The 1978 RTG production of Blithe Spirit featured Jo Nissen as Ruth and George Mangold as Charles. Both at the time had credits from appearing in several previous RTG productions, and both went on to appear in dozens of other shows through the decades. Because of their dedication to RTG and volunteering in many capacities over the years, Jo and George were given the honor of Life Members in 1998. They continue to volunteer, much to their credit and our delight.
“I do remember that Blithe Spirit was a difficult play to perform,” Jo shares. “Noël Coward’s language has a rhythm and meter that takes a certain kind of delivery. I know it took a long time to learn the lines, but the play was received well by audiences.”
“No one else wrote like Noël Coward,” says George. “This was from the time of screwball comedies, with the humor of the ghost of the first wife. I remember playing Charles as suave and sophisticated, but then very bothered by the two wives. The hardest part for me was that Charles is a smoker, so I had to learn how to handle cigarettes and make it believable. The drinking of cocktails and the smoking were part and parcel of the character and of that era.”
Jo remembers that the 1940s costumes she wore were beautiful and elegant. “I even wore slacks for one outfit, and that was a very progressive fashion choice for the time. All costume changes were during intermission or scene changes, and I remember going to the dressing room to do them. No fast changes back stages for that show. I wore two different wigs, and I remember them as being very pretty. One of the difficult things for me was to pretend I didn’t see Elivra on stage. She was standing right there delivering lines, and I had to act like I didn’t see or hear her.”
George recalls that he also helped to decorate the set. “It was very busy, full of props and classy items that would have decorated a lovely country home in 1940s England. I remember the upstage windows, and the items on the mantelpiece.”
There is a vase that the ghost knocks over, startling the characters who can’t see her. Jo remembers that the vase was prepared by props with a crack, and it would fall and split. Then it was glued together again for the next show. Both remembered that director Norm McPhee had great skill in directing period comedies, and he was very precise about the blocking, making sure audience members in all sections would have good sight lines.
Jo and George played husband and wife again in Edward Albee’s Seascape, the play that was taken to the Netherlands in 1987 for an international community theatre festival. George has been volunteering with the RTG for 57 years, and Jo for 59. Both were on the board of directors when the organization did a capital fund drive to build the new theatre.
“Oh, we have many memories of doing shows in the old High Street Theatre,” Jo says. “And it was such a huge deal to build a new theatre of our own. The thrust stage was designed to be like the Guthrie Theatre in Minneapolis. The board members were asked to stay on through the move to the new theatre, to keep consistency in the transition. I am very active with AACT (Association of American Community Theatres), so I see many shows by other community theatres all over the country. Few have a facility like we do in Racine, and we are the envy of many professional groups. I am so proud of the quality we present from amateur actors. Having a professional director contributes a lot. Norm set such high standards for the RTG, and Doug has continued that tradition.”
George agrees. “I’ve acted under every professional director we’ve had at RTG: John Fritz, Anita Grannis, Bob Thies, Norm and Doug. I’ve done 27 shows with Norm and two with Doug. I think we can always be proud of what we put on the RTG stage. I’m thrilled that we’ve made investments in improving our facility now, with new carpeting back stage, improvements to the dressing rooms, and other upgrades like the new seats. Over the years there is nothing at the RTG I haven’t done, even costumes, props, makeup, stage managing – all of it.”
“I love theatre,” says Jo. “I’ll continue to volunteer as long as I am able.” George agrees. “I have no place else to go!” he laughs.
It is an honor to interview and speak with two life members who have put in a combined 116 years of effort into the RTG. Their work and dedication to the organization is humbling, and they set an example for all future volunteers who want to keep RTG one of the premier community theatres in the country. They look forward to seeing the current production of Blithe Spirit, to see how a new director, cast and crew will handle the comedy.