Transcription of Michael Miclon for the show Gardiner Drama & Dining #284

Lisa Belisle: Today in the studio with me I have Michael Miclon, the Executive and Artistic Director at Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner, who has been a professional entertainer since 1982. Thanks for coming in today.
Michael Miclon: Thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: You really have a lot of things on your list. You’ve done and been, done so many things, been so many place.
Michael Miclon: Yup. Sure.
Lisa Belisle: You grew up in Buckfield.
Michael Miclon: I did, and that’s really, it was a huge opportunity to grow up in that little town which really didn’t have a lot else going on. Celebration Barn Theater is about 15 minutes away and some performers, people came from all over the world to study there. Luckily for me, two of them landed in Buckfield, decided to build a house there, Benny and Denise Reehl. They had a traveling show called the Buckfield Leather and Lather Traveling Variety Show. It was a remake of an old vaudeville show, where they actually made leather products and sold those and then did live shows, a la, like old medicine shows. They were just amazing, and so I grew up watching them.
Then Denise in 1982 decided to teach the drama class at my high school, and so I was one of those naughty class clown kids that no one knew what to do with, and they were like, “Maybe if we get him into drama it’ll give him something to do.” I did and actually that same year Patrick Dempsey, Dr. McDreamy, we both were encouraged to take her class and both, like I always say, our careers have just paralleled each other right along.
Lisa Belisle: Are you a different sort of McDreamy? Are you like entertainer McDreamy?
Michael Miclon: Yes, I’m a Miclon, he’s a McDreamy. Yeah. I love live theater more than, that’s really what my goal was, was I wanted to do what Benny and Denise were doing and I really focused on that. I really started performing right away. I started an apprenticeship with them. At the end of that year they asked me to apprentice with them. I had no idea what that meant, but I said yes immediately. Basically what it meant is they trained me in performance and juggling, comedy, mime, vaudeville, improvisation, you name it, and I would stack firewood and paint their deck, babysit their kids, do all that in trade. It was amazing because I could have never have afforded to pay for the education that I got. I did that for six years with them. It was great.
Lisa Belisle: Why live? Why a live theater versus going the McDreamy direction?
Michael Miclon: Sure. I love that connection with a live audience, I’ve always loved that. That you get to affect the people that are coming into the room. I do love film and I love that kind of work, but it’s a very different experience. I also love that for the audience, they get to affect you. See, that’s the other part, is that their laughter and applause, or lack of laughter and applause, makes a difference, makes you work harder, makes you try to find that connection. I love to find the connection with a live audience. It’s just always been… I did it any, I was the youngest of five kids, so I was sort of born with an audience, so I always wanted to get that reaction. Then went to school and found a bigger audience, so once it was actually controlled and I could actually use techniques and actually learn, it was great, I love to do it.
Lisa Belisle: Well I’m kind of interested to hear about this because I don’t think of, well, tell me a technique. What would be a technique for trying to connect better with an audience?
Michael Miclon: Connect with an audience. There’s a variety of different things you can do. One is that as you approach your audience, how you come out onto the stage is one of the key things. In a lot of ways you come out, try to sort of seek permission to be there. You come out and you look for ways, as quickly as you can, to make a connection with either a specific audience member or as the group, but you go out and you really are looking. It’s very different than standup where you’re just, it’s like battle. You got to go out and you got to strike first.
This is more, the style of entertainment I do is you go out and you’re really trying to get permission, you’re trying to get a buy in from your audience. You find different ways, whether it’s to come out you do a trick for them or you come out and you, you know, do an introduction that really is just designed to make a connection with your audience. Then once you have it, once you’ve gotten that first step then you go a little further, little further. A lot of the live stuff that we do involves actually pulling people from the audience right up onto the stage and interacting with them there. Really, I always look at, everything I do is what they call fourth wall down, there is no barrier between us and the audience. Like a play is fourth wall up. Everything we do is fourth wall down, so really getting out there and making that instant connection.
Lisa Belisle: Is there a relationship between the type of work you do and improvisational theater?
