A Zephyr Theatre Newsletter for Those "In the Know"
Executive Director's Note
I’m so happy! Typing this, there is a brass quintet downstairs playing Christmas music to be recorded for our “It’s a Wonderful Life” at-home experience. Prior to the recording, they requested to practice for a Christmas concert that will be live-streamed this Thursday at an area church. In between the masked singer, and muffled bells of the brass, the familiar feeling of holiday concerts has returned and filled the air with a merry spirit. So much has changed this year – the added stress has taken its toll. And here, on this lovely evening, it’s all forgotten momentarily as the only important thing in the world is whether or not the French horn is in tune or not. As we take a momentary pause from in-person shows, we are spending time planning ahead for our next season. We are in talks now with New York and lining up rights and licensing to shows for 2021! Creativity and newness is the perfect antidote to sadness, the perfect sweet to the sour. We WILL get through this. If you are at home reading this, take a pause, make yourself some ridiculously rich hot chocolate, add the obligatory whipped cream, and then go crazy and add coconut flakes on top! It will be piping hot, hold things lightly. Relax, take a breath, and realize the best is yet to come.
— Calyssa Hall, Zephyr Theatre executive director
This year, The Zephyr’s annual Christmas production, “It’s a Wonderful Life,” will be full of surprises.
“Because of coronavirus restrictions, we can’t have our audience come to us,” said Calyssa Hall, The Zephyr’s executive director. “So, we are sending the performance to them.”
An audio version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” will be read by a cast — including many of the actors from the past productions — and then offered to audience members on a recording. “It will be an at-home experience,” Calyssa said.
With all the hallmarks of good radio — voices, music, sound effects — the 90-minute full-length production should be a performance family members can gather around to hear. But there will be more to it.
“We’ll create a box of merriment,” said Bil MacLeslie, The Zephyr’s managing director. Inside that box will be little gifts tied to specific scenes — perhaps the smell of pine boughs, the taste of peppermint, the feel of stationery — MacLeslie said.
The goal is to trigger four of the five senses — touch, hearing, smell, and taste — and let them work together to create a full production seen in the mind’s eye.
“The box is something that hasn’t been done before,” Bil said. Opening the surprises while listening to the play will let audience members interact with “Life.” “And we’re hoping that will be a memorable experience,” he said.
For information about ordering the audio version of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and its box of merriment — $60 for two-person box, $100 for four-person box — check it out here.
Making the Magic and Production Updates
A behind-the-scenes look at what’s happened and what’s coming up!
Staff Profile: Bil MacLeslie
Bil and Stuart the donkey
What’s a scruffy-looking donkey herder doing at The Zephyr?
Well, just about everything.
Bil MacLeslie, The Zephyr’s managing director, is willing and able to do what needs to be done. He designs sound effects, builds sets, sources props, repairs costumes with needle and thread. He negotiates contracts, mans the lights during performances, and tends bar.
“I do whatever it takes to facilitate the dream,” he said. And if that includes cleaning bathrooms before opening night, he knows where to find the mop and cleansers.
This 56-year-old IT professional helps city governments statewide solve technology issues, such as figuring out how to live-stream council meetings or how to push other civic content onto the internet. He has owned and operated his IT consulting business since 1993.
But the IT work is his off-hours gig; his full-time work is at The Zephyr. Why these priorities? “When theatre gets into your blood,” he said, “you can’t undo it.”
Bil grew up in South Minneapolis and had a childhood friend whose family owned an opera company, Minnesota Singers Theatre. He was lured into the theatre world through the light opera of Gilbert and Sullivan.
Then, he went straight from high school to doing special effects at the Guthrie Theater. “One of my first tasks was for the bakery scene of ‘Cyrano.’ I had to climb into the giant air handler in the basement and wait for my cue. Then, I sprayed this cinnamon oil into the rushing air. I thought the director was crazy, but he knew it would work. As the set rolled on, the audience could smell the cinnamon of the bakery. It was brilliant. The subtlety of the special effect had a lasting impact on me.”
Bil says that work and that world were all-consuming. He often worked seven days a week. “Working non-stop was hard, but I met a ton of amazing people,” he said. Todd Rungren, Louie Anderson, Bonnie Raitt, Emo Phillips, Rod Stewart, Sam Kinison, Graham Chapman are just a few of the greats Bil worked with.
