Directing Dinner

By on 29 May, 2015 in Greg Thornton with 0 Comments


“One should never do anything that one cannot talk about after dinner.” ― Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray

The third production of our 2015 Season is Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies, which won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize. It is directed by Mike Winkelman, who currently holds the Ida Belle Young Professorship Award at Auburn University Montgomery. Mike has designed hundreds of productions and has given his talents to the Playhouse since its inception. He took some time away from rehearsal to talk about directing this production.

Greg Thornton: When you decide to direct a play, what is the driving force? Story, character, dialogue, or something else?

Mike Winkelman: To me, the story is always the most important thing. You have to know what story you’re telling. You have to know if it’s supposed to be funny, or sad, or moving, or thought provoking, or just an escape. Then it is up to you as the director to figure out how you’re going to tell the tale. What shape will the playing space take? What will the costumes look like? Are there moments when lighting can bring focus, or add a special something to the story that wouldn’t be there without it? Dialogue is the source of all action in a play, of course, and good characters (read good actors) make a director’s job so much easier, but no matter how well conceived every aspect of a production may be, it always comes back to what story you are telling.

Greg Thornton: This is a very modern piece. I know you direct plays written in many different periods, for instance, you directed AUM’s recent production of Brecht’s Galileo. Does one time period appeal to you more than another?

Mike Winkelman: Variety is the spice of life and the same is true in my work in the theater. As someone who has worked as a set designer, a lighting designer, an actor, and a director, I find that what I love best about this artform is my ability to have that variety as a part of my work. And each period brings such a different aesthetic, and a different understanding of what the theater is and what it can be. Brecht, for instance, opens up the world of possibilities (literally anything goes), but then you find yourself in a play where you’ve got to know what “bluefish” is and how to cook it. The joy of my work in the theater for me is that I am constantly learning and stretching my boundaries, always aware and secure in the way things have been done, but always looking for that new take on an old idea.

Greg Thornton: I want to read you a quote from the p​laywright, Donald Margulies, and ask you to comment on it: “A playwright’s responsibility is to move people, to show them truths about their world and about themselves that they may not have considered in quite that way before, to amuse them, to make them think and, most important, to never, ever bore them.”

Mike Winkelman: I agree wholeheartedly. Boredom is death in the theater. Once an audience has stopped listening and involving themselves in your storytelling, it is awfully difficult to hook them back into the play. As for playwrights, when they are at their best, as David Margulies is in “The Dining Room,” it is almost impossible to see their fingerprints. The characters have lives of their own, and even though they all were born of the same mind, each character has a separate and distinct voice. I think one of the things I like best about this play is that you are presented with four separate views on how relationships should work, what “friendship” means, and each of these views is just as valid as the other. There is no right and wrong way to live one’s life. Each character in this play is doing what they consider to be the best that they can, pointing out why the choices they don’t make are wrong for them, but allowing each other to make their own decisions, which makes the audience come to terms with what they believe the right choices might be.

Greg Thornton: The play is set in different locales.I know you and Joe Collins, the set designer for this production, spent a lot of time on how this would work at the Playhouse. How challenging was the design?

Mike Winkelman: Modern plays always seem to have so many locations in them. There is nothing that will stop your storytelling like a labored scene shift, so the challenge Joe and I faced was how to put all of these locations on stage at once, without overloading the stage with furniture, etc., from other scenes. I think we’ve come up with a pretty creative solution (a little surprise you don’t see coming) which always adds a little excitement when the stage can be transformed so easily before your eyes. Of course, this also adds a good deal of difficulty to James Treadaway’s (the lighting designer) work. Separating the spaces so that we can easily and instantly know where we are becomes crucial.

Greg Thornton: There are four characters in this play. Galileo had over thirty, I think. Small cast, large cast: advantages and disadvantages for the director?

