MHC history on stage at the Rooke Theatre

Molly Paige FP’18 rekindled a love of theater when she came to Mount Holyoke. Now she’s directing “Bull in a China Shop,” the new play by Bryna Turner ’12.

By Sasha Nyary

Last winter, when the theatre arts department at Mount Holyoke College was considering what plays to produce next, “Bull in a China Shop” was a no-brainer.

Written by Bryna Turner ’12, “Bull in a China Shop” explores the romance between Mary Woolley, president of the College during the first third of the 20th century, and Jeannette Marks, a writer and chair of the English department. The play’s limited run in March at New York City’s Lincoln Center earned terrific reviews, including from TimeOut New York and The New York Times, which called it “pugnacious, tender and gloriously funny.”

Who to direct this important play in its first production after a successful run on Off-Broadway? The answer was obvious: Molly Paige FP’18.

“This is a very special honor,” said Paige, who came to Mount Holyoke in 2015 as a Frances Perkins scholar, the College’s program for students over 25 whose education has been interrupted. “I love the idea of working on a play that represents the LGBT community, and is about this college that we all really love and the people who helped make it what it is.”

A love affair with theater

A theatre arts major specializing in acting and directing, and a gender studies minor, Paige has been involved with every production, either onstage or behind the scenes, since she took a class with Noah Tuleja, a lecturer in theatre arts. She fell in love with the class, the subject and the department.

“Noah made it exciting to be here and to be doing theater,” said Paige, who plans to attend graduate school for directing with the goal of starting her own theater company. “I found the place I belong. I would do everything for the theater department — and I do!”

As the department’s student representative, Paige attends its meetings and serves as a contact for students who major or minor in theater. She is also a member of the play-selection committee, which picks the plays the department will produce.

It was during one of those meetings that the play was proposed, along with Paige as a possible director, said Tuleja, who is also the director of the Rooke Theatre. For one thing, “Bull in a China Shop” is about a significant aspect of the College’s history.

“The show has a lot of things to say about Mount Holyoke as a school, what it offers its students and what it means to be a member of the community,” he said, noting that the play is loosely based on historical events and spans nearly 40 years, beginning in 1899. “It’s not set in real time but the relationships are very realistic. A lot of what’s approached and talked about in the play are still relevant today.”

The other key question is who directs: Directing a mainstage play requires a certain maturity level in order to handle the collaboration and compromises inherent to directing, combined with a clear vision of the play and the confidence to pull it off.

That vision focuses on the play’s anachronisms, Paige said.

“I really want this to be a story about Mount Holyoke that is clearly being told by current-day Mount Holyoke students,” she said. “The fact is that we haven’t changed all that much in the last century. The issues at the heart of the piece are just as relevant now as they were then.”

That Mount Holyoke synergy

In a way, Paige’s experience at Mount Holyoke has been all about relationships and collaborations — between her fellow students, her professors, even alumnae.

She is directing the show as an independent study, with Tuleja serving as her advisor, that grew out of a summer internship at the Clubbed Thumb theater company in Manhattan. She received funding to work there from the College’s Lynk curriculum-to-career initiative — every student is guaranteed funding for a domestic or international summer internship — and the show is her presentation of what she learned.

In another example of serendipitous Mount Holyoke connections, the playwright, Turner, was an alumna of the company’s workshop for writers.

“Bryna came to see the show I was working on,” Paige said. “We talked about Mount Holyoke and my directing her play. It’s inspiring to have her be a part of it.”

Tuleja serves as her professional and artistic mentor, a relationship made coherent by their similar sensibilities: They both prefer theatrical storytelling over theatrical spectacle.

“Specifically with this play, the question is how clearly can you tell the story through these characters’ relationships,” Tuleja said. “This is not a traditional, realistic play. It has a much more fluid time perspective. Molly understands that the core of this is to tell a clear story and make sure that the five relationships portrayed are honest, truthful.”

If that’s the goal, rehearsals are off to a great start, said Dale Leonheart ’19, a theatre arts major and star soccer player who portrays Pearl, Marks’ obsessively devoted student.

“Molly creates an environment that feels supportive and loving, which allows for us to be creative and vulnerable and make big choices without fear of failure,” said Leonheart, who has worked on shows with Paige but never been directed by her in a full production. “She keeps it lighthearted and fun. There is a familial element within the cast that certainly stems from Molly’s guidance and the example that she sets.”

The road to the Frances Perkins Program

Paige brings something else to the production, Tuleja said: the required maturity to oversee it, as gained through her life experience. Now 33, she has been devoted to theater since she was a child growing up on the South Shore of Long Island. But when she went to college after high school, she didn’t study theater on the advice of her father, who had watched a close friend struggle as an actor. Miserable, she quickly flunked out.

She attempted to re-start her undergraduate career at Nassau Community College. But she got derailed when her grandparents died. Shortly after, her mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and she died when Paige was 24.

“She was my best friend,” Paige said sadly. “She always supported me.”

Eventually, she found her way back to community college, where her favorite professor told her about the Frances Perkins Program at Mount Holyoke. She was accepted and received a full scholarship.

Leaving her family and friends was hard, she said. When she took the paperwork to Brooklyn to show her father, he sat down on the stoop and cried tears of pride. Now living in North Carolina, he is coming to see the show.

“Mount Holyoke is exactly the right place for me,” said Paige, who is also the Senior Community Advisor for Dickinson Hall. “There is such as sense of community here, multiple different communities, that have accepted me and supported me — residential life, the theater department, the Frances Perkins Program. I have always felt included. I have always felt appreciated on this campus.”