Michael Miclon: Absolutely. Improv is key, because you have to be able to change direction if it’s not going the way you want it to. If you’re not making that connection you’ve got to be able to shift gears as quickly as you can. Sort of trusting, one of my main teachers was Tony Montanaro and he always talked about, fortunately he said, “When you start to recognize it you get hundreds of impulses a second. You’re getting all kinds of options and as you train, you start to learn to take the best ones.” If you’re trying to do comedy you’ll take the ones that lean towards the quickest laugh. I’ve really been able to hone that skill over the last, you know, few decades of really trying to get it so that as quickly as possible. People talk, “You’re so quick.” It’s like, well it’s really a training. It’s about doing it over and over and over and trying to find those best impulses that come in.
Lisa Belisle: Is part of it trying to understand what’s going on behind the eyes of the people that are in front of you?
Michael Miclon: Exactly. I mean you learn to…. We always talk about, we’re mimes, and mimes have such the worst, they’re given the worst rap in the world, but mime really is about studying humans. Whether it’s their emotion, and being able to mimic it, that’s the term. You really learn to read people, so that’s one of the key things is being able to look at your audience and body language is huge.
I always, for me personally and it’s become sort of the mission as I go, I look for the guy that’s not laughing, that’s got his arms crossed, that’s not sitting up, and my goal is as soon as I can to have engaged that person, got them to minimally uncross their arms, because crossed arms is such a sign of like, “You’re not getting to me. I’m protected.” Then once they relax and they realize it’s not a standup show where you’re trying to zing them, you’re just trying to build a relationship. I’m always looking for that. It’s really about building and understanding body language and seeing what they’re doing. Laughter is easy, because if they’re laughing it’s great, but I’m always looking for the people that aren’t and see if I can get to them.
Lisa Belisle: I’m interested in this because when I give presentations, I give talks, and often times to doctors. They are very much known for the crossed arms. Not all of us, but you know.
Michael Miclon: Yup exactly. Crossed arms.
Lisa Belisle: They’re known for the crossed arms. A little bit skeptical. Very much in their heads.
Michael Miclon: Exactly. Yup, yup.
Lisa Belisle: If you’re dealing with a doctor who’s doing that, and maybe I’m that doctor in the audience.
Michael Miclon: Right, right.
Lisa Belisle: How would you approach it.
Michael Miclon: Well that’s why, you talk a lot of times it’s like talking about leading with a joke, so laughter is so wonderful because laughter really is a surprise. We laugh because we’re surprised at something, and once you’re surprised, you’re rocking people off, I feel like you’re rocking them off their defenses, once you’re surprised. It’s really trying to find that opening, that opening line, that opening connection that you can make. If you can get to them, if you can give them that and get them to laugh, nine times out of ten they’ll start to, they will relax. Their arms will drop and they’ll start to be like, “Okay.” It’s really about going, “Oh we’re on the same team.”
If an audience feels like it’s a combative situation or if they feel like they’ve got to defend themselves, it’s a tougher road. That’s why I don’t do standup. I love standup. I don’t do standup because it’s not in my nature, because a lot of comedians talk about you’ve got to… Jerry Seinfeld always says, our terms are, “We slayed them. We killed them.” Those terms are really specific because it’s like, if we don’t, they’ll do it to us. In the style of family, I call it family entertainment, but it’s really it’s just a, it’s cleaner material, it’s more audience-oriented rather than just one liners. It’s about connecting. I try, I’m always trying to find that way to get that connection. That’s why I love that style of entertainment.
Lisa Belisle: Where does something like juggling come in?
Michael Miclon: Yeah. Well, for me juggling was the reason to get on stage. I didn’t have all the jokes yet, I didn’t have all the stuff, but maybe if I could impress you. Juggling was initially for me, when I started learning it, and that was one of the first skills that Benny and Denise Reehl taught me, was to juggle. Of course, then that gave me all kinds of confidence because it was something I’d seen, it was something that seemed so difficult, and then once I learned it I was like, “Hey, maybe I can do other things.” Juggling is a great way because you can come out with the idea, “I’m going to show you something.” Then you can practice everything from when you walk out to when you throw that first trick is your opportunity to try those jokes and try those connections.
