La Crosse Local

E.151: Mary Leonard | Department of Theatre Arts

Listen to “La Crosse Local Podcast E.151: Mary Leonard | Department of Theatre Arts” on Spreaker.

We decide Songs For A New World would be a really excellent choice…it’s almost like a cabaret performance…very loose through line, there is no speaking, very little choreography…we could possibly do this (on producing a show during Covid).

In this episode, we talk with Mary Leonard, Professor of Theatre Arts at the UW – La Crosse, we chat origins, upcoming performances, discuss the process of shows during covid, what is coming down the road for the department and where can people find out more.

Amy Gabay 00:00
This podcast is brought to you by Artspire presented by the Pump House Regional Art Center to attract, engage, and connect artists in the community through an art fair and sale on Saturday, June 12. Information is at In this episode, we talk with Mary Leonard, Professor of theatre arts at UW La Crosse. We chat origins, upcoming performances, discuss the process of shows during COVID. What’s coming down the road for the department and where people can find out more. You can find more conversations on our website, I’m Amy. I’m Brent. And this is La Crosse Local

Mary Leonard 00:44
I’m Mary Leonard. And I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota. And at the age of 10 years old, I was in my first play, kind of on a accidental story. Someone had dropped out of a theater show and the director was in my neighborhood looking for kids. And my sister said, you should really do this, Mary. And I said, Really? I don’t think so I’m kind of shy. And I stepped into the rehearsal and enjoyed every single minute of it. And the show transformed me and I went home and told my mom that that’s what I was gonna do for the rest of my life. At 10, and I majored in theater, I got my masters of Fine Arts and acting and directing and long story short, I ended up here in the teaching element and haven’t looked back.

Brent Hanifl 01:36
Is there a short little blurb about how did you end up in the Department of Theatre Arts at the University of Wisconsin?

Mary Leonard 01:42
Oh, sure. Well, my husband and I moved here in 1991. He is a costume designer in the theater department. And now he’s the chair of the department. And we moved here he got the job. And we had kind of made this deal. We were newly married, that whoever got the first job offer we would take, and we honestly thought we’d be here three, maybe five years to kind of get that started. And I was freelancing, both at UW-L and at Viterbo snd at the community theater, just taking directing jobs and teaching various classes. And I was adjunct faculty then for that. And then I was at Viterbo for a few years. And then a full time tenure track position opened up at UW-L in the performance area, and I got that job. So that was in 2000. So I’ve been here since 91. But officially full time capacity in the UW-L from 2000 till now.

Brent Hanifl 02:37
So you have Songs for a New World coming up. Can you tell us about that production?

Mary Leonard 02:41
Yes. So we were searching and searching for a show to do in this COVID pandemic time. And the last time we did a full scale musical was exactly a year ago, we did Little Women, and it was full fledged full production. And then closing night was literally two days afterwards, we got the notice that we were shutting down. And so we were like lucky to get the show up and running. And it was very successful. And we haven’t done a musical since. We had to postpone our summer stage musical. or cancel Excuse me. And we, you know, we had we did radio dramas in the fall. And we were leery of doing a musical again, because the studies of how rapidly the voice projects, you know, you have to be at least 10 or more feet apart because it’s just not safe. And so we thought I’m really gonna do, what are we going to do? And we successfully did a cabaret performance in our cabaret class where everyone was virtual and well anyway, we decided Songs for a New World would be a really excellent choice because it’s almost like a cabaret performance. I mean, the songs. There’s a very loose through line. There’s no speaking, there’s very little choreography, and it’s mostly staging. And we thought, Wait, we can possibly do this. And our first thought was, should we do it with them all masked? Should we do it with no band and just soundtracks? Should we do lip synching? So all of these questions came about we finally delved into it, knowing that we really needed to do something because the arts have been squelched. You know, it’s very difficult time for the arts in general. And we’re doing a filmed streamed version of it, we’re going to film it. We’ve been rehearsing individually, and there’s a lot of solo numbers or duets that make it very easy to rehearse and safe. We are testing weekly, we are masking, we are disinfecting, we’re airing out. We’re trying to be as safe as possible. For the filming, we’re going to do a various, you know, stop and start, stop and start filming to keep it safe. And then we’re going to stream that. And we’re going to take our masks off for that process. But we’re filming in the Toland theatre at UW. And it’s a very big space. And we can safely do it with minimal, minimal, minimal people. And the show has such hope and beauty in it, that it has a kind of strong message of, we’re going to come back or coming home, we’re going to do theater again. So it seemed to fit into everything we’d hoped for. And we’ve been rehearsing since March, and it’s going, it’s going very well, we just have a lot of hope. And we’re very excited about performing it. It’s a whole different experience, though.

Brent Hanifl 05:51
Like you said, it’s been a year, I remember going to my last show was in March, you know, going to just a band showed up in Madison. But I’ve heard a lot from artists recently that they’ve actually used this time to either catch up on things, adapt, but it’s actually been kind of a creative time for them. Has there been anything that’s come out of this experience that maybe there’s something that pushed theater in some ways, or maybe kind of something that you would continue to do even if COVID abates here, hopefully soon?