Mike Winkelman: Well, the obvious answer is that moving four actors around a stage is easier than 30, but in many ways it is six one, half a dozen the other. Ultimately it is about creating stage pictures that provide the audience a focus. Many times when you have a large cast on stage, the bodies meld together to form a crowd and that “mob” really is just one big thing as opposed to 30 little things. Character development in a smaller cast play is much easier to discuss, especially in an ensemble play such as this, where you do get everyone’s backstory and can fill in from there. So many times in larger plays you are creating characters out of whole cloth, which can be very taxing, but also very exciting for a director. Again, I will refer you back to that “variety” thing. If all I ever did were large cast period pieces I think I would pull out what’s left of my hair, but, then again, I’ve already committed to directing Gogol’s The Government Inspector, which has over two dozen characters, at Theatre AUM next year.

Greg Thornton: Can you talk about your approach to casting, especially this particular play​?​

Mike Winkelman: As our reputation grows within the Montgomery community, I find that we are having larger and larger turnouts for our auditions, which is fantastic! I could have easily cast this show four times over and had a solid cast onstage. Obviously, this number of actors making themselves available allows you as a director to mix and match to create the best ensemble that is available to you. Height, age, vocal qualities, all of which you could overlook or work with if needed, suddenly become the hairs that get split when deciding on one actor over another. I also took this opportunity to cast four fantastic understudies, each of whom have taken to their oftentimes thankless tasks with vigor and enthusiasm. Because the play is about a couple of food critics/chefs, we’ve been eating very well in rehearsals, which have really been a blast so far.

Greg Thornton: Again, let me ask you to comment on something Donald Margulies said that speaks to this play in particular: “It is essential that we enjoy the company of these people for two hours. They are as flawed and impossible as the people we all know and love, who we call our friends. We must find plausible and be invested in not only the marriages between the men and women, but in the relationships of the same-sex friends, and between the couples.”

Mike Winkelman: Exactly. There are really six relationships on stage. The two obvious ones, the married couples, but then there are also the relationships between the two men and the two women, which are in many ways more important to this story than the relationships between husbands and wives. Then there are also the two relationships between each husband and the separate wife. Each one is important in this play in a different way. Because plays as a whole tend to focus on conflict, a lot of plays deal with relationships that are broken, or don’t work. One of the things I love most about this play is that it also lets you see relationships that do work and you get to see what makes them successful.

Greg Thornton: You are one of the people who were instrumental in getting the Playhouse off the ground from its very beginning. Can you talk about how that came about and how you see its growth to this point in time?

Mike Winkelman: I can’t tell you what an absolute joy it has been to be a part of the development of the Cloverdale Playhouse. How my involvement came about is pretty much the story of how the theater came about. Morris Dees called me up and said “Mike, I hear that you are the person I would need to talk to if I wanted to start a theater and needed someone who could handle any technical concerns that might arise.” I’m sure I tried to convince Morris that I was very busy elsewhere, but just as certain that Mr. Dees is not a person one says “no” to, so…. It’s been a fantastic voyage and a great pleasure to see how the community has welcomed the theatre and helped to support and nurture its formulation and growth.

Dinner With Friends by Donald Margulies opens at the Cloverdale Playhouse on Thursday June 18th, 2015 with the following cast: Gabe David Wilson, Karen Nicole Holt, Tom Michael Krek, and Beth Sarah Adkins.


  • Dinner With Friends June 18-28 Th-Sat 7:30, Sun 2:00
  • The Joe Thomas, Jr. Third Tuesday Guitar Pull June 23 Note Date Change
  • Playhouse School Summer Workshops:
    • 6-8 grade meets June 29, 30, July 1 and 2, 9:00-noon
    • 9 -12 grade meets June 29, 30, July 1 and 2, 1:00-4:00
    • 3 -5 grade meets July 13, 14, 15, 16, 9:00-noon
    • K- 2 grade meets July 21, 22, 23, 9:00-noon
  • James and The Giant Peach July 24,25 & 26

For Tickets and Further Information Call: 334.262.1530, Or

Greg Thornton is the Artistic Director of the Cloverdale Playhouse.

Be Sociable, Share!

Tags: , ,


If you enjoyed this article, subscribe now to receive more just like it.

Post a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *