Longtime Trollwood stage director reflects on challenges and opportunities of local summer theater productions
Michael Walling is back in Moorhead to prepare for the production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella."
MOORHEAD — Returning once again to Trollwood Performing Arts after last year’s cancellations due to COVID-19, New York City-based stage director and arts educator Michael Walling is back for his 30th stage production.
While the planned production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Cinderella” was put on hold this time last year, Walling says almost all of the students and staff have returned for their long-awaited encore.
“You work with them daily, weekly, monthly all gearing toward the inevitable opening day,” Walling says about his role as artistic director of the education program and stage director of the show.
With the technical crew already hard at work creating sets and the costume designers arriving recently, the production is gearing up to be a force of feminine empowerment with playful references to time tucked away in backdrops and wardrobe.
“We’ve never done 'Cinderella' before, but this new version really empowers Cinderella — she decides, she makes the choice, the prince doesn't select her,” Walling says.
The iconic fairy tale reimagined for Broadway back in 2014 will premiere July 14 at Bluestem Center for the Arts, 801 50th Ave. S., Moorhead, with productions continuing through July 31.
With his directorial return to the stage in sight, Walling looks back at his extensive time working for Trollwood with a fondness that connects his work today to formative moments at the start of his career in the area.
In 1990, Walling first joined Trollwood as chair of the musical theater department, teaching multiple levels of acting, performance and signing. The next year, he would kick off his stage directing career.
He would go on to direct his very first production, “Oklahoma,” also the first musical written by the Rodgers and Hammerstein duo, based on Lynn Riggs’ 1931 play called “Green Grow the Lilacs.”
For Walling, the idea of directing actors out in the open air was both a joy and a struggle.
“It was a unique experience for me, because it was the very first outdoor musical that I had directed at that point in my career,” he says.
“It's the first time that I learned that the weather holds you hostage.”
The unpredictably of the weather brought on another adrenaline-fueled element to the already challenging task of performing for thousands of people out under the moonlight.
“You have to always have a plan B, that is the largest and most significant lesson one can learn in this kind of environment,” Walling says.
Another aspect of his role as director is to ensure productions challenge the students across a broad spectrum of theatrical skills, building on the mission of Trollwood in conjunction with Fargo Public Schools to offer educational opportunities to area high schoolers.
But before he can get started with students, Walling spends a majority of the time working remotely, from the months of October to May each year, hiring national artists to converge and work on the show.
Once it’s time to get the ball rolling, Walling collaborates with these artists on costumes, lighting and set and prop design, informing them on his vision for the play.
“That's a big part of my job is to inspire all of those folks,” he says.
In his 30 years directing Trollwood productions, Walling has brought to life distant worlds and conjured up unique takes on timeless classics.
“We took a production of 'Jesus Christ Superstar' to an international place, where the disciples were all representing countries and there was this multicultural production,” Walling says about the 1999 performance.
Learning from his students and the audience alike over the years, he has embraced every type of response to his productions, working to keep the audience awake, alert and interested at all times.
“I don't create theater for other theater people; I’m creating for the general public. To me, that's rewarding, and it's a good thing that they have an opinion,” Walling says.
With the past 10 years of Trollwood featuring a killer lineup of fan-favorites like “Legally Blonde: The Musical” in 2012 and Disney’s “Little Mermaid” and “Beauty and the Beast” in 2016 and 2017, respectively, the student actors and staff have their work cut out for them.
“Everybody has their own individual version of what they think it should be,” Walling says about performing classics like “Cinderella.”
“But once you have them, they're captive, they're wanting to have a good time. And if you've given them the right hook, they sit up in their chair, and you've got them for the rest of their production,” Walling says.
This article is p art of a conte nt partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead and West Fargo. For more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net.