Theater plays a role in life of Valley Falls teacher, director
Story and photo by Holly Davis
Nola Milligan, actress, minister, teacher, and director, happily closed the curtain on her 17th play, “Radium Girls.”
The play was performed by Valley Falls High School students Nov. 10 and 11 at the Delaware Township Hall.
This was Milligan’s first directed play that was based on a true story. “Radium Girls” is based in the 1920s when factory women painted glow-in-the-dark clock dials with radium for men in the war. Many did not know that the radium being used to paint the dials was poisonous and deadly. Many of these women began to fall ill and eventually died. The play is based around the journey of Grace Fryer, a woman in the radium plant who fights in court for justice for these dying women.
Milligan grew up in Monticello, Ind., with four sisters and one brother. At a young age, she was always put in front of people whether it was reciting memorized pieces during church or singing at Sunday school.
In back of her Indiana home was a raised, concrete porch. She and her siblings used this porch as their stage, creating stories and putting on plays for the neighborhood to enjoy.
“We based our plays off of television shows we would watch,” she said.
In the sixth grade, Milligan directed her first play as a girl scout. With permission from her troop leader, she personally cast each girl scout in a role in a small play she had chosen about a book-loving girl. Although Milligan felt she was the only one who took it seriously, the audience consisting of parents was pleased with the attempted performance.
It wasn’t until ninth grade that Milligan was introduced to forensics, a competitive acting class offered at her school. Throughout high school, she thoroughly enjoyed being a part of this team and was especially interested in interpretation of poetry. During her junior and senior years, Milligan was given minor roles in the school plays.
When she attended Milligan College in northeast Tennessee, she joined an ensemble acting group and was given the lead role in a production her senior year. Afterward, she joined a seminary in Indianapolis, where she was part of a traveling acting troop. She and her fellow actors performed small plays for different churches and organizations.
Shortly after, Milligan was called to her first church as a minister. Having the traveling troop monologues under her belt, she decided to turn the small plays (religious in nature) into solos. She would perform the same act, playing all of the different parts.
She appeared in “Godspell” at a Missouri theater and wrote her first monologue based on the life of Laura Ingalls Wilder for a gifted program at a St. Joseph school. A reporter and photographer covered her performance and she was called upon to perform the monologue 25 more times.
After finishing her term as a minister, Milligan took her first substitute teaching position in Savannah, Mo. Her first experience as a high school teacher was a good one. She filled in for a Spanish and French teacher who was undergoing surgery. During the eight-week period, Milligan was able to get her feet wet in the teaching industry.
“I connected with the students and teachers and loved working with a team,” Milligan said.
Milligan had found a passion in teaching and went back to school in order to become an English teacher. She was hired back at the same high school she had filled in for, but there was a catch. After knowing her background in theater, the school asked her to be the new play director as well. Although she had little experience in directing, she took the job and her two productions were a success.
“There is no greater delight than sitting with an audience for the first time and realizing that they are enjoying it,” Milligan said.
After two years at her first school, Milligan applied at Valley Falls High school in 1995. She was quickly given the job as the English and forensics teacher, as well as the school play director. Being new to the town, she had to prove herself. With all of her hard work and dedication, it can be said that Milligan has.
Although there are many challenges in the theater industry, Milligan feels that for her, the hardest thing about being a director is finding a suitable play and getting her own vision across. Another challenge is pulling the loose ends together as the opening night draws near.
The most rewarding and uplifting part of being a director for Milligan, is seeing the curtain open on the first night. “The play is a way of being creative and artistic and I’m able to see the finished product,” Milligan said.
With her 17th play in the wraps, Milligan continues to teach ninth- and 10th-grade English as well as forensics.
“To me, there is a joy in helping young actors and actresses develop their talent. I get personal fulfillment in seeing a student simply foster self-confidence and feel comfortable in speaking,” Milligan said. “I know that I’m helping develop skills that will be with these people for a lifetime off the stage. I’m always so proud hearing from students, whether they’ve become a doctor or architect, if they’ve mastered a presentation, or any kind of career because I feel that I’ve played a small role in helping them become who they are.”
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