- March 20, 2019
What started out in a small office at the Rosen JCC has now turned into an artistic staple in the Dr. Phillips community.
Executive Director Hillary Brook started Theatre South Orlando in 2009 with a philosophy that when students are inspired by working with diverse professional artists, anything is possible.
“The programs we offer are so unique, and although we primarily started off with a youth focus — we have so much pride in our youth — we now have so many amazing professionals who have joined us, and we really want to be seen as a legitimately professional theater company,” Brook said.
As part of that journey, the theatre is now taking on its first professional performance of 2022, “Nunsense.”
“Nunsense” follows the story of The Little Sisters of Hoboken who have just discovered that their cook, Sister Julia, Child of God, has accidentally poisoned 52 of the sisters, and they are in dire need of funds for the burials. The sisters decide the best way to raise the money is to put on a variety show.
“Your belly will hurt from laughing so hard,” Brook said.
The musical takes audience members on a comedic journey where they meet the Rev. Mother Regina, a former circus performer; Sister Mary Hubert, the Mistress of Novices; a streetwise nun from Brooklyn named Sister Robert Anne; Sister Mary Leo, a novice who is a wannabe ballerina; and the delightfully wacky Sister Mary Amnesia, the nun who lost her memory when a crucifix fell on her head.
Brook, who also plays Sister Robert Anne, said the characters are beautifully written because they’re unique and different.
“The characters are so perfectly cast that they’re really just an extension of who they are, and that’s what performing is all about — taking yourself and putting yourself into someone else’s shoes,” Brook said.
The show features tap and ballet dancing, an audience quiz, comic surprises and more.
A JOURNEY THROUGH TIME
Since its original production in the 1980s, the show has become an international phenomenon.
“Nunsense” has had more than 5,000 productions worldwide and has been translated into 21 languages.
As part of the return to professional theater, Tom Vazzana, who was part of the original production's creative team more than 30 years ago, will be joining the playhouse as a guest director.
“It was amazing because this little show became a monumental hit and then a franchise,” Vazzana said. “People always say how funny the show is … and that’s all true, but what they forget and what they don’t know is that the reason it worked is because of these five exceptionally strong and authentic women with a heart who carry the show. What they say between the lightning strikes of comedy was kind of ahead of its time in a way.”
The guest director said the play was one of the first to showcase individuality and inclusivity.
“It’s not what you do or what you wear — it’s who you are,” he said. “It was one of the first shows to have a person of color in a role dedicated to a person of color, and it showcased women in roles of power. What may have back then seemed untraditional actually was a success.”
Vazzana has been a show director with Walt Disney World Creative Entertainment for more than 25 years and spent several years as an actor and director, touring the U.S. and Europe with the Broadway productions of “Annie” and “Evita.”
“I’ve worked with Tom before, and it’s really great to work with him again,” Brook said. “The play really is a tribute to the original show. Normally, at the playhouse, we do our own take of shows, but it's been really special having Tom here to help us preserve this play.”
The playhouse will use most of the original direction by Dan Goggin and the original choreography by Felton Smith.
In fact, Goggin contacted the playhouse and bought two tickets from every show. He gave the tickets back as a donation for the playhouse to give to others who might not yet have experienced theater.
Brook said the coronavirus pandemic has had a serious impact on the playhouse.
The playhouse sold out its “Matilda” rendition in 2019 and was on its way to another big hit when the pandemic hit.
The executive director said the theater had to provide refunds and was struggling to stay afloat.
“It really took us a while to think outside the box, and we went to online programming because safety is 100% our top priority,” she said. “If someone gets sick, we can’t have a show, and theater is here to teach us and to help us escape, especially during these times.”
Vazzana said Brook has gone above and beyond to protect the people who visit the theater, performers, staff and audience. He said she does on-site COVID testing a few times each week and everyone stays masked in the building.
Until further notice, all audience members are still required to wear a mask.
LABOR OF LOVE
Being born and raised in New York, Brook said she fell in love with theater at a young age.
“When I was probably 8 years old I saw ‘Annie’ and, like all others of my generation, was immediately hooked,” she said. “I’ve done nothing but theater since.”
Brook pursued theater in college and moved to the city, where she did off-Broadway shows and tours.
The executive director started as a full-time performer with Disney in 1998 and worked at the park for 20 years playing characters such as Pocahontas.
“I love performing, and I would be lost without theater,” she said. “There’s nothing as rewarding as creating art.”
Although Brook said she loved Disney and met amazing people, she needed another outlet as an artist and she always dreamed of something she could be in charge of.
Since 2009, Theatre South has not only become a safe place for young people to learn their craft, but also a place for local artists to share their gifts.
Theatre South Orlando then became a non-profit in 2016 under the new name, Theater South Playhouse.
Today, the playhouse has evolved into a professional theater, an academic conservatory and a community center for chidlren, teens and adults to perfect their craft.
The theater’s unique conservatory, going into its fourth year, allows young professional performers to do their schoolwork and stray away from the traditional school schedule.
“This accredited school is a special place for someone who may be a little unique and different,” Brook said. “They can sit in and feel okay with who they are and being a creative artist.”
Brook said having the support of Dr. Phillips, the theater’s board of directors, friends, family, professionals and the Orlando community as a whole has meant the world to her and the playhouse.
“This playhouse is made up of theater artists in the area, and I am so happy to provide them an opportunity to work and develop their craft,” the executive director said. “They’re able to give back to the community, teach, perform, build a safe space — and we wouldn’t be able to do any of this without this special community.”
IF YOU GO
WHAT: Main Stage production of “Nunsense”
WHEN: Feb. 10-20
WHERE: Theatre South Playhouse at 7601 Della Drive, Suite #15
TICKETS: Click here.