Ten years ago, Brainerd High School graduate Kari Frisch set out to fulfill a requirement for her master's degree in theater arts at the University of North Dakota. She was required to direct a production.
After producing 13 shows and writing seven of them for hungry community theater audiences in Thief River Falls, the Central Lakes College speech instructor counts her summer job a professional blessing.
Her success as a playwright and producer follows years as a performer and behind-the-scenes crewperson as a CLC student and alumna. A resident of Little Falls, Frisch hasn't let eight weeks of 200-mile drives deter the theater bug from owning her. The weekly drives lead to her summer love -- the stage.
In 1995, Frisch enlisted the community to help in her academic quest.
"There were so many talented people in Thief River Falls who seemed hungry for an outlet to express themselves theatrically," she recalled on the eve of her latest musical of mischief and mayhem, "NunFest."
The show revolves around trying to find a morally straight and spiritually pure alternative to the other festivities held in early August. The script makes references to the country music event, WE Fest, but never mentions it by name.
"It would have been a lot easier to use the resources available at the university for grad students," she said. "But deep in my heart I knew that wasn't what was best for me or for my community."
Little did she know her early effort would lead to a community theater legacy known as That's Entertainment and a close-knit troupe calling themselves The Little Sisters of Thief River Falls.
Her formula for a decade of stage successes has been enriched from humble beginnings witnessed at Central Lakes College. She had been impressed by the music of "Nunsense" and its small cast size seemed a perfect venue for dinner theater.
Applying her vision for a trial run in Thief River Falls, "Nunsense" was a magnet for sold-out performances. Soon thereafter, the degree requirement gave way to the theater bug and popular demand. She'd begun a permanent format for live theater in northwestern Minnesota.
"We did the first show and I'm happy to say it was a success," she said.
It was such a success that community members who had missed the production begged her to do another run.
"I was flattered at first, but when the comments continued months later, I started to take them a little more seriously."
Later that summer she revived the production -- again with sold-out audiences.
"But then, of course, people started asking us to do the next 'Nunsense' musical. I didn't need the college credits anymore, but we had had so much fun that it only seemed natural to do the next show."
What happened after that surprised Frisch. She fielded requests for the troupe to perform for local functions costumed in their nuns' habits.
"Anything done in a nun's costume is automatically more funny," she said.
"It didn't matter where or what they were planning," said Deb Jacobson, who plays the Reverend Mother. "We were being asked to sing at all sorts of events, like anniversaries and church socials."
So began the Little Sisters of Thief River Falls.
"We soon became the town novelty act," Frisch said. "We were not characters in a play, we were community members being asked to take part in community events."
Twice in her career she had participated in another nun show, "Do Black Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" Frisch decided to try something other than a nun show, although she admits it was never possible to leave the nuns behind.
She produced "Steel Magnolias" and "Love Letters" in Thief River Falls and she directed productions for community theaters in Crookston and Middle River. Then Frisch started writing her own shows.
She has brought to the That's Entertainment stage seven original musical comedies, two murder mysteries and two Christmas productions. She has taken two productions to an international theater festival in Manitoba -- "Nunsense II" and "Early Bird." The latter, which she wrote, revolves around bingo players.
The Little Sisters of Thief River Falls know each other well, saving character-development time as well as ego sparring. They know each other as Sister Mary Ann, Sister Mary Jane, Sister Jean Marie (Frisch), Sister Joy, Sister Mary Melody and Reverend Mother.
Cast member Sally Erickson (Sister Mary Ann) said, "We've actually become like family to each other. We've seen each other through a lot of things -- death, divorce, graduations and a whole lot of good memories, too."
The troupe interacts with the audience, lending some improvisational excitement to each show.
"We're the Little Sisters of Thief River Falls," Frisch said, "so it's only natural that we talk about local places and people." Inevitably, members of the audience are brought to the stage. "It's what people both love and fear -- they pray they're not the ones to get called upon but love watching others getting roped into it."
"NunFest" starts 6 p.m. with a half-hour social Saturday-Monday (plus a noon matinee Sunday) at the Thief River Golf Club. Reserved tickets, priced at $24, are available at (218) 681-6604.
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