GREAT BARRINGTON — You could call it one of those be-still-my-heart moments.
Dancer-actor-singer Gwen Verdon had seen dancer Mimi Quillin perform with American Dance Machine at the time Verdon and her legendary husband, choreographer-director Bob Fosse, were casting the 1986 Broadway revival of the Neil Simon-Cy Coleman-Dorothy Fields musical “Sweet Charity.”
“Gwen gave me Bob’s phone number and told me he said to have me call him (at the Minskoff Theatre, where the musical would be performing) and if he had time he would squeeze me into his schedule and he did,” Quillin recalled in an email interview with The Eagle.
Quillin went on to dance in the ensemble and serve as dance captain for the Tony Award-winning revival, which starred Debbie Allen as Charity Hope Valentine, the role created by Verdon in Fosse’s original 1966 Broadway production. As dance captain, Quillin worked with Verdon to recreate the original 1966 choreography and ensure that the artistic integrity of Fosse’s dance and musical staging was maintained.
The period Quillin spent with Fosse and Verdon is the stuff of Quillin’s solo play, “Call Fosse at the Minskoff,” which will be performed Friday, Oct. 15 and Saturday, Oct. 16 at the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center.
Quillin is quick to note that “Call Fosse at the Minskoff” is not a behind-the-scenes-tell-all gossip story about two influential figures in American theater, dance and film.
“There is a certain aura about Fosse and Verdon,” Quillin said during an interview by phone from the Staten Island, N.Y., carriage house she shares with her husband, “but this is a story about the bewilderment and joy of being asked to step into your own dream.
“I look at dancers and see what they’re going through; so near to the flame but at the end of the day you have to take care of yourself. What you are saying to the choreographer is ‘I will, as your dance captain, protect your pot of gold but not (at my own expense).’”
Quillin, who was born and raised on Staten Island, said with a laugh that she was dancing from the moment she came out of the womb.
She trained at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet School, the Joffrey Ballet and Harkness Dance Center, all in New York. She pursued dance studies and training at Berklee College of Music, in Boston, from which she graduated in 1976.
Quillin was determined to make a career in classical ballet. She danced with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and Milwaukee Ballet, but it soon became clear that if she was to have a career in dance, it wouldn’t be in ballet.
“At 5 feet, 10 inches, I was considered too tall for classical ballet, especially when it came to partnering. It was awkward,” she said. “This was the late ‘70s and I realized [a career in dance] was passing me by.”
So she turned to theater dance. Quillin joined American Dance Machine, a self-described “living archive of great American theater choreography” created in 1976 by Broadway dancer, choreographer and director Lee Theodore. The New York-based dance company folded in 1987, the same year Theodore died.
The shift from ballet to theater dance, especially Fosse’s choreography, was significant. “Kinetically, in ballet, you’re not connected,” Quillin said. “If you’re doing a ballet step it is really about preparation. With Fosse, there is an explosion then a drawback. You don’t pump the clutch, just [go].”
Quillin characterized Fosse’s dance as sexy, although, she said, “he never encouraged that. He never said ‘Be sexy.’ It’s all in the viewer.”
His dance is a blend of edgy humor and darkness “we are all drawn to,” Quillin said. “He reaches for the underbelly.”
Dance is Quillin’s medium; her soul expression, if you will. “There is an expression of your inner landscape which comes out in dance,” Quillin said. “It doesn’t get you in trouble the way words can.”
Words, however, have become another tool in Quillin’s toolbox. Thanks to a scholarship awarded her by Fosse, Quillin studied at the Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute where she developed her skills as an actress. She has performed Off-Broadway and in regional theaters; on television in two episodes of “Law & Order;” and on radio on Great Britain’s BBC.
Now, she is turning to playwriting.
“Call Fosse at the Minskoff” is her first work as a playwright. After having been hosted in workshop presentations by Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y., and Harbor Lights Theater Company on Staten Island, “Call Fosse … “ premiered in 2016 at United Solo, a national solo play festival held annually at New York’s Theater Row where it won the top award as best production. (A three-person play by Quillin, “Dégagé (disengage),” played at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca, N.Y., in 2017).
Initial reaction to “Call Fosse at the Minskoff” was that it was a good story but it lacked a narrative point of view. “People told me they didn’t know who was telling this story,” Quillin said.
Quillin met Jamie DuMont and Rob Russo, whose theatrical production company, Fabulous Invalid, is producing “Call Fosse …, “ in 2019. The two were putting together a podcast special on Fosse and Verdon.
“During our interview, she mentioned she wrote a solo play about her experience working with Bob and Gwen,” DuMont and Russo wrote in an email. “[We were] intrigued. She shared the script and we decided to host a reading to see her perform the play. We instantly fell in love with Mimi as a performer and storyteller. When the pandemic shut down live performance, we were determined to keep working on the piece.”
They optioned the play and found director Michael Berresse through a series of Zoom interviews with prospective directors.
“I had heard of Michael,” Quillin said, “but I didn’t know his work. He turned out to be a good match.”
Quillin and Berresse have spent the last 18 months working on the script, meeting weekly with DuMont and Russo via Zoom.
“We were delighted to finally get ‘in the room’ together last summer — masked and vaccinated! — for a writing workshop and another reading in September,” the producers wrote.
Searching for a theater outside New York to house the first performances of the revised “Call Fosse …,” DuMont and Russo were led to the Mahaiwe by co-producer Rick Miramontez, who sits on the not-for-profit theater’s board.
“After learning more about the mission of the organization and visiting the gorgeous theater, we knew it was the perfect fit for this play,” the producers wrote.
Quillin is guardedly hopeful about the show’s future — perhaps New York, Off-Broadway.
Whatever lies ahead, Quillin hopes “Call Fosse at the Minskoff” will communicate to audiences “the joy of working with Fosse and Verdon and the joy of dancing. But, like anything, [that joy] has its price.”
Quillin took a beat, then: “Bob would say ‘go for it.’ So, I am going for it.”