” she said. “My costume designer, Nan Young, didn’t know what they were either.”
Dodge added that when she admitted that fact to the late Sybil Christopher, Bay Street co-founder and artistic director, Christopher responded in her very British way by saying, “Oh darling, just make it silly.”
“We were very naïve,” Dodge said. “Two years later, we’re doing ‘Hair,’ and the world changes four days after we close.”
As a director, Dodge does her homework. She conducts a lot of research and, like a sponge, absorbs as much as possible about the subject of the play and the era in which it is set. For that reason, her boxes of past shows are full of ephemera and fact to keep audiences engaged and entertained.
“I’ve always been mindful, maybe because I have a producorial aspect, I don’t hide in the rehearsal room,” said Dodge. “I’m cognizant of audiences … I live in two rooms with my husband, I got the idea even before cleaning our storage room. I found photographs, I found notes.”
It’s not just stage memories that delving into the boxes brought back. Dodge notes that her daughter, Natasha, was just 2 years old when Dodge directed her first show at Bay Street.
“Tasha grew up there. One summer, she had so many splinters from the stage,” Dodge said. “She graduated from George Washington University in 2019 and is 22 and living in D.C. now.
“Tony says now that she has moved away, we can reclaim her bedroom as our guest room and office,” she added. “I’m loving being in the space and sitting here with all my boxes. He said it smells like back stage, and my daughter said we should call it the ‘green room.’”
Though she has an extensive directing resume, Dodge explained that Bay Street Theater is one of the few regional houses where she has such a deep production history and would be able to curate a series like the one she’ll be offering in the coming weeks.
“I thought there would still be audiences around to remember and take this trip down memory lane,” said Dodge. “I always felt that at Bay Street. I got to know the audiences, and I was very conscious of doing it for the community.”
While Broadway has announced that it will stay dark through at least the end of 2020, Dodge is hopeful that theaters like Bay Street will lead the way in reopening.
“I know that people’s incomes are completely compromised, but a million questionnaires are going out now and I feel regional theater will come back first because it’s driven by the community,” said Dodge. “Every show, I think, should gather strangers in the dark for a shared emotional journey and those are the kinds of shows I like to work on. Maybe some are rife for revival at Bay Street …”
While live theater is temporarily on hold, Dodge can be seen working on the small screen, playing herself in two episodes of “Encore!” a show currently streaming on Disney+ in which Executive Producer (and Broadway actress) Kristen Bell brings together former castmates of high school musicals years later for a reunion performance of the play.
“They come back and do it again, but with a Broadway director, choreographer and eight professionals playing the little roles while the alumnae play the leads,” explained Dodge, who directs episode one, “Annie,” and episode 12, “Ragtime” (of course). “It’s phenomenal and uplifting and no one’s a professional, but they’re coming together because it created such an amazing sense of community.
“It’s really potent right now,” she said. “I think people are craving gathering in the dark and having a shared experience.”
“Backstage with MMD: Random Notes & Anecdotes From Productions Directed By Marcia Milgrom Dodge” runs Mondays, 7 to 8 p.m. from July 13 to August 31. The shows directed by Dodge are “Fit To Print,” “Hair,” “The West End Horror,” “Once On This Island,” “The Who’s Tommy,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum,” and “Simeon’s Gift.” The Zoom series is part of Bay Street Theater’s online programming platform “Bay Street To-Go.” Registration is $20 per episode, or $100 for all eight installments. For information, visit baystreet.org/education.