Collings School of Fine Arts is a second home for performers in Brooklyn Park, MN

  • Article by: ANNA PRATT , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: May 7, 2013 - 1:44 PM

Tucked away in a Brooklyn Park residential area, the Collings School of Fine Arts gives actors, musicians and artists of all ages a chance to shine.

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The Palmer Lake Playhouse at the Collings School of Fine Arts has been home to more than 60 melodramas since the early 1970s.

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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.

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