Then sometimes if you just do a trick…. Like my oldest son is an amazing juggler. He can juggle seven of anything, and has worked on nine and he’s incredible. He doesn’t want to talk to anybody. He doesn’t want to talk on stage, doesn’t want to do it, so he says, “I go out and I do it with the tricks. I do something really difficult.” Then he’ll stop and look at the audience to try to go, “What did you think?” Actually asking them, in a nonverbal way, “Did you enjoy that?” That’s his way of getting that connection. Juggling for me was a way to get out on stage, and then try all the comedy parts, but for him it’s the reverse, it’s like it’s a chance not to have to say anything.
Lisa Belisle: Where does he fall in your line up of children?
Michael Miclon: He’s my oldest. My oldest, he learned to juggle when he was five. He watched me from a baby. I have tons of video of him before he could walk, he would grab two of anything and try. He would throw them, but he would mimic the motion. From zero to five he was really living it, but wasn’t actually doing it. When he turned five, and it’s very hard to teach young kids to juggle, but it was just in his body, so within a week he’d learned how to juggle three balls at age five. Now he lives in New York City and does, he’s going to be in an episode of Mozart in the Jungle, as a juggler.
Lisa Belisle: I love that show.
Michael Miclon: Yeah, so he’s in season two, episode nine.
Lisa Belisle: Okay, I’m going to look for that now.
Michael Miclon: Look for that. That’s Shane Miclon, he is like Randy the Ring Juggler or something. I don’t know, but it’s cool. He gets lots of work. He does lots of circus, like artistic circus, Cirque du Soleil type of performances. He was on Rachel Ray, which was an odd experience, but fun. You know.
Lisa Belisle: I’m assuming if you have an oldest, you must have other children.
Michael Miclon: I do. My middle son also lives in Brooklyn, and he just graduated from the New York Conservatory of the Dramatic Arts a year ago. They live there and they do duet work together and do shows. Then my youngest actually is not in the performing world at all. Can juggle seven balls, can do all kinds of stuff, has no desire to be on stage at all.
Lisa Belisle: What does he?
Michael Miclon: He is a butcher. Yup. Has a baby and a baby on the way, and very happily married and likes to watch his brothers, but doesn’t want to get on stage himself.
Lisa Belisle: That’s interesting, because I was thinking about what you said about the youngest and how you’re the youngest of five, so you’re watching and you’re interacting and that engagement’s really important for you. Did that in any way play itself out with your youngest?
Michael Miclon: No, because…. Well, the interesting thing was is that, so they grew up in the Oddfellow Theater, that was my theater in Buckfield. They grew up there and for the older two, we had people coming from all over the world that ended up in Buckfield doing shows at my theater. We had people that were in Cirque du Soleil and people that were on Broadway. That’s just with the connections that I had there, we would get people to come in and just do guest spots or do their shows. My older two saw that as inspirational. They saw that as like, “Wow, I can do anything. These guys have shown me the way.” My youngest son saw it as, “I could never be that good.” Which is very strange, because usually youngests are like me. He is funny, but he gets panicked being on stage. It just, it eats him up, he can’t do it.
The other two just live and breathe it. They don’t even…. What my oldest son does on stage, I mean the ridiculous difficulty, and he mixes it with a lot of dance and movement so it’s not just coming out and juggling, it’s whole full routines, it’s thought up choreography. I’m a juggler, I mean I can juggle five but I can’t do anything to the extent he can do it, but I watch him and I often wonder, he’s making it look so smooth that when the audience watches it they don’t understand the level of difficulty. Which is great, which is what our job is supposed to be.
My youngest just sort of sees it all as like, just knots him up. Even from when he used to do high school plays. He basically did those just so he could be around who was going to be his future wife, but he didn’t really want to do it for me. For me I just wanted to be on stage all the time. Any opportunity. When I did that first here, we did three plays. I got a lead in one, but they needed a dead body in the other one and I was the only person that volunteered. That’s how Denise knew that I was destined to stay in the arts, is I was willing to be dead.
Lisa Belisle: Because you so wanted to be onstage that you were willing to be a dead body.
Michael Miclon: I didn’t care what capacity. I was good too. I didn’t move, I didn’t do anything.
Lisa Belisle: I find this so interesting because it seems as though there are kids that it’s just like from the moment they like pop out, they are somehow inclined to be, whether it’s in the arts or music, theater, photography, whatever it is, that’s where they are. If they’re fortunate enough to be in a family where that’s the business, then they can kind of….
