Lined up along a driveway on a quiet residential street in St. Anthony, seven grown men and women pound pairs of curtain rods into the asphalt, chanting “toot-toot,” “clang-clang” and “chug-chug.” Then, at the direction of a guy with a guitar, they start twirling the rods like a band of wayward majorettes.
“Why do I think I’m about to lose an eye?” quipped Luverne Seifert between toots and chugs. Despite appearances, he and his cohorts were of sound mind. They were simply beginning rehearsal for Sod House Theater’s fourth foray into their unique version of that grand tradition, the summer traveling show.
“Hoopla Train (with Yard Master Yip and his Polkastra)” will be staged at more than a dozen historic ballrooms throughout Minnesota beginning next Friday. Billed as a “Lawrence Welk meets ‘Hee-Haw’ ” affair, it features vaudeville-style sketch comedy, singing, music by the Chmielewski Funtime Band, and a “talent search” for which locals can audition.
“And feats of wonder!” added cast member Elise Langer. “Don’t forget the feats of wonder.”
Founded by Seifert and his wife, Augsburg theater professor Darcey Engen, Sod House specializes in what might be called professional productions with a community-theater vibe. They make a point of encouraging interactivity in the towns they visit, whether it be giving locals a chance to act a bit, or audience participation. The productions are site-specific and chosen to resonate with the historical narrative of small towns.
“Hoopla Train,” written by well-known Twin Cities actor Jim Lichtscheidl (the man with the guitar, aka Yard Master Yip), is a departure from the first two shows Sod House has taken outstate, both classic plays with themes that resonate with small-town life. The first, “The Cherry Orchard,” produced in 2011 and 2012, revolved in part around the prospect of losing a family’s farm and livelihood, and was rehearsed and staged in private homes. The other, 2013’s “The Visit,” explored the sometimes shocking measures that people might take to save their close-knit communities.
“Hoopla” is more lighthearted in tone, but was inspired by sentiment and historic significance.
Engen said she began researching ballrooms after an experience with a nursing home resident in Crookston named Evelyn.
“We were doing theater exercises to help people with their memories,” Engen said. “Evelyn recalled dancing in her youth at the nearby Maple Lake Pavilion. She got up and danced with another resident, and said, ‘Now I can tell my son I got to dance again at the Pavilion.’ ”
That got Engen thinking about the importance of ballrooms to the social fabric in the years after World War II.
“They were the Facebook of their time,” she said. “All the big acts went through and played at them. We wanted to stir up those old friendly ghosts, from a time when people went out and got together and danced.”
Lichtscheidl, a self-described thrift-shop junkie, came up with the idea for the curtain rods, which really, somehow, do sound like a train chugging along when the extending parts slide up and down. He too feels a personal, familial connection to the show, he said, because his parents were big fans of ballroom dance and even owned the Silver Tap Ballroom in Lino Lakes for a time.
“My whole family was active, we were ballroom groupies who would follow different dancers,” he said. “We had our own little bluegrass band, too.”
Thanks in part to more than $120,000 from the Minnesota Legacy Fund, Sod House is staging the new show a record 23 times, at 14 venues.
“It’s a strong project, because it’s very participatory, so people in these communities have a chance to work with folks who are routinely on prominent stages like the Guthrie,” said Sue Gens, director of the Minnesota State Arts Board, which administers the Legacy money. “And Luverne matches the topic with the place the work will be shown so the story is relevant in a way that really engages people.”
Langer, a repeat cast member, said that despite the extra effort and hassle required to move around so much, it’s worth it.
“I love that connection you get with the community,” she said. “There’s no fourth wall, the lights don’t go dark, they’re a part of the show.”
Seifert wants to see “4-year-olds, their parents and their grandparents all laughing at the same time. That’s vaudeville.”