Morningside Theatre Company Looks to the Future

by | Jul 2023

Ella Williams with the cast of the SpongeBob Musical.

Ella Williams with the cast of the SpongeBob Musical (August 2022). Photo: Morningside Theatre Company

The theater’s artistic director was raised to take the theater to new levels.

When many arts organizations are slowly emerging from the shadows of the past few years, Morningside Theatre Company (MTC) has blossomed with more actors on stage than ever before.

Ella Williams, in their second year as artistic director of MTC, has enthusiasm, talent and energy, drawing kids and adults to the stage. Parents who once did the kid drop off at Edina Morningside Community Church and and Linden Hills United Church of Christ, which houses the basement theater, now park the car and grab their script. Under Williams’ direction, and perhaps the magic of a spoonful of sugar, the neighborhood children’s theater transformed into a family community theater earlier this year, selling out all performances of Mary Poppins.

Ella Williams, artistic director of Morningside Theatre Company.

Ella Williams, artistic director of Morningside Theatre Company. Photos: Chris Emeott

Williams’ mother, Jane, founded the theater in 2010 and served as its director until Williams took over last year. “I’ve never been part of something longer than MTC,” Williams says about growing up
in the church basement.

The company was small in the early days, with nine campers, which meant Williams played two parts in the production of Into the Woods. From camper/actor to becoming a teen helper and returning home during college summers, Williams has smoothly taken the reins as full-time artistic director. “I’ve been training my whole life for this job,” Williams says.

Not even a pandemic could slow down Edina’s favorite theater. Offering online music camps “was an awesome way to keep families who have been with us for years engaged,” Williams says. “We were super glad to be back in person in 2021. We were all masked, but we were back, and that was awesome.”

Williams says the heart of MTC is enthusiastic families, energetic teen helpers and a “small team of people who are all very dedicated and work really hard.” This small team includes two new collaborators on the team who Williams fondly calls their “Jane replacement.” Arts administrator and resident music director JJ Gisselquist joined the team in 2021, and former MTC camper Gigi deGrood is the stage manager and scenic designer.

The passionate trio brought Mary Poppins to the stage earlier this year with overwhelming success—though this show took place upstairs, in the church sanctuary, rather than on the basement stage. It was the first attempt at casting adults and MTC’s debut as a community theater. Of the 41 cast members, 10 were part of a family duo or trio.

Local moms Michelle Hines and Christy Gutt raised their hands to join the cast of Mary Poppins; neither had ever set foot on stage as an actor.

Experiencing how much her daughter, Muriel, enjoyed going to Morningside camps, Michelle couldn’t resist the chance to be in a show like Mary Poppins. “If I’m ever going to do it, now is the time. I know every word,” she says of the musical that transcends generations. “It was really, really fun.”

Michelle Hines and her daughter, Muriel.

Michelle Hines and her daughter, Muriel.

Muriel will be in seventh grade this fall. She joined MTC for the first time last summer after Williams directed a skit at Muriel’s elementary school’s read-a-thon, and she got to participate. “I liked singing, but I hadn’t done any type of theater before,” Muriel says.

MTC is very welcoming, Michelle says, “particularly for middle school kids who need a place where they can be themselves and not feel judged or made to feel like they have to act a certain way … [It’s] a place where it’s OK to be enthusiastic.”

Eighth grader Lily Gutt is in her third summer with MTC. Her mom, Christy, stumbled upon MTC when they bought a house down the street. The family moved from Texas, where Lily was involved with theater, but says Williams “made me feel like I’ve always been there,” adding how she appreciates how everyone cheers each other on.

Christy Gutt and her daughter, Lily.

Christy Gutt and her daughter, Lily.

Christy is another first-time thespian who played a buttoned-up Katie Nana in Mary Poppins. “I was too shy in middle school or high school,” she says, but adds that everyone at MTC is “so enthused, it’s hard not to want to be part of theater.” The energy also drew in another Gutt sibling; Lily’s older sister, Ella, was in charge of lighting for the show.

The production level is “above and beyond” the theater company Lily was part of outside Austin, Texas, Christy says, noting how impressed she is with the level of technology, like lighting and microphones, young actors have access to.

Part of MTC’s charm is the intimate size and location, but Williams isn’t ruling out expanding to different locations in the future. It’s not easy turning eager kids away, but Morningside’s cozy basement can only hold so many campers.

Over 240 inspired young actors signed up for summer camps this year, the largest number in the company’s 13-year history. Williams wishes there was more time in the summer to offer more camps. They try not to turn anyone away and add camps whenever possible.

Check out a performance this summer, including Legally Blonde The Musical Jr. or Urinetown: The Musical. MTC offers seven musical camps during the summer for kids K-12. All performances are open to the community.

Morningside Theatre Company
4201 Morningside Road; 952.926.6555
Facebook: Morningside Theatre Company
Instagram: @morningsidetheatreco


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