Michael Miclon: Yup. That’s what they can do. Yeah.
Lisa Belisle: They can do that. If you’re not, then it’s very interesting.
Michael Miclon: Right, then you have to…. My parents were, my dad was a teacher, my mom worked at the local phone company, but they were very, my dad I always say, he could tell a story better than anybody. He was fantastic, and they both have a really good sense of humor but didn’t really do…. My mother was a dancer when she was younger and all that stuff, but basically by the time I came into the picture they were just two working people with five kids, so it wasn’t…. I really had to, I knew I had a spark for it, but I didn’t even know, I didn’t know what to do with it. That’s why I just thank God that I came across Benny and Denise, because they knew. They saw it and were like, “Okay, you’ve got to do this.” Then I took on apprentices myself throughout the years, going, “I’ve got to be able to pass that on and do that same thing.” All the people that I chose to work with are all doing it professionally now, so it’s great.
Lisa Belisle: Does this drive you in the work that you do with the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner?
Michael Miclon: Sure, yeah.
Lisa Belisle: You told me that you need to raise, I think, it’s 4.3 million dollars?
Michael Miclon: 4.3 total. Yeah, we’re about 1.8 in. Yup, and we have to raise 4.3. The connection to that space is I had run my theater, and I decided to close the Oddfellow Theater in Buckfield, thought I was done running a theater. I decided to make a film, so I made a feature length film, a comedy, which was really fun. Then I had heard through the grapevine, the theater grapevine, that they were looking for a new executive director for Johnson Hall. They had gone through about a year and they had narrowed it down to a couple of different folks, and in the end neither one of them panned out. The two people that they chose, one lady decided last minute she didn’t want to move to Maine, and the other guy, I don’t know what the details was but he didn’t take it.
They were still looking and I said, “You know what …” They had already gone through this whole process. I had never put my name in and then I made a connection, they brought me in, I interviewed and then they hired me the next day. The cool connection is that Benny and Denise Reehl had left Buckfield in the late 80s to go, and they actually purchased Johnson Hall. They were part of that whole resurgence, formed the non-profit that I now work for now. Denise actually stayed on working there for about 25 years. Benny passed away in 2005, but had been a major part of that program. I went there to go like, I want to continue their work and I want to get their theater done.
All of this stuff, and definitely improv is a major part of it, but the work that we do there is, because I believe that live arts are essential to humanity. I think it is that thing I was talking about, is that you put, it’s this weird agreement that you go hundreds of people are going to come together in a room and not like rush the stage. We understand, “I’ll sit here, I’ll watch, you do stuff. If I like it I’ll slap my hands together and we’ll call it good.” It’s an amazing, I think it’s an incredible exchange. What our job is, my job is, is to bring in really great people. When I was in Buckfield I was in about 80% of the shows. In Gardiner I don’t, I barely perform there. I introduce all the shows and do that, but I really wanted to concentrate on the producing end of it and really….
Before I got there we only did about 12 shows a year, so now this year we added films in, we’re doing about 70. It was really about expanding the program and getting it up to a standard. That’s been huge because we do everything that we do on the first floor of Johnson Hall, but the actual theater, it’s the oldest opera house in the state of Maine, is on the third floor, and it’s been sitting untouched basically since the 50s. That’s what we’re working to renovate, so we’ll go from about 125 seats on the first floor to 400 seats on the third floor. Then we’ll run both theaters at the same time. It’s pretty neat.
Lisa Belisle: This is Gardiner, which is certainly busier than Buckfield.
Michael Miclon: Yes.
Lisa Belisle: Just geographically and….
Michael Miclon: It has street lamps and restaurants.
Lisa Belisle: Yes, exactly, but that’s still a lot of seats that you’re talking about. Have you been successful in drawing the numbers that you’ve wanted so far?
Michael Miclon: We have. Yeah. Again, before I started there we averaged about 450 people per year. With 12 shows, wasn’t great. My first year we did 32 shows, we got a little over 1600 people. Next year we had 37 shows, we had about 2200 people. Last year was 42 shows, we had over 3000 people. The numbers just keep growing and growing and growing and growing. Now we’re getting to the point where people are like, “Man you can’t get tickets.” Which is awesome. It’s where we wanted to be, because everyone was saying, “Why do you need a third floor theater if you’re not filling the first floor?” Now we’re fortunately packing it in at the first floor theater.
