donna fischer | the artist next door | march 2015
Shows that have highly regional content can run the risk of being too focused on the colloquialisms and quaint charms of its subjects and not enough on the universal truths that can draw an audience in. That’s not the case with the “Church Basement Ladies” musical shows. Amid the nice ladies in their cozy church kitchen, working hard on funeral lunches and talking up a storm, stories of family, love, and friendship emerge to remind us what is truly essential in life.
As the fifth installment, “The Last (Potluck) Supper,” nears its performance at the Meyer Theatre in Green Bay, the show’s producer and director, Curtis Wollan, tells me that his initial fear about the strong Minnesota flavor of this show not playing well beyond the Midwest was proven wrong. “The thing that we’ve noticed, and I was worried about that when we first started, that it wouldn’t translate anywhere else, but it’s a pretty universal story,” says Wollan. “It’s like so many plays that come out of New York are set in New York, and we don’t have a problem understanding them. It’s the same way with this. These books are written about people, people who give of themselves selflessly and are somewhat underappreciated but that’s their whole life. These women, the Church Basement Ladies – that’s their country club, that’s their whole life. And that takes place everywhere. Catholic churches, synagogues – it’s not just a Lutheran thing. We found that it played equally well in Upstate New York, and in California, and in Florida as it did in Minnesota. It’s not just a Midwestern thing. It’s about people who enjoy each other and care deeply about each other. So that was a really nice thing to see; and I was worried about that.” And while Wollan admits that a strong percentage of the audience is made up of women over 40, there are men and children enjoying the show, and probably remembering their mothers or grandmothers who served in their church’s kitchens years ago. “My biggest memory from my mom is, she was a huge church basement lady and that was her life, and it was her fun,” explains Wollan. “I remember going to church and listening to the laughter coming up from the basement. Those women just enjoyed each other. It was a nice memory for me, and a way to honor her and honor the women who just give of themselves so selflessly.” “Church Basement Ladies” is, in a way, marking a way of life that may be fading out. “You don’t see that much anymore because women are working,” says Wollan. “I went to my wife’s mother’s funeral in a small town in Minnesota and it was catered!” The concept for this play came to Wollan after he experienced some success with a show called “How to Talk Minnesotan,” based on the book by Howard Mohr. Wollan became acquainted with the authors of “Growing Up Lutheran,” Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, and eventually introduced “Church Basement Ladies” in 2005. “It just went crazy!” says Wollan. “For two and a half years we were doing 12 shows a week at 110 percent occupancy, and you wonder how that’s possible, well we got a double-cast, and we were bringing in stools and chairs into the theater and that was solid for two and a half years. We realized we had something here. We were touching people in an interesting way.” Written by Greta Grosch, part five takes place in 1979 at the height of the farm crisis and at the height of people moving on from the small towns and starting to migrate to the big cities. “It’s based on an Emmy Award-winning short that our sound guy actually wrote. It was called, ‘Delafield.’ That was his small town when he was growing up. He brought a camera crew to his church’s final potluck supper, which took place in the church basement. Everyone was invited back to this church because they had decided to close the church because there were no kids left and they had no Sunday school and the church was dying. The town was dying. What they decided to do was lift the church up off its foundation and take it to a museum. It’s kind of sad because people were really upset by this because not only were they losing a focal point in their community after 100 years but the crisis that was happening in the country was affecting them, and their way of life was changing.” Wollan assures me that the show is still a comedy, despite having some heavy tones in the text. The theme focuses on change and the need to move on in life. There are about a dozen musical numbers in each installment, and they’re not written just for the die-hard “Church Basement Ladies” fans in mind. “Our goal in writing these is that you don’t have to have seen the first couple of installments to understand what’s going on. You can jump in this show and right away see the love and the friendship of these people and then get into the storyline of it and see where it’s going. You don’t have to have seen the previous one. The material keeps coming because so many people have remembrances. There’s still a lot of material out there.” To be sure, “Church Basement Ladies” will entertain you with endearing characters, songs, and funny references to foods and customs that seem quaint by modern standards. When I seemed baffled by the mysterious drink favored in Lutheran church basements, Wollan even went so far as to describe the procedure for making egg coffee. Also known as “cowboy coffee,” this style of joe is actually made with a raw egg that gets wholly incorporated into the grounds. Egg coffee has even been served at the Minnesota State Fair. One visit to YouTube confirmed the drink’s Norwegian heritage, but did not instill a desire in me to try a cup for myself. I’ll leave that to those wonderful ladies in the church basement. “Church Basement Ladies in the Last (Potluck) Supper” will be at the Meyer Theatre on March 26. For tickets go to www.MeyerTheatre.org.
Donna Fischer is an avid fan of music, film and art, when she's not writing on these subjects you'll find her gardening or snowshoeing around Green Bay.