For pharmacist Mike Ausmus, the Coon Rapids Community Players, a theater troupe he helped found in 2011, is a passion project.
In many ways, it’s like a second job, but it’s rewarding to be involved in so many aspects of a production, he said.
Ausmus had acted in and directed numerous local shows, but “after you do theater for awhile, it gets to the point where you want to do your own art, do what you want to see done,” he said.
So Ausmus and his friends Tricia Carlson, also of Coon Rapids, and Sara Buechner, a St. Paul resident, started up the theater group. In launching it, they also saw a chance to create more opportunities in Coon Rapids for people to be involved in community productions, Ausmus said.
Right now, the company is rounding out its second season with the three-act play “Here Come the Brides,” by William D. Fischer. It runs through Sunday, May 17, at the Coon Rapids Civic Center.
Ausmus, the director, remembered his older brother playing in the show back in high school nearly 20 years ago, though he hasn’t seen it anywhere since then. “I remember laughing constantly throughout the show,” he said.
“Here Come the Brides” is set in 1950s suburbia. The story centers on two unemployed roommates, Jimmy Took and Bill Thompson, who live on a monthly allowance from Took’s well-off uncle.
Things start to go south when Took unintentionally leads his uncle to believe that he’s just gotten married. His uncle wants to meet the bride. Took, worried that he’ll be cut off once the truth comes out, tries to find a wife in a hurry. “All of a sudden, there are three people pretending to be his bride” when his uncle comes around, Ausmus said.
As the action unfolds, other characters wander in and out through the wide-open French doors. That adds to the absurdity of the show, Ausmus said.
All in all, “It’s a good, fun comedy. I don’t think it’s too much deeper than that,” he said.
A homegrown endeavor
Ausmus said the show fits in well with the company’s repertoire. It tends to go for upbeat musicals and comedies that are lesser known. “We try to produce shows we feel should be done and try to stay away from some of the more overdone shows that everyone has seen over and over again,” Ausmus said.
The troupe began with a couple of shows a year. Now, it has upped the lineup to four.
The Community Players don’t have a permanent home but have come up with creative solutions. For example, at the Coon Rapids Civic Center, the group brings in a portable stage and curtains, which create the feel of a proscenium in what is otherwise an open-spaced room, Ausmus said.
Initially, the rehearsals took place at Ausmus’ house, usually in the basement or the driveway. “You can only imagine how odd it was to have singing, tap-dancing Nazis dancing in the street when we rehearsed ‘The Producers,’ last fall,” he said. “The neighbors were out in the street watching us, flashing their lights. … It gets to be kind of comical.”
Eli Parker, who paints the backdrops at Ausmus’ home, has sometimes found himself dodging the actors during rehearsals. At times, they’d be dancing mere inches away from a still-wet panel.
Ausmus’s dog, Gretzky, who has been known to run outside during rehearsals, has become the group’s informal mascot.
After several shows, the troupe was able to get donated rehearsal space at Autumn Glen Senior Living in Coon Rapids and St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Columbia Heights.
Ausmus says it can be stressful juggling everything, and his house is brimming with props, costumes and set pieces, but “somehow it all magically comes together and works.”
A creative collaboration
Tanya Weets is one of the members of the 11-person cast. She moved to New Hope from Fargo, N.D., last August and landed a part in the Community Players’ production of “Half a Sixpence” earlier this year. It just so happens that she and Ausmus had performed together in “The Music Man” at North Dakota State University in 2001.
In “Here Come the Brides,” Weets plays Mrs. Duvalle-Smythe, whom she describes as a “gold-digging stalker from Jersey.”
These kinds of outsized characters are “juicier, more one-dimensional” than the more subtle types. “Everyone has things they’d love to say in real life, ways they’d like to behave but can’t. This character allows you to bring out that obnoxious side,” she said.
She’s glad for the opportunity to stretch herself creatively. The theater group offers “the freedom to explore our characters and try out what we think is best as a performer,” she said.
Ausmus has a vision for the shows, she said, but he’s “not so locked into his way that you can’t make a suggestion. He listens to everyone,” and he’s open to people’s opinions.
“It’s a collaborative exploration of the script,” which makes it all the more fun, she said.
Anna Pratt is a Minneapolis freelance writer. She can be reached at email@example.com.