“In those days, the fame of a person was measured by the audience size, and in Graham Chapman’s case, by the amount of garbage the audience threw onstage. It blew my mind. He actually egged the audience on as they threw rotten tomatoes at him. It was insane, but incredibly memorable,” Bil said.
But his life wasn’t all theatre, he also had a wild and crazy ride as a roadie for The Replacements, “the original grunge band, before there was Seattle grunge,” Bil said. He was hired as the Minneapolis-based group’s sound man, and “because I was the only guy who didn’t drink, I did most of the driving during tours, too.”
Theatre life — on stage or on the road — can be exhausting, and Bil discovered in the mid-1990s that he had to walk away from an all-theatre all-the-time lifestyle for a while. He got married, raised two sons, bought a hobby farm in May Township. He settled down with IT work and surrounded himself with chickens, horses, llamas, and, yes, a donkey.
Yet, he was never without a theatre connection. For years, he helped out at several Twin Cities theatres, using the skills he had honed at the Guthrie. He even brought those skills to the residents of Marine on St. Croix to create an annual holiday show, “The Stockings Were Hung’” with his late friend Dan Boardman. “It was a rock ’n’ roll talent show that the community was 110 percent behind, if not center stage!”
Then, he met Calyssa Hall in 2015. She was doing lights and sound for the sixth-grade play at Marine Elementary School. Bil’s sons had participated in the annual play, and he knew that the parents did all the backstage work. That particular year, there was a shortage of parents with stagecraft, and the sixth-grade, teacher/director Abbie Brown, called on both Calyssa and Bil to get the technical aspects of the show in line.
Two years later, Calyssa retrieved Bil’s business card and phoned him for help with The Zephyr’s first Christmas play, “A Candle in the Window.”
Full-time theatre had hooked him again. He was named The Zephyr’s managing director in 2019. He’s at the theatre most days now, working hard to keep The Zephyr vital and viable during the Covid-19 restrictions. He is one of the creative minds behind the boxes of merriment that will accompany the audio version of this year’s production of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”
Bil claims the one thing he doesn’t do at the theatre is perform on stage. “I’m strictly smoke and mirrors,” he said. But any audience member who has witnessed one of Bil’s passionate pleas to fill out a sustaining-membership card might disagree. There’s no denying that this man also has a commanding presence when he’s in the spotlight.
Your Vote Counts!
The Zephyr is vying for votes in competition with other nonprofits in the state to earn a grant through Old National Bank!
This is an easy to help the theatre in a BIG way! The state winner gets $15,000 and regional winners get $5,000 each.
What to do to help:
- Go to this website: https://oldnational.com/cyc
- Search for either The Zephyr Theatre or Only A Dim Image Productions. (Only A Dim Image is the producing name that The Zephyr works under, so when you search The Zephyr Theatre, Only A Dim Image will show up)
- Submit your vote and tell all of your friends to do the same
Please vote EVERY DAY through Dec. 17 as selections are made by who has the most votes overall! Thank you so much for your support!
What's Coming Up
We are doing virtual events where we can and hope to open the doors, or parking lot, to all of you as much as we can!
- Dec. 12, 13, 19, and 20 – Hometown for the Holidays near Lowell Park
- Dec. 19 – Tonic Sol-fa and Shaun Johnson & the Big Band Experience “I’ll Be Home for Christmas” VIRTUAL Tour
- Dec. 19-Dec. 31 – It’s A Wonderful Life Radio Show with the specially crafted Box of Merriment
Stay tuned for more information.
What can YOU do to help?
One way that makes a BIG impact in how people find The Zephyr are positive review on various sites such as Google, Nextdoor, and TripAdvisor.
Please take a short moment and share a memory of a great experience you’ve had at a performance, concert, or other event through The Zephyr Theatre.
We appreciate your support!
Perks of Sustaining Members
There are numerous perks of being a Sustaining Member, here are a few of them!
- Discounts on tickets
- Sustaining Member lapel pin
- Recognition in playbills (as your preferred name or anonymously)
- Show your support for the arts community!
How to Support
If you are an individual or family who has the ability to support The Zephyr, please visit our webpage to see the options available.
They include one-time donations, becoming a Sustaining Member, in-kind gifts, purchasing a commemorative paver, and more.
Thank you so much for connecting with us through Backstage at the Z!
Stay tuned for more to come, stay connected with those you love,
and please please please stay safe.
You can find more information about The Zephyr
on our website, Facebook page,
or follow us on Instagram (@stillwaterzephyrtheatre).