Q&A with Cecelia Wingate


Cecelia Wingate
  • Cecelia Wingate
Cecelia Wingate is in the director's chair again, this time helming the Theatre Memphis production of Mamma Mia! It's been quite the eventful year for the actor/director/force of nature. In March, she directed 1776 at TM, and then one day in May got what people with a dramatic flair might proclaim as a call of destiny. Wingate had all of 10 days to get to New York to rehearse for a production of Byhalia, Mississippi that would be staged for a month at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

The play, written by Memphian Evan Linder, was performed in Memphis in early 2016 and had an award-winning staging in Chicago with Wingate soon after. Broadway producer Jeffrey Finn heard about it and had Wingate come to New York in late 2016 for a table read. That was the last she'd heard about it until she was summoned in May.

After the Byhalia run ended last month, she hustled back to Memphis where rehearsals of Mamma Mia! had already started without her.

Memphis Flyer: How did you work that situation out?

Cecelia Wingate: I approached it the smartest way I knew how, which was to find a damn good choreographer. I had Jeff Brewer as my music director and he always hits a home run, so I knew I was in great hands there. But then there's the choreography. Let's face it, people want to come in here and see people do things to that music — they're not coming for the story. I had to have a dynamite choreographer, so that's why we went with Whitney Branan, who is so good at what she does. She keeps everything exciting, and what I love about Whitney as a choreographer is she really knows how to tell a story. The two things I left her with when I went to D.C., knowing that they were going to have eight music rehearsals without me and three or four choreography rehearsals, was to (a) tell the story and (b) take the focus where it needs to go. I feel there's always so much happening in big productions that you have to take the audience's eye where it's supposed to go. Those are two things I'd left her with, and she listened to me, so I didn't have to come in and really change anything.

MF: When Mamma Mia! opened on Broadway, the notices said things like, "You can only wince," "hokey, implausible and silly," and "thoroughly preposterous." And these were from the critics that loved it. So what's the deal with this musical?

CW: It is not one of my favorite musicals. I'm generally not a fan of jukebox musicals although Jersey Boys I think is the most successful — they found a way to really tell a story. Most jukebox musicals have such a flimsy story, but not Mamma Mia! The difference is that it's that music, it's ABBA. I told my cast there is no way that this show should have ever been a hit, much less a smash hit that continues to be here all these years later. But people love it. It just blows my mind. Another reason that I really like it at this particular time is because it's just fun and a celebration, and God knows we need a dose of that right now. There's just so much noise out there. It's great to just get away and not think about the news and just have some fun.

MF: Since March, you've directed 1776, you starred in Byhalia, Mississippi, you're back to direct Mamma Mia! — so what's next?

CW: I'm going to sit on my ass for as long as I can. I have not stopped, not even slowed down really since before Shrek, and that was two years. So I'm not gonna take anything that I don't really want to do. I mean, if something else happens with Byhalia, I would do that. I mean, if it does move to New York, but you know, if it does that, it's probably going to be Kathy Bates or somebody, and that'll be fine with me.

MF: You retired from FedEx, so you had the time to go to New York for rehearsals and then Washington, D.C., for performances, but it was short notice. Your friends came to the rescue?

CW: I have the best friends in the world, I'm telling you, it is unbelievable. I had three different people at my house and there was always somebody there with my cat. I had a tree struck by lightning that came down. They all came with their chainsaws and cut it and stacked it and moved it, so I didn't have to deal with that. And my assistant director for this show, Olivia Lee Gacka, was like my house business manager. She had it all down. The most wonderful thing about that experience was getting to step a toe on the Kennedy Center stage, but what was really, really special about that time is the support that I felt from Memphis, Tennessee.

MF: You had a lot of hometown folks see you in D.C.?

CW: I never felt so supported in my life and, and so many people came up there, I can't even count. I'd been in New York for three weeks rehearsing and that was all fun and busy. And I got to D.C., but once we got officially open and I had free time, I was like, oh, I'm going get homesick and lonesome. But I never did because there was always somebody there.

MF: So you catapulted from one reality to another.

CW: D.C. feels different now, but it's still such a beautiful city. I was so lucky to be there for five weeks and three days, but I was ready to come home. And then I landed here at 5:16 p.m. on a Monday and got in the car and came straight to Theatre Memphis for this and haven't stopped since. It's an exciting, dedicated cast, I'll say that. It's been drama-free, which is fantastic. I just hope it's fun. I hope people have fun and they come with a few cocktails in them and just know that all we're doing it for is a celebration and the music. And the party.

Mamma Mia! at Theatre Memphis on the Lohrey Stage, 630 Perkins Ext., through September 8th. Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays. Tickets: $35, $15 students, $30 seniors 62 and above and military personnel. Call 901-682-8323. Theatre Memphis.

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