Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Montgomery-based Child’s Play Theatre ignites imagination April 9, 2015

I LEFT MY CAMERA AT HOME. Then I spotted a bald eagle scavenging in an open field. Shot missed.

A few miles later, after reaching our destination, St. Patrick’s Church in Shieldsville, I realized for the second time that I should have hauled my Canon DSLR with me.

But my husband and I were attending a theatrical production. And, as live theatre goes, photography is typically not allowed. Plus, lighting is often insufficient.

Still, I could have gotten some shots afterward of the seven young performers from Child’s Play Theatre Company who presented an impressionable drama on a portable stage in the fairly well lit St. Patrick’s Fellowship Hall.

This photo of "I Never Saw Another Butterfly" is courtesy of Child's Play Theatre and was taken by Chris Vilt.

This cast photo from “I Never Saw Another Butterfly” is courtesy of Child’s Play Theatre and was taken by Chris Vilt. Cast members, left to right, are Dylan Vilt, Ian Hanson, Aimee Ilkka, Amber Simon, Olivia Simon, Carolyn Mikel and Lucia Rynda.

Upon arrival, I had no idea what to expect. I knew only that we would be seeing Child’s Play Theatre’s production of I Never Saw Another Butterfly, an introspective drama about Jewish children temporarily imprisoned in Terezin. Most of the 15,000 children held there eventually were shipped to Auschwitz and thus to a certain death in the gas chambers. Heavy stuff.

I thought an adult theatre troupe would perform the drama, even given the name “Child’s Play.” I wasn’t expecting seven Montgomery-Lonsdale-New Prague area performers ages 11 – 14 to take the stage. But they did. And the performance these youth delivered was deserving of the standing ovation we gave them.

First grader Kyle Ernste of Nerstrand Charter School painted this vivid butterfly which reminds me of Eric Carle's art.

First grader Kyle Ernste of Nerstrand Elementary School painted this butterfly, displayed at the Paradise Center for the Arts, Faribault, 2012 Student Art Exhibit. Image used here for illustration purposes only and does not reflect art produced by Child’s Play Theatre participants. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo 2012.

Director Andrew (Andy) Velishek wasn’t exaggerating when he suggested, in his introductory remarks, to have a tissue handy. The depth to which these five actresses and two actors played their roles was haunting and memorable. I felt their fear, heard their anger and desperation, experienced their joy in imagining flowers and butterflies. As a poet, I connected with the poetry they read. In Terezin, children’s art and writings were buried and later uncovered.

Art mattered in Terezin. Just like it matters to Velishek, whom I talked with prior to the play. He is passionate about theatre. He’s been involved in more than 80 productions with 25-plus years of acting and 15 years of directing/producing experience.

And he’s passionate about helping children, especially, to use their imaginations and to learn and hone the craft of performing. This stay-at-home dad and sometimes substitute teacher has three boys ages nine months to five, the oldest ones already showing an interest in performing.

Child's Play Theatre presented an Improvisation Theatre Workshop

Child’s Play Theatre presented an Improvisation Theatre Workshop through Shakopee Community Education in 2013. That resulted in a 15-minute skit that included vampires, angels, bullies, a wolf and a dragon. Photo by and courtesy of Andy Velishek, Child’s Play Theatre.

Velishek travels from his Montgomery home base to southern Minnesota schools, community centers, libraries and more with his educational theatre company that draws youth on stage. Past productions include plays such as Beauty Is A Beast, The Best Christmas Pageant Ever and Twinderella. He formed the theatre company in 2012 and, he says, is laying the foundation to keep community theatre alive.

Child's Play Theatre - Copy

His focus is on the kids. You won’t find a professional performer in the lead role with youth as just supporting cast, he says. If there are not enough parts in a script for kids, Velishek will write in roles.

You can hear the energy and passion in his voice, see it on-stage in the performances of those he directs. Butterfly even started a bit late because this director was so engaged in telling me about Child’s Play Theatre. Now that’s a man who loves what he does.

He teaches and encourages and celebrates success, noting to the audience that the cast of I Never Saw Another Butterfly was honored for Outstanding Achievement in Acting-Ensemble at the recent Minnesota Association of Community Theatres’ MACT Fest 2015.

