FLINT, Michigan — Rhiannon Ragland grew up immersed in the world of community theatre in Flint. Her mother, Shelly, was involved in Buckham Alley Theatre for several years, and introduced Rhiannon to theatre and performance through plays and classes at Buckham, Flint Youth Theatre, and Flint School of Performing Arts.
Acting, dancing, and storytelling were always essential components of Ragland’s life – but mostly as just a hobby. That started to change at age 28 when she was selected to participate in actor's workshops at the Purple Rose Theater
in Chelsea, Michigan. Prior to that opportunity, her dream was always secondary to more pressing life priorities, namely caring for her then-4-year-old daughter Brenna.
As a single mom, the thought of acting full-time had never really occurred to Ragland, and also seemed too risky and impractical to pursue.
That changed during an eight-week workshop in which the actors took 10-minute scenes and dissected the scripts with the theatre’s artistic director. The director would give notes and roles. Each week, the actors would come back to perfect the nuances and roles they were given.
Actors take their places on the set of Pickleball during a rehearsal at the Purple Rose Theatre in downtown Chelsea on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)
The workshop was wrapping up its final week and Ragland had to give her last performance to the class. Feeling nervous and powerful all at once, she poured herself into her part in front of a class full of students. After finishing, the room fell quiet and the director asked Ragland a straightforward question: “How serious are you about this?”
Reeling, she answered back, “I’m serious.” He repeated the question to her, this time with more intensity, “No, I need to know how serious you are about this. I really think you can do this.”
At that moment, she knew her life was never going to be the same. “You just messed my whole life up,” she laughed.
Now, 17 years later, Ragland has built a career as an actor and director and currently serves as a creative associate at the Purple Rose. In October of this year, she directed the world premiere of Pickleball
, a new comedy written by legendary actor, playwright, Michigan native, and Purple Rose Theatre founder Jeff Daniels. Although she’s directed before, this was the first time she’s directed a world premiere play.
, as its title suggests, features America’s fastest-growing sport and follows four-below average players overcoming their own limitations in order to achieve greatness in a game that has literally nothing to do with pickles.
Rhiannon Ragland works with actors on the set of The Purple Rose's latest play PickleBall on Friday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)
“The greatest part of this play is that people who don't know what pickleball is and have no idea what this sport or game is are really responding well and loving the story too,” Ragland said. “The story is about friendships and how they’re built. How you meet people that you wouldn’t necessarily interact with or know without this common ground [playing pickleball] and how hard it is to make friends as an adult.”
Ragland’s journey to this point didn’t materialize without overcoming major hurdles and setbacks. Soon after starting her acting career, she was struggling to find offers for roles, going through a breakup, and fighting off lingering doubts about whether or not she could actually find a way to make acting a full-time profession.
But a callback offer after an audition at the Purple Rose in 2006 had her hopeful things could turn around. Shortly after, though, a life-threatening car accident put more than just her career on hold.
She broke her neck, shattered her face, had to wear a cervical collar for approximately four months, and needed several reconstructive surgeries over multiple years to fully recover. She called the theatre after the accident to turn down the callback and had an invite to come back in a year or so when she was closer to fully healed.
She couldn’t wait that long, though. About six weeks after her accident, the theatre was recasting for a role in an upcoming show, and Ragland felt like she couldn’t let the opportunity pass by without at least attempting to get it.
“I thought, ‘this is it.’ I feel like the door is going to close if I don't call them. I asked them if I could audition and graciously, I think they just felt bad for me, they let me,” said Ragland with a laugh.
Rhiannon Ragland talks to the lighting crew while directing on the set of The Purple Rose's latest play PickleBall on Friday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)
Her neurologist granted her clearance and she auditioned again – this time, while wearing a c-collar.
“I was like, listen, I am going to work hard and I will be out of my collar by the time this play starts,” Ragland said. “I know I can do this. I know this character, I know what this is. And lo and behold, I got it. They let me do it.”
