Jocelyn Sanders has come full circle, and she acknowledges a pleasant sense of fulfillment and accomplishment.
The veteran director and actor majored in drama at Columbia College in the 1970s, and went on to a career in secondary and college-level education, while building an impressive resume as a director and performer with local theater companies such as Trustus and Workshop.
Now, as Workshop settles into a long-term residency in Columbia College’s venerable Cottingham Theatre, Sanders is set to direct the season-opening production of She Loves Me, the first musical comedy for her or for Workshop since 2014.
Sanders describes the 52-year-old non-profit’s relationship with Columbia College, a 165-year-old private liberal arts college that has traditionally offered undergraduate studies for women, and evening and graduate classes for both women and men — as still evolving.
2019-2020 marks the first full season (five plays plus a summer children’s production) that the theater has mounted since 2015, following its departure after four decades from a leased space on the corner of Gervais and Bull streets.
Workshop now inhabits the entire top floor of Cottingham, with access to box office facilities, storage for costumes and props, and rehearsal space within two smaller performance venues inside the building. Workshop’s season is now part of the official college calendar of events.
“They have also been very accommodating about parking,” Sanders notes, “allocating spaces not just for the staff but also spaces during the day for people coming in to the box office to purchase tickets and season memberships.”
She says that the current administration, including Carol Moore, who became president in 2018, has been welcoming and enthusiastic about the partnership.
“When they found out I was an alum, that was icing on the cake,” Sanders offers. “It makes me proud, now at the apex of my career, to be back on the boards that I acted on, and trained on.“
While the drama major was discontinued in the 1990s, Sanders says that she carries with her the history of the department and the work of her mentors, including celebrated professors such as Rai and Lucille Baillie, and Gene and Catherine Eaker.
“It’s not exactly a weight,” she explains, “but I think that they would feel proud that I am continuing their legacy.”
Speaking the weekend before the new production opens, Sanders is eager for her actors to rehearse for the first time with a live band led by musical director Michael Simmons on piano, along with musicians on second piano, flute, trumpet and violin.
The material’s history is as diverse and storied history as Workshop’s own. Based on the 1937 Hungarian play Parfumerie by Miklós László, the story of pen pals who fall in love was adapted into a 1940 Ernst Lubitsch romantic comedy film with Jimmy Stewart called The Shop Around the Corner. That story was later remade in 1949 as a musical vehicle for Judy Garland, and retitled In the Good Old Summertime.
The tale came to Broadway in 1963 as She Loves Me, with a new book by Joe Masteroff, who had an even bigger hit with Cabaret in 1966. New music and lyrics were provided by Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick, who struck theatrical gold the following year with their score for Fiddler on the Roof. The musical ran for 302 performances and was nominated for multiple Tony awards, with subsequent revivals in 1993 and 2016 garnering 17 additional nominations. Meanwhile, screenwriter/director Nora Ephron took the basic concept and updated it to the internet age for the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film You’ve Got Mail in 1998.
Sanders says that the core story “still rings so true.”
“Every character is a real person, and everyone [in the audience] will see somebody they know,” she posits of the easily recognizable archetypes the characters represent, whether it’s the shy introvert, the womanizer, or the driven businessman. Real-life husband and wife Bobby and Mandy Applegate Bloom play the star-crossed lovers, with the latter also choreographing.
Sanders feels that the material’s universal appeal stems from how “everybody wants to find that one person.“
“Going to the bar these days,” she offers, “you don’t find someone, not truly. Now, it’s based on anonymity — Match, Tinder, online dating. But ultimately, you’re [still} typing to strangers, via electronic letters. In the 1930s, people were doing the same thing, with lonely hearts clubs,” organizations that matched singles as anonymous pen pals.
“When we do find that person, generally there may be something about that person that irritates the hell out of you,” Sanders adds. “But that may mean that’s the spark. It’s that age-old thing: How do we find love? And what do we do when we find it? And what a crazy roller coaster ride we’re on as a result.”
What: She Loves Me
Where: Cottingham Theatre, 1301 Columbia College Dr.
When: Sept. 26-Oct. 6
Price: $20 ($17 (seniors 60-plus, military; $15 students)