In the early ’70s, Barbara Collings and her husband, Lloyd, built the Collings School of Fine Arts in Brooklyn Park in the style of a Spanish revival home.
The school’s 80-seat auditorium, which has a proscenium arch-style stage, is in the “garage,” while other rooms are furnished with antiques, vintage carpet, theater props and other knickknacks.
Back then, “The city didn’t want a building that looked commercial in a residential area,” Barbara Collings said.
As if living up to its architecture, the place today is a kind of second home for actors, musicians and artists of all ages and abilities, many of whom arrive at the school by happenstance.
The school, which offers private lessons and classes in music, drama and art, produces several original melodramas every year that are open to anyone. Recently, it staged a 27-cast member show called “Wild West Women.” Right now, the Collings School is planning its summer and fall schedule.
Besides the unconventional space, the Collings School has an unusual philosophy. While most theaters focus on the production, at the Collings School, it’s about the people, Barbara Collings said.
As one example of that, she writes plays around the actors who’ve signed up to participate. Nobody auditions, she explained. In the writing process, she tries to keep in mind different personalities. “Some people are more outgoing than others. I try to stretch them a little but not give them a part they can’t handle,” she said.
Besides writing the scripts and composing the music, Barbara Collings directs the shows and plays the piano during performances. Her husband acts in every show.
In the past, both Collings taught in the public school system. “I learned to see potential, what someone might not know is there,” Barbara Collings said. At the theater, “I push them little by little, and it’s amazing what they come out like.”
She tries to give everyone lines, so they feel like they’re part of the action. “Since it’s a school, it’s a learning experience,” she said. Whether someone is 9 or 86, “I get a big thrill out of seeing people grow and develop.”
It’s encouraging to see that when a show closes, “There’s an energy in here, people are so geared up. They don’t want it to stop. They feel like they accomplished something,” she said.
‘Avoid reality at all costs’
Barbara Collings has long loved melodramas, an old-timey art form that involves an over-the-top acting style; a hero, a heroine, a villain and other stock characters, and music.
“They’re family-friendly and they have a moral to them. They’re about good winning out over evil,” and they’re funny, she said.
For her, it’s an escape from reality. “I like to see people laughing, having a good time, with their cares being taken away.”
That line of thinking is taken a step further in a sign backstage that reads, “Avoid reality at all costs.”
Since the school started, Barbara Collings has written more than 60 melodramas, which are stored in boxes in her office.
The theater doesn’t do any published works so “we don’t have to pay royalties,” she said. Her plays are longer than traditional melodramas, with music that helps advance the story. Usually in melodramas, the music serves as just a transition, she said.
Even though her plays are lighthearted, Collings ends every show with a song written for her first script called, “One gets what one deserves,” which is a life lesson, she said. The ditty has become familiar to many theatergoers, who often sing along, she said.
A sort of ‘Cheers’
St. Paul resident Peteria Cochran, who studied theater in college, said she appreciates the theater for keeping the genre alive. “No one does melodramas anymore,” she said.
As an actor, getting the chance to work directly with a playwright is a rare treat. At Collings, “If you’re wondering what a character is thinking in a certain line, you can ask the playwright,” she said.
Cochran, who stumbled upon the theater in 2006, also enjoys the familial atmosphere at Collings. “A lot of people are in the shows, over and over. It’s kind of like ‘Cheers,’ where everyone knows your name. It’s a fun, supportive atmosphere,” she said.
As a testimony to that, during a performance of “Wild West Women,” Bob Knoll proposed to actor Carol Blowers.
Minneapolis resident Chris Dexter, who has acted, directed and even helped with choreography, has brought along his two daughters and his dad. “The most fun is backstage. We establish relationships,” he said. “Everyone has such a great time.”
Mark Thistlethwaite, who lives in Brooklyn Park, was looking for something that he and his daughters could do “to bring us closer together” when he found out about Collings.
That was in the early ’90s. Being at Collings has made a difference in “how we relate to each other,” he said.
He credits the school for helping shape his daughters into “strong, confident ladies.”
Also, for him personally, the experience has brought out a side of himself he hadn’t realized before coming to Collings, he said.
Dave Thul, also a Brooklyn Park resident, said he, too, has found that Collings is a good creative outlet for him. On top of that, the theater experience has helped him grow professionally. In his job as a manager, “It’s helped me to be more comfortable speaking in front of people,” he said.
The beauty of Collings is that “it allows people to do something they wouldn’t normally do. It draws the audience in, in ways that other theaters don’t,” he said. “I said to my wife one day, ‘What would it be like if we hadn’t met these people?’ It has changed our lives and moved us in ways we never would’ve imagined.”
For more information about the Collings School of Fine Arts, check out http://collings melodrama.blogspot.com/ or call 763-560-4230.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer.