Finding Minnesota: Woodbury Community Theatre Offers Spectacle, Escape

WOODBURY, Minn. (WCCO) – What started with a small play to help the local PTA in 1975 has since grown into a large-scale community theater, performing in a multi-million dollar venue.

Woodbury Community Theatre provides an affordable night out for the audience and a memorable escape for the artists.

Many of the performers have day jobs as bankers, doctors or teachers in the Woodbury area, but devote up to six weeks in their off-time to rehearse for an upcoming show.

Lenore Weir, who has been with the group since 1976, is now directing a cast of 55 in seven performances of Les Miserables.

“This is the largest, the most spectacular show we’ve ever done,” she said. “It has the largest set we’ve ever built.”

Dr. Tom Musser is a Woodbury dentist who’s not only volunteering his acting talents, but also crafting some acrylic “ugly teeth” to help cast members look like the poor beggars they’re portraying.

“Usually, I try and make teeth pretty,” he said. “In this case, I’m kind of going the other way.”

Musser has been involved with church choirs and some barbershop performances, but said he only got the acting bug in the past few years.

“It’s fun to be on stage, and it’s fun to do something where you can get recognized,” he said. “But above all, I think, for me, it’s meeting some great people.”

“We draw a lot of people that in their fantasy world they would love to be professional actors,” Weir said, “but they also want to make a living. And that’s hard to do, as we all know.”

Robert Fischer, 35, enjoyed acting and singing as a student, but went into the banking field so he could support a family. He now has a wife and six kids, and thought his performing days were over until Woodbury’s role of Jean Valjean opened up.

“The favorite part about acting for me is being able to put on a character, put on someone that I’m not and portray that,” Fischer said. “You don’t get to do that when you’re selling mortgages.”

Woodbury Community Theatre now gets to use the Merrill Community Arts Center, with a modern 900-seat theater at East Ridge High School. It’s a far cry from the early decades when actors performed in churches or church basements.

Tom Vaaler, 76, has been there for all 40 years, with his wife, kids and now grandkids occasionally joining him.

“My motivation is to see live theater come for my children, my grandchildren, my best friends, my neighbors,” he said. “I just want them to have the opportunity to see the difference between live theater and not-so-live.”

The Arts Center became possible in large part because a woman named Dorothy Merrill left more than $2 million in her will, to Woodbury’s arts community.

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