“Steel Magnolias” is a much-beloved Robert Harling play and later film of the same name that traces the lives of a small group of southern women as they frequent friend Truvy’s home beauty parlor in small-town Louisiana.
The thread stitching the drama together is M’Lynn’s adult daughter Shelby, a severe diabetic on the brink of being married who must wrestle with whether or not to have children, a decision that could be life-threatening given her illness.
Full of classic one-liners and retorts, this woman-centric play lifts up the strength and beauty of modern Southern belles as they support each other through life’s crises and joys. Harling wrote the play as a tribute to his sister Susan, who died from diabetes-related complications in 1985. Harling has stated that wrote the play because he did not want his sister’s life to be forgotten.
NASA Goddard’s Music and Drama Club (MAD Productions) is currently performing a production of “Steel Magnolias” and I had the opportunity to speak with the director, Paul Morris.
Paul Morris began directing in the off-off-Broadway scene in New York City in 2011. Since then, he’s produced, written, directed, and acted in over 20 plays and one acts, including Moliere’s “Tartuffe” at the Calvary Theatre Guild, “A Life, TBD” at Celebration of Whimsy (FringeNYC), “The Great Forgotten” at the Robert Moss Theater (FringeNYC), “The Internet: A Complete History” at the Kraine Theater (FringeNYC) and “You Don’t Matter” at 64E 4th Street Theater (FringeNYC) in which he was forced to act in a lead role with one week to opening and somehow pulled it off!
Paul took a 3 year break from theatre in order to produce and create a daily Facebook Live morning talk show named “Refresh” which ended up getting over 200,000 views per episode. Paul and his wife decided to start a family outside of the city, so they moved to La Plata, Maryland, but they missed theatre, so Paul jumped at the chance to apply to direct “Steel Magnolias” with MAD. This is Paul’s first play with MAD and his first play in the south after 8 long years of exile in NYC. (Biography submitted by Paul Morris)
- What first started your interest in theatre?
I was very into sports as a child, but in high school, I got a hernia injury when I got hit in the stomach with a hockey stick and I couldn’t play sports anymore. So, I wanted to do something that was team based that couldn’t get me killed! The school was putting on “Terra Nova,” so I auditioned for it and got in and I fell in love with theatre.
I love the community aspect of it. I also got into directing in high school and it was a lot of fun. The teamwork aspect and the camaraderie are what I’ve really loved about theatre from that young age and it’s stuck with me.
- What led you to begin directing plays in NYC in 2011?
I graduated college during the financial collapse and there were no real jobs available in the area, so me and my wife moved up to NYC and had administrative assistant jobs. Since I was really into theatre, I joined a little off-off-Broadway group. We did a night of one acts and I directed one of them. From there, I got really involved with that little company and did a whole bunch of shows with them. Then, we got into the Fringe with some shows we had written, so it kept on building. I guess I did theatre because I had to; I just needed to do it.
- How did you learn about NASA Goddard’s Music and Drama Club?
I was up in New York for a long time and by 2018 I was doing a daily live Facebook show that became super successful, but me and the wife decided we were sick of the city and we wanted to start a family. Obviously, I needed a job before moving from New York down south and I saw a job opening for a video producer role at NASA. I applied and somehow got hired here at NASA, of all places!
A co-worker, Katrina Jackson, told me about MAD and the theatre scene here. It seemed like a dream come true because I’m working at NASA somehow (which is insane!) and I’m doing theatre with a bunch of astrophysicists. It’s really funny when you’re in a director role and you get to push astrophysicists around. These are people who are geniuses, and you tell them, “Hey, can you hold this? And move this table?” and you’re directing all these people who are way smarter than you. So it was kind of like destiny – or happenstance – that got me into NASA and then into MAD Productions.
- Why did you choose “Steel Magnolias” as the show that you wanted to direct for MAD Productions?
MAD does a lot of really big musicals and really big plays. We looked over all of the options to do plays with a smaller cast, more intimate plays. I was considering “Cat On a Hot Tin Roof,” and my wife Cassandra (who’s the AV and Stage Manager and did all the scene changes for the show tonight), she suggested doing “Steel Magnolias.”
I’m so happy she did because we got the chance to give six really talented women the opportunity to show off their acting chops and I think they really pulled it off. So, my wife, my wife is the reason we did “Steel Magnolias”!
- What do you hope to communicate to the audience with an intimate black box production of “Steel Magnolias”?
The black box production was a little bit of happenstance because for this Rec Center that the show is staged in, we were required to break down the set every day. But, I’m kind of happy that we were given that constraint because I’ve seen other productions of “Steel Magnolias” with sets that were so hyper realistic and so detailed that you kind of lose the actresses in their performances.
With the black box, you’re forced to look at the actors’ faces and the action. So, we did this base level of bringing the set down to the black which made the set pieces pop. The silhouette of the ’80s and silhouette of a hair salon is what we were going for.
The biggest thing was getting the audience as close as possible to the stage so they could see the actors’ faces from as close as possible. [The audience seating is on the same level as the stage and the front row sits inches from the actors.] I wanted the audience to feel as much as possible that they were in the salon and witnessing the action from right there with the actors instead of from far away, proscenium stage, as it were.
“Steel Magnolias” by MAD Productions, directed by Paul Morris, is playing through Sunday, March 8, 2020 at NASA Goddard’s Recreation Center. For more information, click here.