Kate McDonald

“We connect theater to the community” is a sentiment many theater companies may boast, but none mean it quite as literally as Sod House Theater. Choosing works that are germane to small-town communities, performing them in venues important to the community’s history, and working with local community artists, Sod House Theater’s productions are relevant, intimate, and immersive.

Artistic Directors Luverne Seifert and Darcey Engen have toured their unique productions across greater Minnesota for the last 8 years, performing in 20 communities alongside more than 300 community actors.

Taking place in non-traditional spaces such as parks, VFWs, churches and other important community sites, the performances – often physical, comedic, unpretentious, and infused with music – break down traditional barriers between artists and audiences.

The plays that Sod House Theater chooses to produce raise issues that are significant to the communities they are engaging. The intention is that the productions raise awareness, spark dialogue, and catalyze action around the issues presented.

“Our unique process and production style began with our version of The Cherry Orchard, a classic Russian play about the loss of a family estate,” says the Artistic Directors. “We shortened the play to 90 minutes (by playwright Sarah Myers) and performed it in an accessible, comic style.”

The play toured to historic mansions where audience members sat in the living and dining rooms, experiencing the play several feet from the actors. Actors moved about the house, using it as a stage set, sometimes running upstairs and yelling down to another character. At different points in the play, actors and audiences moved outside the mansion to present scenes.

This play about the loss of a treasured home was presented at a time when our state was experiencing a rash of foreclosures. “In the seven years prior to our production, foreclosures in Minnesota had increased 232 percent, resulting in abandoned housing and a population decline similar to the farm crisis of the 1980s,” says Seifert and Engen. “The themes of The Cherry Orchard—home loss, land development and the end of a way of life—resonated directly with the contemporary community issue of foreclosure. And the meaning was enhanced by the place where it was performed. These towns’ historic mansions carry with them a long history of how the community’s fortunes grew and sometimes tumbled.”

Sod House Theater envisions a Minnesota in which everyone has access to high-quality theater training and performances, and where theater becomes a means for community engagement, relationship building, problem solving, and transformation.

“We created Sod House in order to return to our rural Minnesota roots, and to give back to the communities that nurtured us by inspiring the next generation of theater artists to pursue their artistic goals. The vast geography of the state and the concentration of arts in the Twin Cities means that residents of greater Minnesota do not often have access to professional training and

performance opportunities. Sod House seeks to change that equation by involving community members of every artistic level in our process.”

Not only does their theater-making process gather community together, it reflects the lives and concerns of people across greater Minnesota.

“Our ultimate goal is that, after these communities experience our productions, they will be inspired to support theater productions in the future and embrace theater as a part of a reflective and thoughtful life.”

Explore MN Theater is a series produced in partnership with Explore Minnesota, Minnesota’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and The Minnesota Theater Alliance. More from Explore MN Theater here.

Discover additional stories about Minnesota theater.

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This story is made possible by the Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.