Like many of us, Sandra Zielinski began her interest in theatre in high school where her teacher, Edith Harrod guided her into a life flirting with the stage. According to Zielinski:
“[Harrod] guided me toward thinking about theatre and speech—now ‘communications’—as something I might like to do. I found myself at home in this collaborative venture in my junior year. I went to Illinois State Normal in speech, so you know how long ago that was. I was torn between acting and a newfound interest directing. I asked another mentor, Dr. Harry Stiver, what should I do because I liked both. His answer was golden. He said I would make a good actress, but I would be a marvelous director. You know, he was right. I directed overseas in Germany during the Vietnam Nam era and came back to the states to begin teaching in the secondary school system. I have been very fortunate along the way. I’ve had mentors like Ralph Lane, John Kirk, and Jean Scharfenberg who came along at the right time to spur me along to another level of curiosity.”
Her early interest lead to a teaching position at ISU in Theatre Education. Her directing accomplishments include an award winning 2012 production of Mother Courage and Her Children at the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. Now a Professor Emerita from Illinois State University, Zielinski has performed a series of small film roles and, according to Zielinski, met, Parkland’s Artistic Director, Joi Hoffsommer, while working with Hoffsommer’s husband, Tom Mitchell at the Illinois Theatre Association and the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival. “We have both been Interm Chairs at our perspective universities,” Zielinski told me. “Much to talk about. Tom hired me to teach and direct at the Interlochen Fine Arts Summer camp many years ago. That’s where Joi and I found a lot of time to talk and get to know each other. Joi knew I had retired and would have a freedom that I hadn’t had before, and she asked if I would like to direct, Leading Ladies. I said YES, without even hesitating!”
I corresponded with the director about her upcoming production of Leading Ladies, opening October 2nd at Parkland College.
Smile Politely: Several years ago, I directed Ken Lugwig’s Lend Me a Tenor for Parkland, one of my more well-attended efforts at that theatre. When his play Moon Over Buffalo was directed as a student production prior to that, it met with similar success. What do you think it is about Ludwig’s work, especially your production of Leading Ladies, that will resonate with Parkland’s theatre audience?
Sandra Zielinski: Ken Ludwig’s writing and sense of comedy is very infectious! I get the feeling that he is an optimist, and I believe we need a dose of that and laughter in today’s world. At the end of the play we find a sense of humanity in his work. No matter how silly or selfish these characters are, we can see ourselves through his writing. There is a sense of growth and caring all the while we are swept up in his comedy. I believe this will resonate with Parkland’s theatre audience.
SP: Tell us a bit about this play. What drew you and the department to this work? What is the basic premise of Leading Ladies? What is the most fun aspect of your production?
Zielinski: The basic premise features two down-on-their-luck Shakespearean actors (played by Eric Schacht and Warren Garver) who have been reduced to performing in the Amish countryside of Pennsylvania. When they learn that a wealthy old woman (Diane Pritchard) in search of her two long-lost heirs is on her deathbed, they devise a plan that sends them on the performance of their lives. When their scheme is side-tracked by the meeting of a beautiful niece (Michaela Kruse) who longs to be in the theatre, the actors must quickly alter their plans, making for a comedy of mistaken identities, love, and a pinch of the human ego. (Basic plot line somewhat taken from the Alley Theatre production in Houston, TX.)
What drew me to the play is exactly what drew the Department to the Ken Ludwig piece. It is hilarious with all that happens in the text. When reading the play, I couldn’t stop laughing. I had all kinds of visions in my mind with different moments in the comedy. It is simply fun.
There isn’t just one “most fun” moment. What is wonderful is that I am working with a great group of actors and artisans. What I get to do every night is play on a marvelous set with a great group of people. How many folks can say that? Perhaps the best part is the process of working with actors and designers. Each rehearsal or meeting we get to create, to collaborate on what will become the production opening night and beyond.
SP: Parkland College productions are a real merger of both community and college talent, in every aspect of their production. Tell us about the uniqueness of this experience as a director and what this merger of talent adds to Leading Ladies?
Zielinski: The uniqueness of working with both community and college talent is that I (the director) have the luxury of casting age-appropriate actors for the roles in the text. The designers are faculty and community collaborating together to bring about a marvelous palate for the actors and director to work with as well as creating a pleasant experience for the audience. It also serves as an apprentice situation for college talent. For example, I have an assistant director who is a college student. She might well pick up tips from me on directing or assessing a scene for comic timing, staging, or helping an actor work through a problem scene. A wonderful melting pot of ideas!
The merger of talent creates a place where we can learn from each other. Where this group of actors can try out new ideas and not be afraid, and where each member of the cast can imaginatively play.
SP: This is the first main stage production of the Parkland College Theatre season, and it faces a lot of competition from other community venues. Tell us about your cast and crew and why their efforts are not to be missed.
Zielinski: This cast, crew, and designers have worked to create characterizations, costumes, and an environment to bring the best of Ken Ludwig to the surface. With THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP style of activity and Ludwig’s words and comedy, one simply can’t go wrong!
Ken Ludwig’s Leading Ladies runs October 2-12 at Parkland College Theatre. For more information on cast, showtimes, and reservations, visit the Parkland Theatre website.
Rehearsal photos courtesy of Bernard Wolff.