A pair of professional actors is slowly but surely bringing a stage production to life this week at Harrison Elementary School in Brainerd, with the help of 60 fourth- and fifth-graders.
They did the same last week with a similar group of students at Riverside Elementary School in Brainerd as part of a two-week theatrical residency in Brainerd schools.
Lisa Muehlbauer and R.J. Lundgren of Prairie Fire Theatre have been conducting two-hour rehearsals twice a day this week at Harrison in preparation for a public performance of "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" at 6:30 p.m. Friday in the school's gymnasium.
The students will take the lead roles in the production, while Muehlbauer will play the Evil Queen and Lundgren the Huntsman.
R.J. Lundgren, an actor with Prairie Fire Theatre, instructed Harrison Elementary School students in the fine points of their roles in "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs," which will be presented to the public Friday. Prairie Fire actors conducted a weeklong residency at Harrison School in Brainerd. (Dispatch Photos by Steve Kohls)
Every fourth- and fifth-grader at Harrison has a role to play, as Snow White, the Prince, the Dwarfs, the Mirror, the Ravens, the Spellbinders, the Forest Creatures or the Townspeople, said Muehlbauer, an associate director with the theater company.
Prairie Fire, founded in the mid-1980s in Barrett near Alexandria, thrives on school-based art residencies across the Upper Midwest, offering 12 different productions targeted to K-12 students, Muehlbauer said.
If Barrett -- a town of 350 residents -- seems like an unlikely place for a professional theater company, that's because it is.
"Barrett is just a place where the costumes are hung when they aren't being used," Muehlbauer said jokingly during an interview this week.
"The people who started it were activists in the power line dispute, visited there and liked it," she said, "so they decided it would be a nice, quiet place to do what they planned to do."
Headquartered in a converted hospital building, Prairie Fire's actors and directors fan out in pairs across the Upper Midwest, offering weeklong residencies at schools and clubs throughout the year.
Founder Deborah Pick remains with the company as its executive director, with support from three other administrators, including Muehlbauer. Brainerd Community Education sponsored the company's activities here this week, for the second year in a row.
Muehlbauer is a Wisconsin native trained in music and theater at Wesleyan University in Bloomington, Ill. She joined the company in 1997 as an actor and was promoted to associate director earlier this year, she said.
Lundgren, her sidekick in the Brainerd residency, hails from Waterloo, Iowa, and earned a broadcast degree from Northwest Missouri State University.
Lundgren may be best known as a professional Santa Claus, "delighting children and adults" throughout the region during the Christmas season, according to the company's promotional materials.
The actors conducted auditions Monday morning at Harrison, then forged ahead with rehearsals throughout the week.
The students were expected to learn their lines on their own by Wednesday, Muehlbauer said, so rehearsals focus on the music and dance routines, as well as scene by scene blocking of movement, cues and other elements essential to the production.
The students are learning a "Snow White" adaptation by Prairie Fire's in-house playwright Daniel Nordquist, the actor-director said.
Based on a Grimm fairy tale, the musical-drama will offer an interesting twist or two, including a surprise ending, Muehlbauer said. The students will wear period costumes provided by Prairie Fire.
What's in it for the students? "Well, I'll tell you," Muehlbauer said, "they learn self-esteem, confidence, team work and get a professional theater experience, hopefully not their last.
"It has so many benefits," she added. "We see kids who are constantly getting into trouble in school, who don't listen to teachers in class, who are labeled as bad kids.
"Then they do something like this and it starts turning things around for them," she said. "They find out they can succeed and be applauded for their success. And that's a very satisfactory part of my job, too."
Friday's performance is free and open to the public. For more information, contact Harrison Elementary School at 829-4053.
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