Molly Rhode: Child Actor to Acclaimed Director

Molly Rhode stars in American Folklore Theatre’s current production of Loose Lips Sink Ships. Photo by Len Villano.

Molly Rhode grew up in Brookfield, but during eighth grade, auditioned and was accepted as an exchange student in the theater program at the Milwaukee High School of the Arts. In 1992, at age fourteen, she enrolled as one of the very first students at First Stage Theatre Academy in Milwaukee, now the second largest theater academy program for children in the country.

After high school, Molly was admitted to the highly selective theater program at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, where she majored in theatre studies with a double-emphasis in playwriting and directing. “When I went off to college, I had no idea where I’d end up,” she says. “I was very surprised by the end of my junior year to realize how much I missed Wisconsin.”

During Christmas break of her senior year, Molly interviewed to teach the following summer at First Stage. “I worked with students from third grade through high school,” she says. “It was a great opportunity for me to process all I’d learned in college. When you must articulate an acting concept to an eight-year-old, then you know you really understand it.” And thus she became part of the ever-widening circle of relationships in Wisconsin arts.

That fall she started a yearlong internship with the Milwaukee Repertory Theatre. Along with understudying many roles, Molly also appeared in A Christmas Carol, Work Song and Wit. “I learned so much,” she says. “I was a sponge. It was a great opportunity to transition from college to the professional world.”

Next, she was hired by Next Act Theatre for the cast of Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels. Its director was C. Michael Wright, who had directed a play she appeared in as a teenager at First Stage.

Molly quickly returned to the Rep to act in The Front Page, and was then cast in Hello, Dolly! at the Skylight Music Theatre, the beginning of a long-term relationship. After that, she spent the first of two summers with American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

“Part of an actor’s life is to keep plugging away and auditioning,” Molly says. “During a season, I may work for five different theaters.” In 2003, she joined the Actor’s Equity Association and continued to build her resume, eventually working on all of Milwaukee’s professional stages. In gaps between acting contracts, she continued to work in theatre education and also as a choreographer.

At Skylight, in 2004, she appeared as Sally Bowles in Cabaret with a young actor named Chase Stoeger. They began dating after the show closed and were both hired by Door Shakespeare in 2005. “We fell in love in Door County. No doubt about it,” Molly said. By 2007, the two were part of the American Folklore Theatre (AFT) cast. Both appeared in A Cabin With a View, and Molly also appeared in Belgians in Heaven. That fall, she and Chase were in Main-Travelled Roads at the Ephraim Village Hall. A review in the Door County Advocate said, “Rhode is a standout. She is an amazing actor, displaying an incredible range of emotions and a voice that glistens.”

Rhode (far right) will reprise her role in last year’s AFT hit, “Victory Farm,” this fall at Door Community Auditorium. Photo by Len Villano.

In May 2009, the couple married – on a Monday – because they and most of their friends were theater people, and theaters are dark on Mondays. Their honeymoon was a long weekend in Algoma, on their way to begin rehearsals for the AFT season. They’ve been part of the AFT family ever since. Through the years, Molly has appeared at AFT with both former teachers and former students. Pam Niespodziani, Stephanie Olson, Teddy Warren, and Susie Duecker were all Molly’s students years ago at First Stage. Steve Koehler was Molly’s sophomore acting teacher at Milwaukee High School of the Arts; and Raeleen McMillian, from Bing!, was Molly’s teacher at First Stage that very first Academy summer in 1992. The circle of relationships in the theater community continues to widen.

In 2011, Molly and Chase welcomed their daughter, Silvia, whose name means ‘from the forest.’ “We thought that was appropriate,” Molly says, “since she spent most of the months before she was born in the woods in Peninsula Park.”

Molly’s first professional directing job was in 2010 for Main-Travelled Roads at the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre. She was chosen by the show’s producer C. Michael Wright – another link in the theater circle – who had done the first workshop of Roads and had seen AFT’s production in 2007. “It was a great opportunity for me,” Molly says. In the following year, Molly also directed shows at First Stage Children’s Theatre and Children’s Theatre of Madison

Last winter, she directed The Sound of Music at the Skylight, which placed a tremendous amount of trust in an actor in her mid-thirties with limited directing credits. The show was wildly successful, selling out nearly every performance. Steve Koehler, whose path had crossed with Molly’s often in the past, starred as Captain Von Trapp.

Mike Fischer’s review in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel said that the star, Elizabeth Telford was “reminiscent of the young Molly Rhode…and the populist, homespun aesthetic Rhode has absorbed during her years on stage with American Folklore Theatre.” He also mentioned “Rhode’s terrifically choreographed dance scenes…and how fully Rhode has used every inch of [the Skylight’s] Cabot Theatre, out to the lobby and up to the rafters, the better to accommodate the largest cast in Skylight history.”

This summer, Molly took on her first directing job for AFT, with the company’s new show, Windjammers. The cast has high praise for her work. She is performing as well, in Loose Lips Sink Ships and Muskie Love.

She will reprise her role in Victory Farm in AFT’s fall season at the Door Community Auditorium. And a few days after it closes, Molly will be back at the Skylight, directing Les Misérables. “I’m looking for opportunities for simplicity,” she says. “The Skylight is a beautiful jewel of an opera house, where the expressions on the actors’ faces can be seen from every seat in the house. I want to use that to make it a very intimate show, while keeping its epic quality.”

The young girl who enrolled at First Stage in 1992, has come full circle, finding herself at the intersection of so many of the relationships that are the world of theater in Wisconsin.

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