We had to elevate the level. We’ve got Dar Williams coming in. We had John Gorka, Chris Smither. We try to really upgrade. Really, my first year was sort of figuring out, what do people even want? I’m very much a, like I say, that vaudeville style performance, but what sells the best, what really does it is the music. We really, people just love to come out for the music. We still do a lot of the live variety stuff, and we have standup and improv shows and things like that. We really have become a really solid music house. It’s cool.
Lisa Belisle: I’m fortunate on this show, because I get to interview people who are artists and musicians and actors and entertainers of various sorts. I’m constantly amazed that the arts are so alive and rich and present. It’s not like we have a history of arts in Maine. It’s we have a history and we have a present and we have a future. We’re still a relatively rural state, and you’re not talking about Portland, you’re not talking about Bangor, you’re talking about Buckfield, Gardiner.
Michael Miclon: Yeah. It’s incredible to me, and I have a lot of people that come to Maine, from places like Indiana or I even have some friends that moved from Maine to Austin, and if you’re in the music world that’s great, but if you’re in the live theater realm, he was just saying, it’s really hard to find work let alone get work. Maine has a network of, people have just sort of grown up over the years knowing that, sure whether you’re a corporate group, you hire entertainers.
There’s these little thriving theaters, and theaters pop up in every form. Mine was an old Oddfellows building. If there’s a place where people can gather…. Portland, what I love about Portland is they don’t care, they go, “90 seats, great. We don’t care. If that’s all we can squeeze in.” It works. Traditionally if you’re under 300 seats you’re asking for it. To succeed financially it’s almost impossible under 300 seats. We’ve proved around here, it’s like, throw a theater in your living room, and that’s actually a growing thing that’s happening in the state is these living room concert things that people are doing. I just think that….
The Maine Arts Commissions, years and years and years ago, used to have a great thing called the Maine Touring Program. I don’t know if they invented it, but it was new to us in the state. What it was is that anybody, if you were hiring Maine artists and you were connected to a non-profit, you could get these artists at a reduced rate. From Kittery to Presque Isle, everywhere in between, people could bring in artists and there was this book and you’d have to audition. I remember getting into the Maine Touring Program was a huge, like that was like a stamp. That meant, within us as performers or whether you were, it wasn’t just limited to live art, it could be sculptors and painters and whatever too. You could bring them in and they could do work and workshops. It created this idea that you could get these people at a reduced rate. The performers were still getting their pay, but the Maine Arts Commission assisted with that. It just built this.
Then after that program went away, the networks didn’t stop. People were like, “Well I still want to bring artists in.” School shows and all that, it just built and built and built and built. I think it’s really the legacy of a lot of the work that the Maine Arts Commission did back in the day, because it built this expectation of, “Oh you’ve got to have art.” I think it is unique for us because like I said, people that live in New Hampshire, live in Vermont, and it’s not as easy to find this steady stream of work that you can get.
Lisa Belisle: Do you think as an artist that there’s also something about the mental space that’s available in Maine? As opposed to some of the larger metropolitan areas?
Michael Miclon: Sure. What else is there to do? Create. I think to live in Maine you have to be really creative anyway. I mean, we have the changes of the seasons so extreme, and you’re always, you’re preparing. You’re always preparing. You’re either preparing for winter, getting excited for this, getting through…. We don’t have mud seasons anymore, but we used to. Always trying to prepare and get ready, so you have to be multifaceted.
I think that sets up people that we learn a lot of things, and then you have lots of months that are like cold and dreary and what are you going to do, stay inside? Create something. I’m always amazed, and I think that’s what attracts people from other places to Maine, is that there is this wonderful solitude when you need it, and then there’s just this amazing connectivity throughout the state all year long, but particularly when it warms up you can just, there’s so many places to go and do. You can recreate yourself or be a part of someone else’s recreation. It’s awesome. I think it’s awesome.
Lisa Belisle: As the executive and artistic director at Johnson Hall in Gardiner, you have a very specific role, and you said that you weren’t doing any performances there.
Michael Miclon: Right.
