Grand Forks community theater scene welcomes new player

Grand Forks' already busy community theater scene is about to welcome a new player, the Empire Theatre Company, a joint venture that will be led by a young director with a lengthy resume and a mission to bring unique, thought-provoking shows to t...

Grand Forks' already busy community theater scene is about to welcome a new player, the Empire Theatre Company, a joint venture that will be led by a young director with a lengthy resume and a mission to bring unique, thought-provoking shows to the Empire's stage.

Chris Berg, 26, whose experience in theater began at Red River High School and has been built directing shows in Grand Forks, East Grand Forks and Fargo, will direct Empire Theatre Company's first show, the musical "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson," which will premier Aug. 7.

Meanwhile, another theater group, the Crimson Creek Players, which has produced summer musical theater in Grand Forks since 1998, is on hiatus this summer but could be back in 2013.

For the past three years, Crimson Creek has opened shows including "Rent," "Hair," "The Putnam County Spelling Bee" and "Psycho Beach Party." Many of its productions were produced and/or directed by Berg and Benjamin Klipfel, who was the executive director of Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre until he left Grand Forks for a position in Alexandria, Minn.

Kathy Coudle-King, who succeeded Klipfel as director of GGFCT, said the organization doesn't plan to do any more Crimson Creek shows, although it will produce "Ruthless! The Musical," directed by Jared Kinney, opening June 14.


But Crimson Creek will be back next summer, if enough money can be raised to produce a show, said Dick Nelson, one of the founders of Crimson Creek Collegiate Players 14 years ago.

"I think we're going to give it a good try anyway," Nelson said. "The big concern that I have is we have to put some funds together before we tackle a musical. I'd love to put together $10,000 before the end of the summer. It would be a good start."

Fundraising for Crimson Creek will start tonight with a concert at 7:30 p.m. at the Empire by the Shadows Tribute Band, known for its homages to 1950s and 1960s rockers such as Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison, Ritchie Valens, the Big Bopper and more. Tickets will be $25 at the door.

Empire's new company

A news release from the Empire Arts Center and its board of directors called the new Empire Theatre Company "long awaited."

"The Empire has long been a hub for the arts, and we are excited to contribute in new and exciting ways to the already-thriving Grand Forks arts community," said the Empire's new director, Emily Burkland.

Berg, 26, said the Empire wants to bring new plays and musicals to Grand Forks "that maybe haven't been seen or even heard of," shows that were accessible and new, that would make audiences think and want to discuss what they'd seen.

One of the first shows Berg directed at Grand Forks Fire Hall Theatre was "The Great American Trailer Park Musical" in July 2008, a musical comedy that was so popular it was brought back to stage for more shows in August.


Berg played Chicklet in "Psycho Beach Party" in 2011 and Rooster Hannigan in GGFCT's "Annie" in January 2010, but he likes directing best, he said, which he did for Grand Forks shows including "Lend Me a Tenor," "Lucky Stiff" and "The Producers." He's also directed shows at East Grand Forks Senior High School and worked with Emily Cherry on the show "Assassins" at UND in November. Berg, who plans to finish his college degree eventually, currently works at the UND Bookstore.

It was through Lisa Unkenholz, marketing director at the Empire, that the discussion about Berg's possible involvement in an Empire theater group arose, Berg said. When Unkenholz, Berg's former co-worker, asked him if he was interested in directing the Empire shows, Berg agreed to "give it a go," he said.

'Love of the game'

"Right now my title will be artistic director of Empire Theatre Company," Berg said.

"This is the very early stages of what it is going to be and what it's going to become. Right now it's for the love of the game."

Berg said the Empire had enough money to bring "Bloody, Bloody Andrew Jackson" (music and lyrics by Michael Friedman, book by Alex Timbers) to stage Aug 7-11. The show is a comedic rock musical that looks at the seventh president of the U.S. and focuses on populism, the Indian Removal Act, and Jackson's relationship with his wife, Rachel.

Other shows the Empire plans to bring to stage are "Red," by Josh Logan; "Bachelorette," by Leslye Headland; "The Receptionist" by Adam Bock; "Avenue Q," music and lyrics by Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx, book by Jeff Whitty; and "The Drowsy Chaperone," music and lyrics by Lisa Lambert and Greg Morrison, book by Bob Marti and Don McKellar.

The Crimson Creek Collegiate Players got its start in 1998 as a way for high school graduates and 20- and 30-somethings to perform in musical theater. Dick and Diane Nelson, Kathy Fiedler and Dan Lovas helped get the company going. Initially they hoped to work with UND or another college so that their players could receive college credit for their work, but that never happened, Dick Nelson said. Their first show was "Tune In Tonight," a musical revue of songs from the 1940s and 1950s. The last show in which Nelson was involved was "Oklahoma" in 2005


"All of us had real jobs and we weren't taking any compensation," Dick Nelson said. "It just got to be so much." Musicals are expensive to produce and fundraising was always a concern, he said.

Now, Nelson said, he's retired and has more time to devote to Crimson Creek, which has given a lot of talented local players -- Darrin Kerr, Misti Koop, Ryan Karels, Job Christenson, Michael Stromenger, Ann Christopherson, Daniel Dutot and many more -- a spot on stage.

Too much of a good thing?

With the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre, the Crimson Creek Players and now the Empire Theatre Company all in the game, could there be too much of a good thing going on in local theater? Nelson, Coudle-King and Berg think not.

Grand Forks can support multiple theater productions so long as they're not all trying to do the same shows, Coudle-King said. As for finding enough talent, the Summer Performing Arts program and the Grand Cities Children's Choir are training new generations of actors and singers every year, she said.

Nelson said he doesn't expect "a big competition" because he expects each theater group to be doing different things.

"I think they'll do fine and I think we'll do fine," Nelson said. "I know Chris (Berg) is talking about a different show maybe than what we're going to be doing. I don't think Chris will be inclined to do the more traditional things."

Berg said there was no such thing as "too much theater" in a community.


"One aspect of a strong community is a thriving theater scene," Berg said. "I think if people can see four or five shows a summer, that's great. If Fargo can do it, we can do it."

Reach Tobin at (701) 780-1134; (800) 477-6572, ext. 134; or send e-mail to .

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