East Carolina University’s School of Theater and Dance (SoTD) will host its first summer production since 2012, and Mamma Mia! at the McGinnis Auditorium for the 60th Annual ECU and Loessin Playhouse Season on June 22 at 7:30 p.m., June 25 at 2 p.m. and 7:30 p.m., and June 26 at 2 p.m
Jayme Host, director of ECU’s SoTD and artistic director of ECU’s summer theater program, said Mamma Mia! is an entertaining and family-friendly romantic comedy that will have audiences tapping along. She said the cast will consist of 21 actors, 18 of whom are currently ECU students or ECU graduates.
“Since 2017, I’ve had a lot of alumni and community members ask me, ‘When are you bringing summer theater back?’ because it’s been so popular,” Host said. “And it was a tradition that brought families together and they got to see wonderful professional actors working alongside up-and-coming professionals who are currently students and presenting theater.”
The summer theater at the ECU is an old tradition that began in 1963, Host said. She said the summer theater program was initiated by Chancellor Leo Jenkins to contribute to the ECU’s cultural tapestry and provide access to professional theater for the community. She said she hopes to bring the program back every two years starting this summer.
The Summer Theater production offers all cast and crew paid professional contracts with fair work schedules to create a professional atmosphere, Host said. She said Mamma Mia! will also feature two professional equity actors from The Actors’ Equity Association. She said this experience will expand students’ learning outside of the classroom to focus on their art and hone their craft alongside professionals in their field.
“I am very excited to be able to offer this to the community, our current students and our alumni. It’s really like, ‘Oh my god, we did it,'” Host said. “It is an outstanding production and I am delighted to have it, especially with an exceptional cast, crew and design team.”
Tommi Overcash Galaska, director and choreographer for Mamma Mia! and Associate Dance Professor for ECU’s SoTD, said she has been part of many summer productions, including The Robber Bridegroom and Peter Pan in 1985 as a student and Ain’t Misbehavin’ in 1999 as a cast member.
Galaska also directed Smokey Joe’s Cafe for the summer theater in 2004, she said. She said it is the first time she has directed and choreographed an entire musical theater production in less than four weeks.
“We (SoTD) hope we can keep it (summer theater). It’s just a different experience for our students. I think it really serves them to have this opportunity,” Galaska said. “It’s a great stepping stone. We encourage them to go out in the summer to work (across) the country. Start planting those seeds and making those connections, networking.”
The ECU summer theater program offers students an opportunity to focus on theater during the academic year without prioritizing classroom and school, Galaska said. She said students are hired and paid as professionals who must audition for the roles, alongside the opportunity to work with equity players and professionals in the industry.
Galaska said the summer theater program is an excellent opportunity to gain professional experience in the performing arts industry. She said Mamma Mia! is a great production full of laughter, love and human connection that uplifts the community and brings happiness to the audience.
“I have a wonderful group to work with. The chemistry in the room was so positive. It was really like magic,” Galaska said. “Everyone just gets along well. Everyone was busy at work and just so excited about everything. It just came together pretty quickly. It sort of had to, but it did and that was so wonderful because we had time to go back and add another layer of detail and that’s really the fun part.”
Emily Phoebus, assistant choreographer and ensemble member, just completed her BA in Musical Theater in May 2022. The summer theater program was playful, and she said it was fun to finally be part of a production and be able to focus fully on rehearsals without having to worry about classes.
She said being both an assistant choreographer and a member of the ensemble meant she had to balance her roles and make sure everyone got the job done while also having fun and learning dance numbers.
“This is a professional loan and I am being paid for it. It’s really great. It’s really fun,” said Phoebus. “And it’s like doing this for the first time with people I know, with a director I’ve worked with for four years. It’s a nice first (show) to move me into the professional world.”
Lillie Eliza Thomas plays Donna Sheradon, the mother of the main character Sophie Sheradon. Thomas is one of the two Actors Equity Association unionized actors in the production. She said being an equity actor is a benchmark for many musical theater performers to be considered successful and she is extremely grateful for her contract.
Thomas said she is also an environmental engineer, performing professionally since 2016. She said as a performer of color, she’s often the only black woman in the callback room for major lead roles. Thomas said blindcasting and diverse casting is the future of the performing arts industry because it focuses on unique stories and actors who don’t fit “traditional” casting roles.
Blindcasting, or non-traditional casting, is the process of casting without regard to race or ethnicity and primarily focusing on a character’s skills and talent, Thomas said. She said taking the initiative to be inclusive with casting could result in a show with depth, presenting stories and background that deserve a chance to shine.
“I love it (the student artist mentorship) so much because I can see what our future is like, you know? I like being a resource for them when they have questions or have ideas they want to bounce off of,” Daniels said. “I can make a plea for helping them find their voice and encouraging them again if that’s a dream they want to pursue. And honestly, I see them as pros too, like hey, it doesn’t matter where you are in your journey.
Jaleel Battles Jr., a sophomore musical theater and professional acting major, is an ensemble member and understudy. Battles said he’s aware of ECU’s summer theater tradition because of educators like Galaska, so being a part of the show feels really special to him. He said he’s learning from people who have already done productions and are here to guide a new generation of artists.
Battles said he feels like the musical theater industry and the casting process has definitely improved but still has a long way to go. Performers of color deserve the limelight because they often have to work harder to get the same recognition, he said, especially in an industry based on stories that may not always be originally about people of color.
“It (various blindcasting) feels great, but honestly I’m disappointed because it should be the norm. Although the film has a predominantly white cast, it shouldn’t be uncommon for us to cast African Americans in roles originally played by whites,” said Battles. “Because at the end of the day, anyone can be a Sophie. Anyone can be a Skye. Anyone could be a Donna. But I’m excited that these opportunities are open to people like me and people of color.”
Madison Bode, Senior Musical Theater Major, is a cast member and understudy. Bode said the greatest learning opportunity is being able to talk to and learn from your peers.
Bode said that alongside professionals who have worked in community theater, television shows and films, she has been able to work with equity actors who are the “end-all-be-all” of musical theater. Bode said she feels incredibly fortunate to be part of a show that did a blindcast. Instead of casting based on the film, she said the casting was based on the talent and the actors, which added another dimension to the characters’ storytelling.
“So feeling what a real equity show is like is so nice and really cool. Our breaks are so long. How fast everything is. We blocked a show in six days,” Bode said. “I just think it’s cool to cast for talent, characters and what you’re good at.”