BEMIDJI -- The Paul Bunyan Playhouse will break a long-standing tradition when it opens its 51st annual summer theater season next month.
For the first time in anyone's memory, the Bemidji theater has hired a separate director to guide each of the season's six professional stage productions.
In the past the historic downtown venue relied on a single artistic director to head the productions, said Karen Millar-Moe, the playhouse's executive director.
"We decided to try a new experiment this year," Millar-Moe said in an interview this week, "and hire a different director for each production."
Most of the directors have previous experience with the playhouse, including Greg Gasman, a Bemidji resident who will guide the season opener, "The Milk Train Doesn't Stop Here Any More."
The Tennessee Williams drama will run June 13-17, followed by five other productions through Aug. 24.
Gasman, who has appeared as an actor in numerous playhouse productions, runs a local community theater troupe that specializes in cabarets with a Scandinavian twist, Millar-Moe said.
A former loan officer with a Bemidji bank, Millar-Moe assumed the reins of the playhouse as full-time executive director in 1993, a year after it moved to the newly renovated Chief Theater.
The playhouse, a nonprofit organization, started its professional summer stock theater productions more than half-century ago in a converted carriage house on Ruttger's Birchmont Lodge on Lake Bemidji.
Created mainly as an attraction for lodge customers, the productions now appeal to a broad base of theater fans throughout the region, thanks to the move to the Chief Theater, Millar-Moe said.
"We try to reach a family audience," she said, "offering something for everyone. It really hurts attendance if a production is not appropriate for the whole group."
This year's lineup -- selected with the help of the directors --- includes a drama, a mystery, a musical, a comedy and a children's production.
Peggy O'Connell, a Twin Cities resident who once headed a children's theater in Seattle, will direct the "Schoolhouse Rock Live! Jr." production June 20-July 1.
The musical geared for young audiences is based on the Emmy Award-winning television show by the same name.
Gerald Koch, a Los Angeles-based director, will helm "A Thousand Clowns," a Broadway-style comedy that runs July 5-15.
The balance of the season includes: "Totally Necessary Man," directed by Susan Oltmanns-Koozin, July 18-22; "Crimes of the Heart," directed by Warren Bowles, July 25-Aug.5; and "Annie Get Your Gun," directed by Robbie Mancina, Aug. 8-24.
With the exception of a couple of matinees, all performances start at 8 p.m.
The professional casts were selected through Twin Cities auditions conducted in January and February. During the production run, the cast lives in dormitories at Bemidji State University.
Tickets for individual performances are $13 for adults, $9 for students 18 and under, and $6 for children under 12. Season tickets also are available at $42-$60. The Chief Theater seats about 320.
For reservations, call the box office at (218) 751-7270.
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