When I the congratulated the cast of Butterfly for their performance at St. Patrick’s, their enthusiasm for theatre ran strong. Velishek is encouraging their creativity, building their confidence, teaching them that performing is a gift they can give back to their communities.

They’ve seen the butterflies and the flowers.

Child's Play Theatre includes all facets of a production, including creating and building the set. Photo by and courtesy of Andy Velishek, Child's Play Theatre.

Child’s Play Theatre includes creating and building the set. Photo by and courtesy of Andy Velishek, Child’s Play Theatre.

FYI: Here’s a sampling of upcoming Child’s Play Theatre camps/shows: Twinderella, 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. May 16 at Twin Oaks Middle School (Prior Lake-Savage Schools); Disney’s The AristoCats Kids, 7 p.m. June 5 and 1 p.m. June 6, Tri-City United Schools in the Montgomery Middle School Auditorium; and Twinderella, 6 p.m. June 12, Owatonna Senior High School. For a full schedule, visit Child’s Play Theatre website by clicking here.

All productions include week-long camps for kids K-12 with registration done through local Community Education departments. Show tickets are available at the door and are kept at a family friendly cost, Velishek  says.

Velishek also offers theatrical opportunities to adults through Limelight Theatre Company, a division of Child’s Play Theatre. Limelight debuted at Next Chapter Winery south of New Prague last September with a dinner theatre production of The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Abridged.

© Text copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling

Child’s Play Theatre photos are copyright of Chris Vilt and Andy Velishek.


From shy teen to confident artist, entertainer & business woman August 21, 2012

Jodi Gustafson of Big Shoe Entertainment begins transforming young Owen’s face into a Ghost Rider’s skull mask at the recent Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest in Faribault.

IMAGINING 37-YEAR-OLD JODI GUSTAFSON—also known as Lollipop the Clown, Jenius Strangeways or the proprietor of Big Shoe Entertainment and Jodelle’s Finery—as a once shy teen weaving down the hallways of Richfield and Coon Rapids high schools seems an impossibility.

But this vivacious and confident small business owner, whom I met at the recent Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest in Faribault where she was transforming faces through her stunning full face painting, reveals an adolescent timidness that contradicts her very public professions.

“I hated being shy,” said Gustafson, who recalls turning red if anyone so much as said “hi” to her. Determined to overcome that shyness, she eventually, and purposefully, chose a job with the United Way which involved public speaking.

“I knew I would never change if I didn’t get out of my comfort zone.”

That decision proved pivotal for Gustafson when a company wanted a carnival theme for its campaign but couldn’t afford to hire a clown. Gustafson volunteered, thinking clowning couldn’t be all that difficult. She was wrong, but continued anyway with the clowning which led to painting cheek art and then, with the encouragement of Cindy Trusty of Cindy’s Creative Celebrations, to full face painting and finally the official formation of Big Shoe Entertainment in the early 2000s.

Owen’s half-mask skull evolves under Gustafson’s skillful hands. She contracts her work for community and private events (such as birthday parties) and with corporations (such as for company picnics).

Today this mother of three (ages three to 17) operates two successful small businesses from her Bloomington home. Big Shoe Entertainment, encompassing clowning, balloon twisting, airbrushed and glitter tattoos, henna and crazy hair, but primarily full face painting, keeps her crazy busy, especially during the summer, with gigs throughout Minnesota, Iowa and Wisconsin. The pace slows during the other seasons.

An assortment of the make-up, all with FDA-approved ingredients and meant to be used on the body and face, which Gustafson uses for face painting.

In anywhere from one to five minutes Gustafson, with brushes and make-up pads and an array of colorful make-up, can transform a face into a work of art. She’s morphed five billion faces, she exaggerates, into butterflies, and also creates lots of flowers and princesses, and masks such as skull, dragon and Mardi Gras.

She especially enjoys painting “gore” faces, but seldom has the opportunity.

Owen sits perfectly still as Gustafson paints. Some kids squirm or won’t close their eyes, meaning she sometimes needs to adjust her work to eliminate painting around the eyes or needs to explain step by step what she is doing. Typically, Gustafson doesn’t talk while painting faces.

She’s always learning—from videos, books, classes and practice. That practice includes painting designs all over her arms and legs while relaxing at home in front of the television. Gustafson puts her own spin on existing patterns via color choices and painting style, defining her work as her own in a profession that’s becoming more saturated. Yet, most are not at her level of expertise, she says, in an honest, but not boastful, way.

