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Francy that: Theater is a shining gem in the area

We had seen the flyers around town and the articles in the Pine Knot in the six years after we moved to Carlton County. We never managed to attend a performance of the County Seat Theater until our granddaughter was in a cast. Little did we know what an entertainment treasure we have in our midst.

"To be or not to be; that is the question," is the oft repeated line in the theater's recent production of "Women Playing Hamlet."

That has not been a question for the community theater group these past 37 years, according to Ruth Stewart, a founding member who shared the story of the group's beginning.

In 1987, a group of Carlton High School parents decided to raise funds for band uniforms by performing a play with and for the community. It was so successful that they chose to continue the endeavor, and in 1991 they organized as a nonprofit entity. Stewart said that Cheryl Kramer-Milder, an original member, suggested they name their organization.

"Gunard Ramstead is the one that came up with the name. Because we were in Carlton, he decided it was the county seat, and so we should be the County Seat Theater. We also had a name for our group and that was the Seat of Your Pants Players," Stewart said.

Since the school's theater space was also used as a gymnasium, the theater board decided after several years the group needed its own space. "When you have volleyball and basketball in there, our lights are hanging right above them. So, volleyballs are going over and knocking lights out. It was really hard to do a show during volleyball season," said general manager and longtime actor and director Joel Soukkala.

Stewart said the equipment the theater group bought during their years at the school remained there as a donation from the nonprofit.

"We bought their sound system for them and we bought a lot of lights for them. It was part of our nonprofit status. We did a lot of things for the school," Stewart said.

An empty church on Old Highway 61 became the group's new venue in 1999. They had to start from scratch.

"I was usually the sound and Karen Murphy was usually the light operator. We started out in the back room on the side, but we ended up in the bell tower, and we had to climb a ladder to get up there," Stewart said. It was the only way to see the stage unobstructed.

Stewart and Soukkala described how the church was sometimes filled over its capacity with chairs set up in all available spaces and no handicap-accessible bathroom.

The theater company continued to thrive and grow.

"We had a consistent set of shows and were being more successful each year. We were selling out at every show - seven shows at 80 people in the house," Soukkala said.

The group had some money in the bank, too. It was time to move.

The former Kingdom Hall in Cloquet was on the market and the group, with much support from a capital campaign and the community, was able to purchase and remodel the building. The Encore Performing Arts Center has been the home there since 2008.

The Covid-19 pandemic impacted the theater's ability to stage performances and the children and teen theater camps, but they were very creative in their adaptations. Soukkala said they offered parking lot shows in the summer where the audience watched from their vehicles. They produced streamed versions of some performances and radio shows. The children and teen summer programs continued outdoors following recommended spacing guidelines. Limited audiences meant less revenue.

Bills still needed to be paid during the pandemic. "Funding came through, and we received numerous grants," Soukkala said. Attendance at performances has not reached its pre-pandemic level, but Soukala said it has improved.

The County Seat Theater has competed in numerous community theater festivals over the years, even making it to the national festival in New York and representing the country at an international children's festival in Japan with their production of "Wiley and the Hairy Man." There are no divisions for the size of the groups or their operating budgets, which means they have faced troupes from major cities with greater resources. This past year they won the state title and placed second at the regional competition.

For those of us who are unaware of the cultural gem we have in the County Seat Theater, there will be more plays and opportunities throughout the year to check it out.

"Look at our season, look at our website and pick at least one show," Soukkala said. "If they've never been, come to a show. I guarantee nine out of 10 people will be hooked and want to come back."

When asked what has led to the theater's longevity, Stewart said: "I think the people. I think the Carlton area really needed something like this to draw the people in. People enjoy the theater."

Writer Francy Chammings is a retired English teacher and clinical psychologist who loves living in Carlton County.