Theatre professor Ronda Winderl stands at the bottom of the stage with her iconic hair fashioned like a halo, asking the cast to embody their characters. Slowly, one by one, they learn to communicate in a way she knew they could, prayed they could. She wanted to open the hearts to God’s truth, starting with her cast, with each curtain call.
Even until her last at PLNU.
This Tuesday marks the opening night of the musical production “Godspell,” which will be Winderl’s last show. After directing approximately 120 shows in the span of her career, she will be ending it on this joy-themed tale of John the Baptist intervening in the lives of modern-day individuals. These individuals then forsake their philosophies of life and become apostles of Jesus. The production crew decided to set the musical in the San Diego Airport, since it is a location where a diverse group of isolated strangers whose flights have been cancelled can start spouting off their beliefs before John the Baptist shows up.
Winderl began her theatre career at Olivet Nazarene University as an undergraduate and then moved to Emerson College in Boston for her master’s degree in directing. She helped build the theatre and communication program at Eastern Nazarene College and eventually earned her doctorate at New York University, where one of the subjects of her dissertation was “Godspell.”
For Winderl, “Godspell” is the perfect last show.
“I interviewed everybody involved in the original production of “Godspell” including [Stephen Schwartz] and did a production history on it,” she said. “At that point I knew that I wanted to direct ‘Godspell’ and I always thought it would be a great show to end my directing life on because it so encapsulates everything I most believe in. It’s this whole idea of Jesus meeting us today and teaching us in a joyful way so we grow together as a community of believers.”
A highlight from Winderl’s career was working with Stephen Schwartz (“Wicked,” Godspell”) on the U.S. non-commercial premiere of “Children of Eden.” She contacted his agent after seeing the show in London asking if the rights would be available anytime. His agent replied saying Schwartz had been looking for a college where he could do the show with low-risk and re-work some things. He and Winderl met up, he brought the hand-written scores for the music and they worked out the rights. Then, at Eastern Nazarene College, where Winderl taught at the time, did a huge production of the play, which she directed and choreographed. Schwartz reworked sections with the company and brought New York professionals to come and watch the play.
“It was something that no one could have orchestrated. It was a total God thing,” she said. “‘Urinetown’ and ‘Little Shop of Horrors’ were my absolute favorites that we did at PLNU because they are both highly entertaining and satirically humorous while making strong statements which cause us to reflect and perhaps make better choices with our lives. Theatre for me is about the thematic content of the piece which can be redemptive, as well and entertaining.”
Since “Godspell” is a musical, there is more work on the production side including music/musicians and dance choreography.
“All of the vibrancy and energy they bring to exploding the story through rhythm and melody and lyrics, results in a much bigger time commitment, but for a musical like ‘Godspell,’ the time commitment difference is definitely worth it,” Winderl said.
Winderl considers it her expertise to choreograph and direct musical theatre. She will teach a musical theatre class in the spring.
Michael Sanchez, an SDSU music graduate, will be directing the music. Adjunct professor Brian Redfern is in charge of scenic design and construction. Maria Sanchez is the costume designer, Luke Olsen is the lighting designer and PLNU junior theatre major Russell Clements is stage managing. Spanish and international business double major Austin McKinley will star as Jesus and music education major Michael McCarter-Crellin is playing John the Baptist.
Amy Nordberg, a senior media communication major with a concentration in production, is part of the cast as one of the airport travelers and has been greatly impacted by both Carl and Ronda Winderl.
“Carl is the reason I added a writing minor, and Ronda has most definitely reignited my love for the stage,” Nordberg said. “I am honestly so grateful to be able to share this last show with Ronda, and I’m also so grateful that it’s ‘Godspell’!”
Nordberg said she is looking forward to the scenes of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection, which she believes will impact the audience most.
“It’s made me cry on stage multiple times during rehearsal, especially since we’ve been blocking the crucifixion right around Easter and I think it will really affect the audience as well,” Nordberg said.
Due to the cuts made in the Department of Communication and Theatre as a result of the prioritizing decisions made last year, the theatre major will only be offered as a minor and the department will be cutting down to two productions per year.
“I’m prioritizing my time, and will focus my energies on my teaching and the Fall London Semesters,” said Ronda.
2014 alumna Alyssa Salter said she is currently studying theatre in London at the East 15 Acting school thanks to Winderl.
“I am constantly reminded of how much she taught me inside her classroom, inside rehearsal and as a mentor,” said Salter. “Many of the skills I am applying in my professional life as an actor, I learned from working with her in productions and I am incredibly grateful for those opportunities.”
Winderl said her 120-show career coming to a halt has been a mix of sad and exciting emotions.
“I could have directed another 10 shows but really feel released from this enormously time-consuming job which is very inadequately compensated here,” she said. “I feel sure God will open new windows of opportunity when I am not spending most evenings and afternoons for eight weeks in rehearsals.”
Winderl will mostly miss the things she learns from the students in the process of exploring a play.
“There are so many really fun, surprising things we create together and I love the way my faith grows and is strengthened from the influence of the students and performers I get to work with,” Winderl said.
“Godspell” will run Tuesday through Sunday, with no performance Friday. For more information and showtimes, visit Salomon Theatre or your closest announcement board for the poster.