That was just the start of the journey, though. That’s when the real work began for Ragland, who credits her family and friends for the help and support she needed to balance her career with her responsibilities. Even under the best circumstances, parenting provides constant challenges. Ragland believes that her willingness to fully pursue her dream set an example she’s proud of for her daughter. She also notes that acting and theatre made her more aware of lessons that strengthened her own relationships and friendships, improved her parenting toolkit, and built her self-confidence.
Rhiannon Ragland watches and takes notes while actors perform during rehearsal on the set of The Purple Rose's latest play PickleBall on Friday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)
“My friends helped with carpooling for visits with Brenna’s dad. My family stepped in and helped me pay bills for the first little bit. My grandmother opened her home to us and she did daycare for me so that I could go and do this. There’s no way I could have done it without them, in those first few years especially,” Ragland said.
Her breakthrough led to her getting regular work at the Purple Rose and elsewhere, but she always considers the Rose her ‘home.’ She fell in love with the style, brand, and relationship the theatre has built with its community.
As an actor, she made her professional debut at The Purple Rose with the show When the Lights Come On
, and continued with roles in more than two dozen professional productions. Her personal favorites include Consider The Oyster
, Best of Friends
, Some Couples May
, and, of course as a Flint native, Flint
, a 2018 play written by Daniels about two couples pursuing the American dream through struggles in Flint.
Ragland is a proud member of the Actors’ Equity Association and has been a Purple Rose Resident Artist since 2010. She has also worked as a choreographer and assistant director. She has taught acting and movement classes at the Purple Rose since 2012, was the founding theatre instructor at Jackson School of the Arts and has held talks and workshops with college students across Michigan.
Her latest highlight is helping honor Daniels’ vision to deliver a unique and fun story to audiences with Pickleball
An actor wears a pair of Adidas shoes purchased from the new streetwear store in downtown Flint, BauHouse, as part of his costume during rehearsal for the play Pickleball on Friday, Sept. 30, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)
“We're definitely an out-there comedy,” she said. “We’re getting to do stuff in this space that we’ve never done before. There’s a couple tricks up our sleeves, but they’re [audiences] just loving this, what we’ve been calling more of a Universal ride than a play.”
In addition to being directed by a Flint native and resident, Pickleball
has other Flint connections. The play’s costume designer, Shelby Newport, is a faculty member at the University of Michigan-Flint and a Flint resident. Newport also worked with Flint streetwear store BAU-HŌUSE
to purchase shoes worn by some of the play’s characters.
“It’s an important part of the Purple Rose to support small businesses when we can,” Ragland said.
Ragland’s love for storytelling, the unique role theatre, and the arts play in communities, and her love for Flint pour out of her, creating a determination to share art with the world while also helping build opportunities for performers who came from blue-collar backgrounds as she did.
Rhiannon Ragland smiles as she watches the lighting and performance of actors on the set of The Purple Rose's latest play PickleBall on Friday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)
“Just do what you love and don’t f*cking worry about if you’re good at it or not,” Ragland said. “You don’t need to prove to anyone that you have to earn a spot in anything. If you want to write, sit down and write every single day. Whatever that artistic expression is, let it out. We have magic inside of us as humans. I truly, truly believe it. We have to let it out.”
Pickleball runs through December 23, with tickets available online.
Scroll below to see more photos:
Actors warm up for rehearsal on the set of The Purple Rose's latest play PickleBall on Friday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)
Ragland reviews notes with staff during rehearsal on the set of The Purple Rose's latest play PickleBall on Friday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)
Actor Jonathan West waits for the stage lights to go up during final rehearsals on the set of The Purple Rose's latest play PickleBall on Friday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)Cast members wait and listen as director Rhiannon Ragland gives suggestions during final rehearsals on the set of The Purple Rose's latest play PickleBall on Friday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)Director Rhiannon Ragland wears red heels while directing final rehearsals on the set of The Purple Rose's latest play PickleBall on Friday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)Director Rhiannon Ragland takes notes during the final rehearsals on the set of The Purple Rose's latest play PickleBall on Friday, Sept. 20, 2022. (Jenifer Veloso | Flintside)
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