It’s Lovely Down in the Woods Today

I auditioned for Summer Theatre because I had no classes over the summer and no job. I didn’t know how I was going to pay for my house. I needed to survive for 2 months. Nick and Monica were away with their dad and I had nothing to do. And I missed theatre. I’d been a dancer in junior high and had my first singing/dancing/acting role at 13 when I was the lead in our recital , which was loosely built around “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” I was Goldilocks and I introduced the show by singing and dancing solo to “The Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” In between numbers I came out and did short little monologues to connect the dances to each other and to our theme. I loved almost every second of it. I think I would’ve loved every single second of it if I’d been singing a song I hadn’t just learned that I felt had an odd rhythm. 

Definitely NOT me.

Anyway, my fate was sealed. Of course I spent the next two years in a hell of Adverse Childhood Experiences, but when I got back to North Dakota, I joined my high school’s theatre club: The Magic City Playmakers. Over at Central Campus, Tonia had also joined the theatre club; she was cast as one of the daughters in “The Egg and I.”  I was cast as the lead in the first show I auditioned for: the musical version of “Heidi.”  I got to share the stage with a live goat, lucky me! 

Stacey as Clara, Alphonse as the Professor, and that’s me on the right, as Heidi

I spent the last 2 years of high school hanging out in ‘The Pit,’ the green room/costume shop located behind the high school’s stage, with a group of creative, friendly, accepting people. We produced one show each semester and I was part of the costume crew for all of the shows. My friend Ronnie was cast as the lead in “Scapino.” His mother ran the community theatre in town. But after high school I didn’t join the community theatre or audition for Summer Theatre, or apply for the theatre program at the university. Instead I got married and disappeared for four years into marital hell.

The Pit

When I returned from Germany and got my first divorce, one of the first things I did was look up Ronnie and his mom and get involved with the Mouse River Players. My first assignment was making costumes for a children’s performance of “Frankenstein.” After that, I auditioned for every production except the musicals and the traveling Music Revue.  Tonia could sing. I could dance. Joyce had taught us we couldn’t do both. I was with MRP for 2-3 years before Dan convinced me to give it up and I spiraled down into a pretty bad mental health spell.

Cast and crew of “A Month of Sundays” at Mouse River Players. I’m the only one NOT looking at the camera.

But now I was getting my life on track and once again I turned to theatre.

MSU Summer Theatre was established in 1965, the year I was born. Back then their stage was under a tent in a parking lot. Since then it has grown and changed a lot–right now the amphitheatre which has housed Summer Theatre for decades is undergoing a massive renovation to modernize it for the current century. I was involved with ST for roughly a decade and I’ve been involved in a show or two here and there since then. 

Back when I was a company member, we did four shows in two months: three musicals and one ‘straight’ show, usually a farce. The crews work 9 am to 4 pm Monday-Thursday with an hour for lunch. At 4 there was an hour for dinner, then the first rehearsal started at 5 and ended at 8. The second rehearsal, for a different show, was from 8 to 11. On Fridays the crews worked 9-noon, then there were 3 rehearsals for 3 different shows at 1, 5, and 8, with a dinner break from 4-5. Saturdays and Sundays had the same 3-rehearsal schedule, and then we started it all up again on Monday. 

Me as Ado Annie in “Oklahoma!”

During production weeks, the last rehearsal was replaced with a performance. You couldn’t have a rehearsal at that time because anyone who wasn’t acting in the show was needed backstage or in the booth. Company members also ran the ticket booth, the concessions and acted as ushers and cleanup crew. The final week of the season, when only one show was left in performance, the crews would have half-day maintenance days. There would be one final strike that lasted as long as it needed to. The next day, a Sunday, our Artistic Director Kevin would throw us a barbecue, hand out season awards, thank us for a wonderful season, and hope to work with us again soon.

The next time ST did “Oklahoma” I designed and made the costumes but left the acting to the younger people with more energy.

Which he would do in two weeks when university started again. If you were involved in Summer Theatre, you were thrust together with the rest of the company practically 24/7 with time apart only to eat and sleep. Of course we ate together; with that schedule, you’re living off fast food and easily carried meals. North Dakota bars close at 1, so if you were lucky and got out of rehearsal in time, you could have about 1-½ hours of dancing before you were herded out the door. Or you could have house parties instead, which would last until everyone stumbled home exhausted or fell asleep where they sat–meaning we often slept together too. I have joked that the perfect dorm for Summer Theatre would be a large room with a floor covered in mattresses, a giant refrigerator, and several bathrooms.

The first friend I made in Summer Theatre was Janet and she remains one of my best friends to this day. I believe Janet was on the props crew and as usual I was on the costume crew. The two shops were right next to each other and the two areas overlap, so the props crew was often in the costume shop, and like so many of my friends, Janet decided to take me under her wing and make sure I didn’t get left out or lost. Janet was going to be attending the university as a freshman when the summer was over, while I’d be starting my sophomore year. I was nearly a decade older than her. She saved my life and I love her more than words can tell.

I have no idea what was so funny. But I do know that Janet has her arms around me.

The problem with having house parties as our main form of after hours entertainment was that most of the company were university students who lived in the dorms, or were still at home, or were living in tiny affordable apartments. There wasn’t room for everyone in those small apartments and of course, parties in the dorms or parents’ homes were out. But I owned a house right outside of town. That meant I could invite the entire company, and since I didn’t have close neighbors, we wouldn’t have to worry about noise complaints. That’s how ‘Parties At Michelle’s’ began.

“A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” I was a courtesan, but I can’t remember which one

I met many people that summer that became dear friends. Some are still dear friends. Some have drifted away, as sometimes happens with the passing of time. When school started, I joined Campus Players and they became my new–and final–urban family.  One more thing happened that summer.

The Hartnett Hall stage and house

The cast and crew of the last show of the season was sitting outside the amphitheatre waiting for the show to start. The last of the audience was straggling in and Janet and I were watching Aili and Kelly zig-zagging around the parking lot like weird little trains. Just past them, I spotted a guy walking up the hill to the box office and he was so interesting looking, I stopped talking to Janet so I could watch him.

Summer Theatre parking lot. We’d sit on those benches on the far left.

 He wasn’t a small man, over 200 pounds, I thought. But he was wearing a salmon-pink T-shirt that dwarfed him–it had to be at least a 5XL. Under the shirt his faded rust-orange cargo shorts peeked out, hanging to his knees. On top of the T-shirt, he was wearing a multi-colored patchwork vest, unbuttoned. On his feet were socks of two different pinks and brown ‘wing-tip’ Doc Martens. He had light brown hair that fell in spiral curls to his shoulders and on top of that hair he was wearing a rasta tam. The yarn pom at the top of the tam had come loose and was hanging down near his chin by a single yarn thread. The pom swayed in time with his floppy walking style. He slouched over to Aili and hugged her.

Janet told me, “That’s Aili’s brother. Bram.”

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