As the Croswell Opera House’s run of “Every Brilliant Thing” ended last weekend, it also marked a final bow for John MacNaughton ‘78 as the theater’s creative director after 10 years and almost 150 shows.
But retirement doesn’t mean he’s leaving the Croswell behind, whether it means directing more shows, appearing onstage in small roles or even, he joked, taking out the theater’s trash.
“I don’t care what it is I do,” he said, “just to continue to be a part of it.”
MacNaughton’s theatrical career stretches back to age 6 or 7, when he played Tiny Tim in an Adrian College production of “A Christmas Carol.” His father, Douglas ‘34, was a professor at Adrian College, and “I was the go-to child,” appearing in a college show whenever it needed a young boy.
He performed in shows all the way through high school, with his first appearance on the Croswell stage coming when he was 14 and played Huck Finn in “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and then enrolled at Adrian College to study theater. All along, his goal was to become a professional actor. “There was no question in my mind that that was what I wanted to do,” he said.
After graduation, he did summer-stock theater on Cape Cod and then did what so many aspiring actors do: He moved to New York City.
But once he got there, he quickly discovered that he actually wasn’t interested in doing what it takes to make it in the acting world. “As an actor, you have to be so focused on yourself, and I don’t mean that in a bad way,” he said. It wasn’t for him, and he went to work at a children’s management office called Cuzzins Management.
“That was great fun. I enjoyed that a lot,” he said. “It was the days of ‘Annie,’ and there were all these little kids wanting to be in (that show)… I heard a lot of little girls sing ‘Tomorrow.’”
He also saw plenty of talented youngsters who went on to become famous, including Danny Masterson and his brother Christopher, and Christian Slater. MacNaughton actually served as Slater’s guardian for several years, taking him to auditions and looking out for him on-set.
“He was a great kid, a lot of fun. And it got me into a lot of places,” including Radio City Music Hall, which he explored thoroughly while Slater was in the Christmas Spectacular show one year. MacNaughton’s story about that particular experience involves one performance when, during the manger scene where a lengthy procession including live animals arrives onstage to visit the baby Jesus, Slater was nowhere to be found until he was located napping onstage behind some hay.
Thanks to working with Slater, MacNaughton also got to meet actress Margaret Hamilton in what she said was to be her last acting job, playing a schoolteacher in an “ABC Afternoon Special” in which Slater was cast. She brought along a stack of photos of herself in her iconic role as the Wicked Witch in “The Wizard of Oz” and autographed them for everyone.
“Margaret was a lovely, lovely person,” MacNaughton said.
After four or five years with Cuzzins Management, MacNaughton left that job for one with the major commercial talent agency J. Michael Bloom. As “low man on the totem pole,” part of his job was to go see all sorts of theater, including showcase productions and “shows in people’s basements,” to find talent.
“No one else (at the agency) wanted to go to all this stuff, but it taught me so much about theater,” he said. And he brought the agency lots of actors for commercial work, including a 4-year-old Macauley Culkin.
MacNaughton eventually became a freelance casting director, running his own one-man agency in New York. Then, in 1991, after his father’s death, he realized he wanted to come home, and he returned to Adrian where his plan was to open up shop as a graphic designer.
Personal computers were just coming along, and he taught himself graphic design and hung out his shingle, so to speak. Over time, the work took off, and he spent some 10 years at it before going to work for the Adrian Dominican Sisters as their graphic artist.
He would spend 10 years there too.
“I loved it,” he said. “It’s an amazing place.”
But then the Croswell board approached Jere Righter to be the theater’s new artistic director, and she agreed to come on board as long as MacNaughton came too, as the creative director, which means essentially being the production manager. Although he did enjoy working for the Sisters, he decided going to the Croswell was the right move for him.
Ever since he returned to Adrian from New York, he’d been involved at the Croswell both as an actor and as a director. Now, he would be working for the theater on whose stage he first set foot as a 14-year-old playing Huck Finn, often helping mentor young actors in the same way he was once mentored by Bob Soller, the Croswell’s legendary artistic director.
And the job allowed him to join forces with Righter.
“Jere is inspirational,” he said. “She’s an amazing person to work for.”
Ask him to name some of the shows he’s especially loved over his lengthy connection with the historic theater, and it’s a long list. Just a few from that list: playing Hysterium in two productions of “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.” Working on “Crazy for You.” Working with Croswell icon Judy Vanzo in “Arsenic and Old Lace.” Acting in “Guys and Dolls,” which he calls “a brilliant, brilliant piece of theater.” His first directing gig with “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
But MacNaughton hasn’t just been onstage — in what he estimates were some 25 different productions over the years — or directed, or worked behind the scenes. He was even a pit musician once, for a production of “The Sound of Music.”“That was lightning in a bottle,” he said. “Getting a large, mixed-race cast for a January show was a challenge. But the right people came out and auditioned for it. That was a big experience for me, and those actors had to put up with my inexperience, that’s for sure.”
“I played bassoon. They didn’t ask me back,” he said, laughing. “I don’t know why.”
And now, even though he’s “retired,” he fully intends to stay connected with the place he’s loved for so many decades.
“The Croswell is this place that exists and it’s almost impossible that it exists here, and yet it does,” he said. “It allowed me to be myself, and it does that for so many others. It’s an important part of our community, and you think of all the people who’ve been a part of it.
“I hear people all the time referring to the Croswell as ‘theirs.’ And it is ours. It’s everyone’s. And it’s been my home. It’s been a very important place for me.”
This story, written for the Daily Telegram by AC Alumni Arlene Bachanov ’84, was republished with permission.