Exit Interview: Mercury Players’ Bonnie Balke Contemplates the Big 2-0

Exit Interview: Mercury Players’ Bonnie Balke Contemplates the Big 2-0
Bonnie Balke is Mercury’s president and primary producer.

Pro sports teams do it, just like many theater companies do: At the end of a season, they sit down and talk to their players/actors to debrief, take a pulse and gauge where they are and where they’re going. Given that Mercury Players Theatre just wrapped up its historic twentieth anniversary season, it’s a perfect time to ask Bonnie Balke, Mercury’s president and primary producer, her thoughts on what rocked the boards, what she learned and what, if anything, she’d do differently given a time machine and a stack of Stage Write posts.

The Season:
Mercury Players mounted its usual three productions, starting with Thornton Wilder & Companions, a set of short plays that married works by Wisconsin’s own Wilder with five new companion pieces written by local playwrights. In March and April, it was all roller skates and an enormous prop Pegasus in director Steve Noll’s fun and campy production of . The season wrapped in May with playwright Gary Henderson’s Skin Tight, a taut and affecting drama that relives a couple’s relationship, complete with scripted stage combat.  

What Went Well:
Balke wanted Mercury’s big 2-0 season to showcase the company’s range and diversity, and by her lights, 2013–14 was very much mission accomplished. With the Wilder show, the company was able to hit its annual goal of incorporating local playwrights into the mix, while Xanadu further cemented Mercury’s rep for taking on bizarre and unusual fare.

“When we announced we’d be doing it, everyone said, ‘Who else but Mercury would do that?'” says Balke. “It was a big show and a big success.”    

What Did You Learn?
Mercury’s lesson reaffirmed something Balke already knew: “If there’s even one person on a production team who has a passion for the project, the work is pure joy.”

Nowhere was that more evident than Thornton Wilder & Companions, a show that, in a rare instance for the company, Balke actually had nothing to do with producing. In this case, Gretchen Wheat and Christine LeMay brought the passion to the picnic. “It’s the one ingredient you can’t fake,” she says. “And they definitely had it.”

Gimme a Do-Over
Skin Tight scored solid reviews, but Balke wishes she’d given herself a little more time between the show’s opening and the closing of Xanadu—the four-week window wasn’t quite enough to successfully ramp up publicity and draw packed houses to the show.

Xanadu was like the giant elephant in the room—everybody was talking about it,” she says. “Meanwhile, Skin Tight was a play that nobody knew. People would ask me, “What’s it about?’ It was hard to describe, and that made it challenging to promote.”