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15 years: Willow River Players continue to put on a show

Rehearsals are continuing as the Willow River Players prepare for their upcoming play.

George Gfall stood outside a barn in Roberts, waiting for his cue to go onstage. The director sat in a camp chair near the entrance; the other actors played the scene in front of makeshift slats that served as the rehearsal hall.

"We originally wanted a theater of our own," Gfall said. "We had all our sets in different storage units, then Cindy (Brown, former president of the Willow River Players) volunteered this space."

Gfall is appearing in the Willow River Players' current production of "The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940." He's lost track of how many shows he has been in, but as one of the founding members of the group, he has been involved in 15 years of productions.

He, along with Bill Buell, Barb Erickson and Mary Jensen, were the original board members of the WRP back in 1996.

"Most of us worked for Stage Door (now the Old Gem Theater) or were Friends of the Stage Door," explained Gfall. "We did adult roles in the for-profit children's theater. But the owner couldn't support adult theater, so we started our own."

He recalls they held a garage sale, brat stand, Fun Fest food booth and a golf outing to get the funds to start their group. As a non-profit, they also applied for grants to purchase the performance rights for shows and stage equipment.

"We had no interest in making money, we just wanted to put on performances as adults," he said.

The first WRP production was "Agatha Christie Made Me Do It" in 1996, a comedy performed at the rented Stage Door facility. The following year they put on their first dinner theater production, "The Saga of Sagebrush Sal."

"That wasn't really that good," Gfall admitted. "But we made money because we didn't have a lot of royalties."

Not wanting to be tied to the Stage Door, they held shows wherever they could find affordable space, such as the Art Barn in Amery, and the Knights of Columbus Hall in New Richmond.

They began to establish themselves in the musical genre with such shows as "Give my Regards to Broadway," "South Pacific," "Pump Boys and the Dinettes" and "The Wizard of Oz."

"We wanted to do as many musicals as possible, with a large cast," said Gfall.

In addition to shows, they also had a show choir.

"It was basically a bunch of people who like to sing and put on concerts with a little choreography," said Carla Kelley, current production manager for WRP. "It was around since the beginning, but sort of faded away around 1998. I'd like to revitalize that."

Another wish of the WRP is to get the community more involved - be that in performance, backstage or audience.

"We'd really like to work on incorporating kids into one show a year," said Sue Franchere, board member and current cast member. "We also like to get high school kids involved in backstage work so they can learn the ropes."

David Lee has worked in the theater for 25 years, mainly backstage. In the last couple of years he decided to try his hand at acting in such plays "Dearly Beloved" and the current "Musical Comedy Murders of 1940."

"People like big musicals but there is a lot to putting on a show that the public doesn't know," said Lee.

The group has given back to the community in the forms of scholarships and its annual free holiday concert in December, where they collect donations for the food shelf.

Within the last few years, they settled into performances at the New Richmond Little Theater in the building now used as the middle school.

They also held dinner theater performances at Ready Randy's banquet facility in southern New Richmond.

Chad Leonard, current president of WRP, said he eventually would like to see the group have their own space.

"I'd love a Main Street storefront," said Leonard. "We could use it as a rehearsal space, meeting space and ticket office."

He said he doesn't see the need for a theater since they have an agreement with Community Education to use the new auditorium at the New Richmond High School.

"We're looking forward to using the NRHS - it looks awesome," said Stephanie Lewis, newest member of the WRP board. She was cast in the fall 2010 production of "Dearly Beloved" and again in the 2011 dinner theater of "Nunsense II."

"The Musical Comedy Murders of 1940" in September will be the first WRP production held in the state-of-the-art auditorium. In honor of their 15th anniversary, they are offering tickets at $10.

"This current production is fantastic," said Gfall, as he put down his script and headed for the rehearsal stage. "It's a very strong cast."