There’s a reason those who work with Philip William McKinley tend to call him a bulldog.

McKinley, a native of Avon, Illinois, and 1973 graduate of Augustana College, Rock Island, has learned that it takes a heavy dose of persistence — and a solid work ethic — to make it in the theater industry.

That’s part of what got McKinley top jobs in the theater world, such as overseeing Hugh Jackman's Tony-winning role in "The Boy From Oz" and directing a reboot of Broadway's "Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark.” He has also directed several editions of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

And McKinley wants to share his wisdom with aspiring thespians in the Quad-Cities through the theater company, called Mississippi Bend Players, or MBP, he helped launch this summer. Its first production, “Zombie Prom,” opened last weekend and runs through Thursday-Sunday.

MBP offers "an intense and immersive," as McKinley said, summer internship program in fields such as marketing, set design and theater generalists. It’s modeled after a theater group called the Pitchfork Players that McKinley participated in during his college years and, he says, started his professional career.

“I did this because I’ve had a very fortunate career and lived dreams I had and dreams I didn’t have,” McKinley said. “It’s important to give back to organizations that helped me when I was starting out. Rather than writing a check, I felt it was important to invest time and energy into it.”

He made the move on another longtime dream: Bringing Broadway to the Quad-Cities.

He’s doing so under a “fast and furious” pace, said Cory Johnson, a professor at St. Ambrose University, Davenport, who signed on to be MBP’s associate artistic director. The 20 cast and crew members, including seven interns, work long hours and have about 10 days to rehearse and get ready for each show.

“Phil has treated the students like he would on Broadway shows,” she said. “He really is a bulldog. He’s brilliant and inspirational and he has so much to pass on.”

And, she said, that’s preparing students for the future.

“If they can get to the other side of this summer, they can have a career in theater if they want it,” she said.

Learning from the pros

McKinley said the idea to start a theater troupe was initially prompted by the opening of the Brunner Theater Center at Augustana. MBP’s shows will be performed at the facility, which opened in September and is the result of a $4.2 million makeover of the former College Center.

“We knew we had this state-of-the-art facility opening and we wanted to make use of it 12 months out of the year,” McKinley, who moved back to the Quad-Cities in 2010, after living in Manhattan for 30 years, said. “I wanted to come back and create a season that was the same kind of experience I had. It’s a good opportunity for them to see if this is what they want to do.”

That began a conversation between McKinley, who is a member of his alma mater’s board of trustees, and Jeff Coussens, the chair of the college’s theater arts department.

“We both had transformative experiences doing summer theater,” Coussens said. “We thought we should offer those same learning opportunities for our students, so they get that experience of what a professional theater is like.”

“They get incredible experience working with professional actors and people like Phil,” Coussens added. “He brings in expertise you can’t get in the classroom." 

The "Zombie Prom” cast and crew is made up of students from Augustana, St. Ambrose University and Western Illinois University as well as professional actors from the Quad-Cities.

“The niche we hope to fill is the immersive experience and combining professional actors with students,” McKinley said. “We’re not thinking of this as a college program — it’s a professional regional theater company.”

Of his own transformative experience as a 20-something, McKinley said, “It taught me all the facets of theater and it gave me a work ethic. In the professional world, you never work an 8-hour day. It’s much more.”

The internship has been a good post-college gig for Joe Oliger, who graduated from Augustana in May.

“The Quad-Cities didn’t have anything that fit this bill, so I think it’s wonderful,” he said.

The 22 year-old, who studied theater and journalism at Augustana, said it has been “eye-opening” to work with McKinley.

“He tells you exactly how we wants something and why he wants it that way,” he said. “The hours are long and it’s exhausting, but I am learning a lot doing this.”

Another intern, Becca Brazel, says she’s thankful to perform in “Zombie Prom,” alongside seasoned actors in her first professional show.

“I think it’s exactly what the Quad-Cities needed,” Brazel, who graduated from St. Ambrose in 2016, said. “To be able to work with experienced actors is really nice because you learn tips from them and get to watch their process.”

Reinvigorating a cult classic

The company’s inaugural season kicked off with a show close to McKinley’s heart.

“Zombie Prom,” which he calls a cross between “Grease” and “Rocky Horror Picture Show,” served as McKinley’s New York City Off-Broadway directing debut in 1996.

“Since then, it’s been done all over and has this cult following,” he said.

He and the show’s writers reworked the rock-and-roll hit to feature a new opening as well as fresh dialogue and lyrics.

“We wanted to reinvigorate it for this production,” he said. “That’s part of what we want to do — produce new works every year.”

To fill out its inaugural season, the group will present "Wait Until Dark" later this month and "Brighton Beach Memoirs" in August.

"We're hitting the ground running," he said. "And we're already thinking about next season." 


Amanda Hancock is a reporter covering food, arts and entertainment in the Quad-Cities (and beyond).