Lisa Belisle: It’s still in you, because obviously if you’re doing a New Year’s Eve performance….
Michael Miclon: Right, I still perform. I still do shows in other places. I just found, it was weird, when I was in Buckfield I was more performer than executive director. Then when I came to Gardiner I really realized the need to be more focused on the executive director part, and actually building the organization and helping to fortify what we were going to do. Because if we were going to get to this bigger goal of running a, I’ve never run a 400 seat theater, I’ve always run theaters under 200 seats, and that’s a different animal. I told them very honestly when I took the job that the whole reason I was taking it is that I, A, wanted to see Benny and Denise’s theater get done, but I also wanted to experience what it’s like to run a 400 seat theater myself.
I want to know, what’s that like, the level of act that I can bring in starts to go way up. We can start to get some really serious, with 400 seats you can really start to, your pool of artists starts to get a lot bigger, and that’s really exciting to me. You can really begin to pull some really interesting acts in and different groups from around the country. Whereas we’re a little bit more limited with a small amount of seats. I was like, yeah, really focused on the idea that I really have to build, I have to be more the businessman with an artistic sense rather than the artist who’s trying to do the business. I had to switch my focus a little bit.
Lisa Belisle: Yet both require you to be able to read people.
Michael Miclon: Yup, exactly. It really does.
Lisa Belisle: You’re using the skills….
Michael Miclon: Yeah, I feel like I perform a lot. We do a lot of what we call house, road shows, where we are always trying to get…. One of the things that we realized with Johnson Hall, and a lot of organizations have this, but it’s like even in your closest proximity, that’s where people tend to not know about you. They know of you, they don’t know you. Yet we pull people from Portland, from Bangor, from Lewiston-Auburn to Gardiner all the time, but our general area they’re like, “Yeah, I know Johnson Hall, that little place over there.” Maybe they’ve never been in. Maybe they went in once and didn’t like it. You never know. What we’re trying to do is get into people’s homes and actually talk about what we do. We call it friend-raising, not fundraising. We feel like the dollars will follow if they like us, if they’re willing to come visit us and see that we’ve changed, or just understand what we do.
Lisa Belisle: Well we will put information about the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center in Gardiner on our show notes page, and I wish you all the best in raising the $4.3 million for your renovation by 2019.
Michael Miclon: 2019 is when we hope to open, yup, so we’re hoping to start construction as early in 2018 as possible, if not late 2017.
Lisa Belisle: For people who are listening, don’t hold off on sending money now.
Michael Miclon: Right, right now.
Lisa Belisle: You should send it right now to Mike Miclon over at the Johnson Hall Performing Arts Center. Thanks so much for coming in.
Michael Miclon: Thanks for having me.
Lisa Belisle: It’s really been a pleasure learning about your craft.
Michael Miclon: Thank you.
Lisa Belisle: You have been listening to Love Maine Radio, show number 284, Gardiner, Drama, and Dining. Our guests have included Michael Giberson, Neil Andersen and Michael Miclon. For more information on our guests and extended interviews, visit Love Maine Radio is downloadable for free on iTunes. For a preview of each week’s show, sign up for our e-newsletter and like our Love Maine Radio Facebook page. Follow me on Twitter as Dr. Lisa, and see my running, travel, food and wellness photos as bountiful1 on Instagram.
We’d love to hear from you, so please let us know what you think of Love Maine Radio. We welcome your suggestions for future shows. Also let our sponsors know that you have heard about them here. We are privileged that they enable us to bring Love Maine Radio to you each week. This is Dr. Lisa Belisle. I hope that you have enjoyed our Gardiner, Drama, and Dining show. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of your day. May you have a bountiful life.
Speaker 1: Love Maine Radio is made possible with the support of Berlin City Honda, the Rooms by Harding Lee Smith, Maine Magazine, Portland Art Gallery, and Art Collector Maine. Audio production and original music have been provided by Spencer Albee. Our editorial producer is Paul Koenig. Our assistant producer is Shelbi Wassick. Our community development manager is Casey Lovejoy, and our executive producers are Kevin Thomas, Rebecca Falzano and Lisa Belisle. For more information on our hosts, production team, Maine Magazine, or any of the guests featured here today, please visit us at