Along the leafy lanes of the Washington County Fairgrounds, a mighty show is in the works: 62 teenagers last week immersed themselves in an arts adventure so sweet they’ll never forget their time together.
As members of 4-H, the youth development program, the teenagers were rehearsing a song-and-dance production that will take center stage at the upcoming county fair, which runs July 31 to Aug. 4 in Lake Elmo.
Twice a day at the pavilion they’ll perform “Kicking Up Dust,” a humorous musical in which ancient history comes alive. Characters include King Tut, Confucius, Helen of Troy, Cleopatra, Julius Caesar, Vikings, mummies, Roman soldiers and others plucked from history.
“Every single student gets to sing a solo or speak a line,” said Jessica Moes of Denmark Township, one of two university students who direct the production. “Getting a small moment to shine on stage is important to us.”
The latest Arts-In production, performed for 30 consecutive years at the county fair, was rehearsed during a four-day camp last week in an explosion of music, movement and color.
In the fair dining hall-turned-bunkhouse, members of the band practiced nine songs they will play during the half-hour shows. On a stage outside, dozens more sang and danced. Set design and technical work, reserved for the youngest 4-H members, involved sketching, painting and assembling.
“It’s a great benefit to the fair for us to be able to put on this show,” said Luci Gaertner of Hugo, the other director who also is a summer intern at Washington County Extension, which coordinates 4-H activities. Most of the county fair depends on 4-H, she said, and many of the kids performing in the musical also will exhibit animals at the fair.
One of them is Emma Persoon of Mahtomedi, who raises rabbits and will enter some of them in competition. She will be a freshman at Mahtomedi High School this fall, and for the musical, she plays clarinet in the band.
“You get to know people in our entire county,” she said of the teenagers around her.
“All of these people getting together make this performance a fantastic thing,” said Evan Bonneson of Cottage Grove, a 17-year-old senior at Park High School. He and Sam Verdick, a 15-year-old freshman at the same school, were singing and dancing on stage, and both of them have spent more than 10 years in 4-H.
Arts-In, while being an entertainment highlight of the Washington County Fair, also teaches participants to make decisions and to express their imaginations in a respectful environment where teenagers from seventh grade to college freshman work together to create their musical.
“It’s mostly about being confident in their own leadership abilities,” Moes said. “I think it makes them very comfortable reaching out to everyone.”
Greta Tank, who lives on a farm near Cottage Grove, is now in her third year in the program. “I can’t say enough about how this program has changed me,” she said. “It gives me shivers to think about, honestly.”
She will be attending the University of Minnesota this fall, majoring in agriculture, and someday wants to work in a job that promotes farming. “It’s a very big legacy in my family,” she said of 4-H.
Moes and Gaertner, who were both longtime 4-H members, say they’ve had little experience in music and theater. Moes is a senior in Middle Eastern studies at St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn. Gaertner is a senior in mathematics and philosophy at DePaul University in Chicago.
On a day last week, however, they were dancing with the Arts-In kids and looked natural in their roles as directors because they each had spent seven years as participants.
Once the county fair ends, the Washington County kids will take their musical on the road to State Fair, where they will perform it again in the 4-H Building.
All the 4-H kids work so hard together to produce a spectacular musical that some will be in tears by the final show, Moes said.
“So many memories, so much fun, so much sweat went into the show,” she said. “It’s a bittersweet ending.”