A Life Lesson in Going with Plan B
June 2020 Issue
By Cynthia Robinson
Photography by Mike Force Photography
As the author of award-winning plays, including the widely acclaimed “Ferris Wheel,” and her work as an actress in New York City and beyond, you would think St. Simons Island resident Mary Miller’s theatrical work was in the cards from the beginning. But her long and successful career was originally her Plan B.
Plan A was a career as a professional tennis player. “I wasn’t a theatre kid in school. I played on the national tennis circuit all through high school at Westminster (in her hometown of Atlanta),” said Mary, who graduated with honors and was selected for the prestigious school’s Hall of Fame in honor of her rank as the No.1 female high school tennis player in Georgia. “My dad had gotten me into tennis when I was 8 or 9 years old.”
Unfortunately for tennis fans, when Mary reached the age to launch her professional career, women’s tennis did not offer opportunities for female players as it does now. Instead, Mary’s career path took a slight turn.
“My grandmother had passed away and with that inheritance, and going in with my mom and dad, we opened a tennis shop strictly for women called “Tennis Love” in the Cumberland Mall (Atlanta),” she said. “The shop was very successful, and I wanted to expand.” And expand it did to two more stores, one in Atlanta’s posh Phipps Plaza and the other in Birmingham, Alabama.
While promoting the shop, Mary got her first taste of acting. “I had some commercial work for the shop and had taken some acting classes. I also tell people there is a lot of acting in playing tennis. You have to present yourself.”
Mary loved acting but her plans only included running the shop and getting married. She thought she would one day move to New York City for a stint when she was old. Instead, she and her long-time boyfriend broke up, and that’s when she jumped into her “Plan B,” by moving to New York right away and auditioning for acting roles. While her parents continued to run the tennis shops before selling them several years later, Mary put “Plan B” in action with gusto.
“The first thing I had to do was get rid of my southern accent!” she laughed. “Casting directors want actors to speak in what’s called a midwestern accent that no one really has in real life.” Parts began coming her way in commercials and “Off-Off Broadway” plays, something she said she owes in part to her natural, fresh-faced beauty. “I have to say it. I had the perfect, all-American look.” The roles came rolling in.
Later, those looks, combined with her acting talent, eventually led to her being cast as a diner owner “Rosie” on the long-running daytime soap, All My Children—a part she played for two-and-a-half years. “Because I looked so young when I got to New York, I pretty much made up my past and decided I was 22,” Mary laughed, “I was 22 years old for six years!”
Toward the end of her soap opera acting, Mary decided it was time for another transition; this time into playwriting.
“As I didn’t look 22 anymore,” she chuckled, “I transitioned to writing. I had always wanted to write in high school, but never did. When I started reading and memorizing scripts, it got me started writing monologues. It took going to New York to open me to writing plays.”
Mary further honed her writing during a summer program at the American Academy of the Arts. She made her New York playwright debut with the production of “Light Burgers Waltzing Through the Garden with Joe.” More plays and accolades followed, including “Grace,” a winner in the National Repertory Theatre Foundation, as well as “I Witness,” and “Waiting for Oprah.”
“Within theatre you have so many parts—the director, actors, lighting, sound, on and on. It takes the sum of those parts to bring it all to life. I get goosebumps just talking about it. To see my characters come to life can be weird, but it’s also pure joy for me,” she said. “And, it often amazes me to see how other people interpret my work.”
The production of “Ferris Wheel,” a funny, but heartwarming love story, brought Mary international attention and is her most famous play to date. The work has been performed globally and translated into three languages. In addition to her plays, she has written several books, including the novels, “A Christmas House” and “A Matter in of Grace.”
Although she loved New York, and still returns at least once a year to see plays “for inspiration,” Mary made the move here in 2006 when her parents built their dream home on the Island. “Once I realized my real voice was in writing, I knew I could do that anywhere.”
When Mary met local director, theatre owner and actress Lynda Dalton-Gallagher the two struck up an immediate friendship and working relationship. “We have such an incredible artistic community here. Before Lynda created the Brunswick Actor’s Theatre (BATS), she had the Mary Miller Theatre. I couldn’t write plays fast enough for Lynda,” she said, laughing again.
In addition to her playwriting, Mary went to work for Sea Island Company, where she founded the ACTING HEALHY program, which uses her plays to provide hospital education and health awareness seminars. Her play, “Next,” about a woman going for her mammogram was one of the results of this unique program.
Since moving here Mary has continued to win accolades for her work, including her most recent play, “Witness,” which was honored as a semifinalist out of a field of more than 1,500 submissions in the Eugene O’Neill 2020 National Playwrights Conference. And Random House has recognized her as “one of America’s finest playwrights.
“I have to admit, it is pretty cool to have my work recognized as I get older.”
Now that the Covid-19 Pandemic has stopped her work with Sea Island for the moment, Mary is using the time to concentrate on her writing, including working remotely with a writer in California and a music writer in New York. “Shakespeare wrote King Lear during the plague, not that I’m writing King Lear,” she laughed, “but I’ve given myself permission to focus on writing and time to polish some other work. I’ve been editing like crazy and looking forward to getting back at it. I keep pushing myself. It keeps me age 22 at heart…inspired to write the next play.”
Family Matters: Took care of both her parents until her dad passed about five years ago. Continues to help care for her mom, now age 93, living at Magnolia Manor. “I saw her every day in person, until the pandemic. She’s where she needs to be, and they are taking good care of her.”
Higher Education: Studied at the University of London (England) and Davidson College in N.C. before earning her B.A. from Hollins University in Roanoke, Va.
Acting Out: Mary has been acting recently in several BATS productions. “Lynda talked me into playing Masha, in ‘Vonya and Sonya and Masha and Spike’ …as an aging movie star who brings her boy toy home!” She also acted in “Lettice and Lovage.”
Writing Voice: “If it makes me laugh, it will make the audience laugh. If it makes me cry, it will make them cry.
Golf? “I don’t play tennis anymore. I am a very competitive person. People who want to play tennis against me now want to play the 16-year-old me, and I don’t like to lose! I took up golf!