Community theater: Becoming someone else

For thousands of ordinary Minnesotans, community theater is a place where they can reveal their inner Hamlets.
Graydon Royce, Star Tribune
February 27, 2006

Rehearsal was well underway when a fellow hustled into the Savage elementary school used by Chameleon Theatre Circle. He wore a leather jacket, jeans and running shoes. His hair was swept into a pompadour. A beard framed his ruddy face. On the street, you'd target him as a youth hockey coach or the guy who fills bulk orders for drywall screws at Menards.

But this is the beauty of community theater. As he hurried to take his place with Chameleon's cast of "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat," this ordinary guy was transformed, his big expressive voice filling the small performance center and his hips swiveling to a calypso beat.

To each side of him were people who could pass as insurance agents, school secretaries, librarians, systems analysts. And, who knows, they might be. Or they might be young actors looking for experience, hoping to crawl up the theatrical food chain. Whatever, this disparate group is smitten by the stage and committed to the artistic equivalent of recreational sports -- community theater.

Bubbling alongside the Twin Cities' nationally recognized professional scene, Minnesota ranks only behind Texas (huh?) in the number of community theaters per capita, said Julianna Skluzacek of Owatonna, president of the Minnesota Association of Community Theaters. Thousands of actors pat on the pancake makeup and don costumes simply for the love of it. Like Henry Nash in Kurt Vonnegut's short story "Who Am I This Time?" they escape their 9-to-5 existence and become someone else -- feeding their artistic needs as they create a reason for people to gather and watch.

"I feel I'm getting something out of life," said Frank Blomgren, a regular and well-respected actor on the community circuit. "I went to college for this, and I'm following through on that, as opposed to coming home and sitting in front of a television set."

Blomgren's story typifies many community performers. He fell in love with acting as a student at the University of Minnesota, but succumbed to the lure of a stable job that allows him to afford a home and a retirement plan.

"I've got a lot of friends in theater and watching them travel all over and find something to make a go at it didn't appeal to me," he said. "As much as I love theater, I didn't want to pursue it professionally."

Five days a week, he delivers mail in St. Paul's St. Anthony Park neighborhood. It's a job that provides ample time to run through lines in his head. Usually, the five-mile route is sufficient, but last month he was performing the role of George in Lakeshore Players' production of "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?"

"It's so long that I could never get through it by the time my route was over," he said.

Undeterred, Blomgren found some extra time in his day that let him settle into playwright Edward Albee's exploration of a husband and wife who scar each other during a caustic night of boozing.

"I like being corrosive, because I'm too straitlaced normally," he said of George. "It's nice to be something other than who I am."

Even though the vast majority of people in his neighborhood know him as the postman, Blomgren does not identify himself by the work he does simply to pay the bills.

"We had a big reunion at my high school this year and they sent out questionnaires on what you do," he said. "The first thing I put down was 'actor.' My second criterion was letter carrier. I find if I go a few months without doing a show, I kind of go stir crazy."

Civic institution to clubhouse

Blomgren likes performing at Lakeshore. It's been a White Bear Lake fixture for 53 years and mixes small-town stability with artistic daring. Operating out of a converted church, the troupe sells about 80 percent of its 186 seats for every show, which helps feed an annual budget of about $200,000.

But Blomgren has worked the other end of community theater, too. Just before "Virginia Woolf," he worked with Lex-Ham Players, a nomadic group anchored in the Midway neighborhood of St. Paul that would be thrilled with an audience of 60 people. Which might seem OK, except that those five dozen people would be sitting in the 1,000-seat auditorium at St. Paul Central High School, which Lex-Ham uses occasionally as its performance space.

"It does give you a sense of dread sometimes," said Blomgren. "You're onstage and you look out and it looks so empty."

Lex-Ham is the baby of Urban Landreman, a data systems analyst with Hennepin County. It grew out of a community group about 10 years ago when some people wanted to put on a summer show. They were pleased and because there are always enough actors and directors eager to practice their craft, Lex-Ham joined the ranks of more than a dozen small urban groups that seem happy with 25 people in the audience so long as they have the chance to flex their egos.

"A lot of time it's more for the people that are the regulars, part of the theater group and they perform more to their friends than anybody else," said Greg Toltzman, who has worked with Corcoran Park and Morris Park in Minneapolis and Heritage Theater in St. Paul. "Of course, they'd love to have other people come in and it helps pay the bills, but I don't think what they do is intended to change the world."

Chameleon, on the other hand, is headed by a group of theater nuts in their 30s who perhaps harbor those ambitions. For now, on their $10,000 annual budget, they'd be happy just to be accepted in their southern suburban territory.

For example, the group was renting junior high school space when, in 2000, it decided to stage the rock musical "Hair."

"Everybody knows 'Hair,' " said Brad Donaldson, Chameleon's executive director. "So we couldn't rent a school."

As dilemmas often do, this one presented a solution. The troupe found a space in the Big Apple Center, a converted roller rink in Lakeville. They carved out a small space to seat 90 people and called it home.

Until Ace Hardware expanded and took over the space.

"If you go in there now, we were in the plumbing section," said Donaldson.

Chameleon will make its first venture into the Lakeville Center for the Arts with "Joseph." But Donaldson, who by day is director of operations for the Brain Injury Association of Minnesota, said it's been difficult to establish traction. He would like to see the company grow, take greater risks, do new work (it has an annual new-play festival) and become more than just a group of actors who put on one more production of "Steel Magnolias."

"Everything we've done, we've had to fight for tooth and nail," he said.

10 shows per year at Lyric Arts

At the other end of the spectrum from Chameleon -- in every way -- is Lyric Arts, a civic institution in Anoka. On an annual budget of $550,000, Lyric produces 10 shows a year for a total audience of 32,000 (more than many midsize companies in Minneapolis and St. Paul). It operates out of a rehabbed movie house on Main Street, a facility many downtown theaters would covet -- 21,000 square feet with a rehearsal hall where students attend after-school classes, a sprung-floor dance studio, scene and costume shops and a spacious lobby. The theater itself is a 223-seat semithrust with comfortable seats.

Lyric Arts executive director Lin Schmidt says the theater would like to get more adventurous with show selection (an upcoming production is "House on Pooh Corner"), but the box office cools when edgier material is selected.

The place is so impressive that one almost forgets this is a community theater -- until the show starts. A recent performance of "To Kill a Mockingbird" was sincere and earnest, but undeniably stilted. Still, only a snide critic would suggest that the experience did not have meaning for the packed house, which included a group of about 25 "Red Hat" ladies who gasped at all the right spots. This felt like an important gathering on a winter's night in Anoka.

And Lyric board president Marian McCann makes an important point for suburban theaters in particular.

"This is still largely a bedroom community and when people get home in the evening, they don't want to turn around and drive back into town," she said.

That turns the argument on its head. Sometimes, it's not just about the actors. It's because there's an audience. That's another reason why there's community theater.

Narrator Kim Kivens and Ben Brandt as Joseph rehearsed "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat" at Hidden Valley Elementary School in Savage.

Chris Kehoe, playing the part of the Pharaoh in "Joesph and the Technicolor Dreamcoat," rehearsed with the rest of the cast at Hidden Valley Elementary School in Savage. Kehoe is a speech coach and works at Blockbuster when he is not performing with the Chameleon Theatre Circle.

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