Mary Leonard 06:21
Well, you know, that’s such an interesting question, because I have had that time to think about this, the stresses of trying to have Zoom classes and trying to create theater in a world that’s virtual, and filming. All those things I was, I was never trained to do, I was never trained in the world of editing. I think myself, my colleagues, we had to lean into a different direction. And once we did that, you know, the doors opened in terms of new new things happening. But I think it was also really challenging and very stressful and frustrated. I don’t know how to do this, I don’t know how to try to reach your students in a different way and keep them engaged, is always at the forefront of when we first shut down last year, it was I felt that I had let my students down. It was a disaster. You know, I tried everything. And it just, it was really difficult. And then I spent the summer learning, going to a webinar conference about music, theater people and about acting and how can you go forward that way? Instead of saying I can’t do it, I can’t do it. It’s not possible. I’ve said well, what can I do? What can I do? And that’s, that was helpful. And I work with some fantastic colleagues that are always thinking, what can we do? Okay, how can we do this safely, you know, and go forward with it. And so it has been good. On some aspects I taught a class last semester, it’s called auditions. And the students, you know, are upper level class so that they can prepare themselves to go in the outside world. And I brought in guests that, that I have made contact with throughout the years, who are professional artists working and the virtual aspect of auditioning is now actually the way it’s going to go, it has been starting that way. But now it’s just easier. It keeps people from having to fly out to New York or having to fly down to Memphis to audition for things and you can send in your virtual reel, you have an audition page. It’s fantastic. That is wonderful. That’s what, it hasn’t necessarily worked for that intro class that you’re really trying to get people engaged. And so that was a learning semester, and this semester is more hybrid, we were half in class and half out of class. And I tell you, when the students are face to face, when we’re in rehearsal for the show, when we’re in class, they’re at their best, they love that community, you know, and if you’re a musician, you know that you love being together with you know, your people. I am a very optimistic person and a very helpful person. And I’m constantly saying to myself, What are you learning Mary and I have learned so much. And I had a moment of complaint last year where I was like, This is impossible. You know, I can’t do this. And I thought, well stop saying that, because you can and you will, it’s not going to be what you want it to be. It’s not going to be what you visualized it to be. You can’t shut the door on some new new possibility. And, you know, our cabaret performance in the fall kind of inspired me to think, yeah, I can do, we can do a lot of things. That’s why I’m very excited about Songs for a New World. I couldn’t do this alone. Obviously, I’m not. I have a fantastic musical director who’s challenged the students and they’re singing the highest level they’ve ever sang honestly. And they all had virtual voice lessons. So I think you talked to any artist and they’ll say yes, it’s frustrating, but it feels so good to do something.

Brent Hanifl 09:58
So I mean, you know, you kind of adapted there. You know what’s coming down the road in 2021 2022? Your shows in general, you have some on the horizon that you’re super excited about, or?

Mary Leonard 10:09
Well, we are in the process of our season selection. We try to do that earlier in the season. But we’ve been holding off because we were kind of waiting to see like, what’s going to happen at the university. And we get together weekly with our department, we talk about all sorts of things. But we also have a season selection time where we talk about what can we do that would be beneficial to the students in this world of where the university is going to be, are we going to still be wearing masks? Is it going to be open up? And the hope of the university is the intention of the university is to get back at like before, but we are also a group that doesn’t always have a plan B in place. You know, if, if that doesn’t work, we need to do something. And so we’re full speed ahead with a season, and if the season doesn’t work. We’re going to do it virtually. We’ll make it work. So we’re going to do three shows in the fall and three in the spring. And my colleague Greg Parmenter and Laurie Kinsmen, have developed a class last semester, they’ve written an amazing play that they’re we’re going to produce, it’s about the events of September 11. It’s called Severe Clear, and they’re going to be performing that live in the fall, it can easily adapt to filming if we needed to same thing. So that’s exciting. Speaking of my colleague, Greg, he did a whole zoom production of a show, just recently, it was all zoom. And the students were performing individually in a zoom block, and it was awesome. You know, it was just amazing. So we are planning on being back on stage, you know, full, if that’s not possible, we’re not going to give up we’re going to somehow redirect that, do what we’re doing. And so we’re very excited. Our whole goal is to give students opportunities and, and that’s what we want to do.

Brent Hanifl 11:58
Songs for a New World, music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown will be streaming may 1 through the seventh. So any other information or where should people go to find out, find out or watch the show or

Mary Leonard 12:09
You can go onto our UW-L, theater website, and you can click a bunch of boxes, you can contact us, there’s contact numbers, there’s contact information, you can purchase a virtual ticket and find out when the streaming is and it should be pretty self contained and easy to do that. And I know that, especially now people are really interested in you know, I’ve been watching virtual concerts and things like that, and it’s just really enjoyable. You know, because I really missing that idea of going out to see it and so I hope people will will watch it. It’s a beautiful show.

Amy Gabay 12:49
La Crosse Local Podcast is a production of River Travel Media. Do you have an interview idea you’d like to share with us? message us on Facebook @lacrosselocal. Find out more about us at, and you can subscribe to the La Crosse Local podcast on your favorite podcast app. If you’d like us, rate us five stars. We appreciate it.

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La Crosse Local is an arts, food, and entertainment podcast and publication for La Crosse County and its surrounding communities.

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