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Mill Mountain Theatre's Poole stepping down from key role

Mill Mountain Theatre's Ginger Poole
Chris Tucker, Creative Director of Marketing
Mill Mountain Theatre's Ginger Poole

About 15 years ago, Roanoke’s professional theater company was on the verge of shutting down.

Now, in its 60th season, Mill Mountain Theatre is considered financially and artistically healthy. One of the primary architects credited with saving it is retiring from her administrative role.

Producing Artistic Director Ginger Poole said she’d thought about it a few times in recent years.

“It seemed like every time I might have had the inkling of the thought, there would be more work to do, or something would happen, like COVID,” she explained. “I never wanted to leave the theatre or community with any doubt, or leave them in a lurch, so I wanted to wait for a good time that it all made sense.”

Poole said she feels the stars have now aligned for that to happen, leaving things much better than the way she found them in 2008.

That year, the Board of Directors was called in to what she thought was a normally scheduled staff meeting, about six months after she had started in the job of Director of Education. They were told the theatre was closing, amid mounting debt.

“I had a lot of questions of how we got here, and what do we do to fix it?” she said. Poole and two other staff members were retained as she was allowed to continue teaching classes, as education was still a stream of revenue.

She leaned heavily on her Board of Directors, her ‘Magnificent Seven,’ volunteers who basically worked as staff members.

“Between myself teaching classes and working with them to go out and alleviate the debt, have conversations, make apologies for things that might have happened before any of us were even there, we started to heal and get the financial house in order,” Poole said.

She and her staff threw out the old business model, making sure that everything MMT did was viable, and made sense on paper.

“Why go after something that you knew you couldn’t afford, and that you knew the community might not be interested in seeing?” she explains. “We turned that on its edge, and honestly that’s the same model that we’re still using today.” 

Ginger Poole working with theater staff
Chris Tucker, Mill Mountain Theatre
Ginger Poole working with theater staff

Poole admits company has an obligation to diversify its season, but also shows that serve to start a conversation. The schedule for 2024 includes mainstream musicals like Cabaret and Annie, but also drama, like To Kill A Mockingbird, and in February, Mill Mountain put on The Mountaintop, a fictional depiction of Dr. Martin Luther King’s final hours.
Poole said she and her staff learned a lot about themselves through the COVID-19 lockdown. She said it forced a pause to do internal work, which included online courses, and streamed one of its children’s programs.

The company also made some decisions regarding work hours, like the “10 out of 12”, which means right before the opening of a show, staff works 12 hours for three consecutive days. MMT ended that practice, now stretching out ‘tech week’ before an opening over a longer period. The company also secured insurance for its staff for first time in nearly 20 years.

Hear an extended interview with Ginger Poole.

A South Carolina native, this is not where Poole expected to end up, but she’s trained as a performer and educator.

“The puzzle pieces fit together, and I think that I had enough of the skill set at the time to help with that rebuilt of Mill Mountain as we know it now,” she said.

Poole said she may still perform after taking a short break, but isn’t going anywhere. Her top priority is conducting the search process for her replacement.

As for her favorite shows in the past several years, Poole fondly recalls the 2013 season, when MMT returned to the Trinkle Mainstage after a massive reconstruction process. That season included the thriller The 39 Steps and The Best Christmas Pageant Ever. She was also a big fan of the 2009 children’s production of Annie.
“That was one of the shows that gave us the confidence that (showed us) it is worth saving, and the families and children of that production helped me push the doors back open to Mill Mountain Theatre.”

The company's current season continues later in March with the Jimmy Buffet-inspired musical Escape to Margaritaville.

Jeff Bossert is Radio IQ's Morning Edition host.
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