If actor, director, and scenic designer aren’t enough descriptions for Will Ragland, here’s one more — builder. Ragland has built two high school theater programs — at Woodmont and Palmetto — and the Mill Town Players, a community theater in Pelzer, formed in 2014 and now one of the state’s most attended community theaters.
Ragland, who has taught theater for 16 years, has resigned from his teaching post at Palmetto High to work full-time as executive director of Mill Town Players, formed to provide quality and affordable live theater.
Ragland was Greenville County Teacher of the Year in 2012-13, the first and only theater teacher to win the award. He now serves as vice president of the South Carolina Theatre Association.
When did you first become involved in acting and directing, and when did you know this is something you wanted to do long-term?
I did not discover theater until I was almost a senior in high school. I was a shy art student and volunteered to help paint sets at South Carolina Children’s Theatre for a service project in the fall of 1995. Growing up in Powdersville, I had no idea this world existed and was soon encouraged to audition. Ric Standridge was the artistic director then and was the perfect inspiration for me to get involved. He made every project seem big and magical. I loved the escape and the integration of all art forms. My first large role was Mordred in “Camelot.” I got to perform on the Peace Center concert hall stage as an 18-year-old kid. I was completely hooked.
After college, I became heavily involved in the Greenville theater scene. In 2006, I was teaching art at Sue Cleveland Elementary in Piedmont and became increasingly frustrated by the fact that my students never saw plays. It was just too expensive for them and rarely even a consideration. I chose to direct my first play, having no experience, to give them a chance to experience live theater. We put on a black light version of “Alice in Wonderland” in our small cafetorium with 60 children in the cast. We sold out every show, and the personal growth I witnessed in those kids in such a short amount of time convinced me that I had to keep directing. One of those kids was 10-year-old Ashland Craft, recent star of “The Voice.”
What has been your most challenging role and why?
I have learned a great deal from the many directors and musical directors that I have worked with in Greenville and have had the opportunity to play a variety of characters. One of my most challenging was playing Buddy Holly in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” at Centre Stage, first in 2005. Playing a real person requires a thorough amount of research. This was when YouTube was relatively new, and I was able to study the few videos that exist of him to attempt to mimic his movement, mannerisms, voice, and performance style. I took a second job that summer, bought a replica of his 1959 Stratocaster electric guitar, and taught myself to play his songs that were featured in the show. I listened to every recording I could find of his music and interviews. I wrote out the lyrics of each song with detailed annotations of where his signature hiccups landed, his pronunciation of words, and the unique character of his voice for each song. I would spend hours and hours late into the night practicing to sing, speak, move, and look exactly like Buddy Holly. We had no idea how the show would resonate with audiences. It was the first mega-hit for Centre Stage, and we performed three more Buddy Holly shows after that first one over the next four years. People still to this day ask me when I’m going to play Buddy Holly again. It’s the one role they always remember.
What has been your most enjoyable role and why?
I’d have to say the most fun I’ve ever had in a production was “The Rocky Horror Show” at The Warehouse Theatre in 2010 and again in 2012. When they first asked me to play Dr. Frank-n-furter, I thought they were crazy. It was the type of role I never imagined myself playing. It was quite a departure from the types of characters I had previously played, and I was initially hesitant to take it on. Ask anyone who was a part of those casts, and they’d probably agree that it was an experience that will be hard to replicate — the rock music, the glam costumes, the cult classic characters, the rowdy midnight shows, and the improvisations that made every performance unique. It was the first (and last) time I ever wore a corset, paraded around in high heels, cracked a whip, and felt like a true rock star. It was more than a musical — it felt like party! I’m happy to see Warehouse bring it back this fall, and I look forward to being in the audience!
What’s your favorite play? Why?
That is a tough one to answer. I don’t have one favorite play. I enjoy plays that engage my imagination, draw me into the world completely, and inspire me in some way. Perhaps I haven’t found my favorite yet and need to do some more reading and watching?
Which actors and/or directors inspire you?
Locally, I look to Betsy Bisson, artistic/education director of S.C. Children’s Theatre, for advice, answers, and mentorship. She sets the standard on all fronts, in my opinion. For design, I’m continually inspired by Shannon Robert, Kim Granner, Ryan Bradburn, Tony Penna, and Todd Wren. Other local theater artists and administrators who inspire me (to name a few) are Debbie Bell, Jayce and Anne Tromsness, Roy Fluhrer, Christian and Jenna Tamisiea Elser, Maegan Azar, and the late Dr. Virginia Uldrick. I also always enjoy watching Brock Koonce, Chip Eagan, Mimi Wyche, Kerrie Seymour, Jason Johnson, Matthew Merritt, Rod McClendon, Cindy Mixon, Kelly Wallace, Mary Freeman, Shane Willimon, Brian Coker, Reed Halvorson, and Aaron Pennington on stage (to name a few). Talent abounds in our community.
What do you most enjoy about the Upstate’s theater scene?
The Upstate theater scene is truly remarkable. The variety, quantity, and quality of offerings in a community of our size is, I believe, unparalleled. There is literally something for everyone, with room to grow. Theater artists can thrive here in unique and supported ways that they may not be able to find elsewhere. You can also begin something new if you see a need or an unserved population. The sky’s the limit.
How has the Upstate’s theater scene changed since you first became involved?
Downtown Greenville was somewhat dead and a little dangerous when I first became involved. Like many dead towns, the arts are usually a catalyst for positive change and economic development. I think the construction of the Peace Center may have been the greatest jumpstart toward a refocus on downtown. The continued success and growth of S.C. Children’s Theatre, Greenville Little Theatre, Warehouse Theatre, and Centre Stage continued to add to that rebirth. Over the past 20 years, these organizations have also become less isolated and more collaborative, which I think is wonderful. When one theater succeeds, they all succeed. We are also blessed to have strong leaders and philanthropists in Greenville, Spartanburg, Anderson, and the surrounding areas who understand the importance of quality of life in contributing to a strong city. Live theater is an essential part of that, and the Upstate gets it.
What inspired you to start the Mill Town Players?
I witnessed firsthand how plays can change people and communities for the better while building a theater department at Woodmont High. I thought that this could be expanded to the greater community with a mission of offering quality and affordable live theater to folks who may not choose to see plays because of cost or distance. I received the opportunity of a lifetime when I was asked to start a community theater in the Historic Pelzer Auditorium. I named it Mill Town Players in tribute to the textile history of Pelzer and many of the cities and towns of the Upstate. We aimed to put on the best shows possible with the cheapest tickets possible, ranging from $7 to $10. I couldn’t be more pleased with the result, and our Mill Town family continues to grow. Last season, our total attendance exceeded 33,000 in our third year of existence. Next season, we’ll be producing eight shows and three concerts. I’m incredibly thankful to our Upstate audiences and theater artists for embracing our little company and truly putting the community in community theater. After all, that is what it’s all about — community!
What is your hope for the future of theater in the Upstate?
My hope for the future is that we all continue to cultivate “play people” from all walks of life and from all areas of the Upstate, to always strive to be ambitious and inclusive, to ask the difficult and hilarious questions about what it means to be human, to put on the best versions of plays and musicals that we are capable of, to continue to push ourselves to our limits artistically, to never settle for less, to develop new work, to passionately develop and feature local talent, and to continue to change the world, one play at a time.