Q&A: Theatre NOVA’s Carla Milarch talks about writing, directing and her latest play


Carla Milarch (Playwright/Director) is a former Artistic Director of the award-winning Performance Network Theatre, whose passion for new plays led her to found Theatre NOVA.  As a dramaturg, director and artistic director, she has brought over 25 brand new plays to world premieres, as well as hundreds to staged readings. She recently talked with WeLoveAnnArbor.com about her latest play, “The Elves and the Schumachers.”

You wear many theatrical hats, where does writing rank?
I would say it’s among my very favorite things to do, although it is so time-consuming that I rarely have time for it. I really enjoy the two or three weeks I carve out for myself to write the Panto every October.

Can you describe your writing process?
Well, Panto is a very specific style. You have certain stock characters like the Panto Dame (man in drag) and the villain, etc. that are used in every show. There are also specific traditional scenes that are always included. So, a lot of the structure is kind of already there, which actually makes it easier because you have guideposts. When you have a framework, it’s easier to let your imagination run free.

Sarah B. Stevens and Dan Morrison in “The Elves and the Schumachers” by Carla Milarch and R MacKenzie Lewis at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Golden Record Media Company.

You wrote with a writing partner for this one…how did that work?
Ryan and I have been working together as director and music director since 2007, so when we decided to become co-creators in 2015 on the first Panto, it really was a logical extension of that collaboration. Our writing process has gotten pretty specific over the four years we’ve been doing this. We start by coming up with a title and an idea (a “gimmick” if you will), then we take that title and brainstorm to come up with a whole bunch of more specific ideas and characters. Then, I sit down and start writing. It’s at this point where ideas hit me out of the blue, or unplanned things pop into the writing and things take their final shape. It’s also when  I write lyrics for the original tunes and ship them over to Ryan, who makes them better and writes the music.

How is writing a comedy different than writing a more serious piece?
I think it’s a lot more fun, especially in something as zany as a Panto, because practically nothing is off limits. Any wacky idea that strikes our fancy gets to go in. Over the years we’ve had dueling mimes, sausage fights, and Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as the snow and heat miser characters, respectively, among other things.

Can you describe “The Elves and the Schumachers?”
Panto is a unique art form. It’s musical theatre meets vaudeville meets SNL meets children’s theatre. It sounds weird but it works. In this story, our Schumachers are Toymakers, our elves are a Tolkien elf and a House elf from the Harry Potter series, and our setting is a small town in Indiana. I don’t want to give away much more than that, but I will say that there are 14 songs from various genres, loads of slapstick and audience participation and of course lots of candy that we throw out to the audience throughout the show.  The best way to enjoy it is with a child in tow (or with your inner child in tow!)

William Powers in “The Elves and the Schumachers” by Carla Milarch and R MacKenzie Lewis at Theatre NOVA. Photography by Golden Record Media Company.

Now, of course, you also direct this. Do you have a clear vision of how to take the words to the stage or is it something that evolves (or a little of both)?
I am a very improvisational director, and I have been blessed with an absolutely brilliant cast of actors. So, we would just come into the rehearsal room every day and let loose and have fun. The actors have been the lion’s share of the success of this show, contributing ideas, energy, choreography, ad-libbed lines, and of course incredible talent. It’s really a process of co-creation throughout the entire rehearsal process.

What are you most proud of with “The Elves and the Schumachers?”
Well, my 10-year old son William Powers is in it, and he’s really good. I absolutely love watching and listening to him. It’s hard to top that as far as proud goes.

What do you hope the audience experiences with this world premiere?
Like every year, our main goal for the Panto is to bring families together for the holidays. Sharing theatre together is such a memorable and special experience for little ones, and this is a unique show, that is genuinely enjoyable for kids, parents, and grandparents alike.  The adults laugh at the jokes, the kids love the characters, the music, and the slapstick, and everyone gets the heartwarming message at various levels. Above all, everyone has fun!


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