Gustafson works with two agents and occasionally hires independent contractors to assist at events where she can’t handle the volume solo. She’s picky, though, and chooses only the best artists.

American Family Insurance of Faribault sponsored free full face painting by Gustafson at the recent Blue Collar BBQ & Arts Fest. Lines were long. Gustafson painted for five hours, averaging 20 – 25 faces per hour. If she returns next year, she’ll bring another painter, she says, to shorten those lines.

All of this is interesting given Gustafson early on was intimidated by full face painting. Clearly she’s not anymore as she works with the swiftness and assurance of a skilled artist. She always had an interest in art, she says, but not the confidence. She took art classes in high school and moved on to painting still lifes in acrylic on canvas, something she has no time for now.

Besides mothering and operating Big Shoe Entertainment, Gustafson also owns Jodelle’s Finery, specializing in Renaissance and Victorian “garb.” That’s her term, “garb,” referencing the durable period clothing she fashions, as opposed to “costumes,” for the Minnesota Renaissance Festival and steam punk events. (Steam punk fashion, since I didn’t know and perhaps you don’t either, is Victorian clothing with a technological, sci-fi twist.)

Even Jodelle’s Finery, in typical Gustafson fashion, has an interesting beginning. When pregnant with her middle child, Gustafson was feeling quite domestic and taught herself to sew. Her first project was a baby quilt. Today she’s advanced to sewing that garb for others and for her role as the street performer Jenius Strangeways at the Minnesota Renaissance Festival.

Yes, this once shy teen morphed into an actress too—role playing at the Renaissance and on the stages of community theaters in Faribault (where she lived until moving to Bloomington in June), Owatonna and Northfield.

“I don’t like to be still,” claims Gustafson, who before she took on the Renaissance acting gig two years ago, worked in shops at the Minnesota festival.

Owen’s skull face mask is almost done.

Yet, in the middle of all that public busyness of painting faces and clowning and acting, Gustafson says she still occasionally slips back in to the quiet, nervous and shy Jodi of years past. That happens, she explains, if she’s not role-playing and doesn’t know anyone at an event she’s working.

Mostly, though, she’s made a choice to get past her shyness, to be the strong and confident woman who paints faces, entertains and clothes entertainers via her two successful businesses.

Owen opens his eyes for the great reveal.

FYI: Jodi Gustafson doesn’t have a website for Big Shoe Entertainment, so don’t bother trying to find one. You may contact her via email at gusjodi@gmail.com or call her at (952) 215-4544. You can also check out her Jodelle’s Finery Facebook page by clicking here.

I initially developed this post idea to showcase Gustafson’s full face painting because I was so impressed by her work. But when I interviewed her about a week later and learned how she overcame her shyness, that became the real story. I hope you will be inspired, as I am, by Gustafson’s determination to overcome an obstacle, change and pursue her passions in life as her professions.

Gustafson transformed Isaac into a tiger at the Faribault festival.

Isabella, 7, of Faribault, became a dalmatian under Gustafson’s crafting. Butterflies and dalmatians proved the most popular paintings chosen by attendees at the Faribault fest.

© Copyright 2012 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Zombie horror at Faribault High School November 18, 2011

My son Caleb, pictured with other cast members, made his acting debut last night.

Thomas Simonson plays one of the lead roles as Gary.

I’M PUTTING IN a proud mother plug today for the Faribault High School Theatre Troupe’s presentation of Teenage Night of Living Horror.

You must, must, must see this suspenseful, horrifying and, yes, sometimes funny, production which will be on stage through Sunday afternoon.

To summarize the plot, a group of high school students are planning Ghoul Night in an abandoned farmhouse located near a cemetery. The farmhouse has a not-so-great history that involves a mad doctor, who happens to be played by my 17-year-old son.

Caleb makes his acting debut as Dr. Thanatos. He plays his part to the hilt, evil laugh and all. For someone who’s never acted before, he seems a natural. And I’m not just saying that because I’m Caleb’s mom.

All 44 cast members did a superb job in creating a production that held my interest for the entire 1 ½ hours. And I can’t always honestly say that about a high school play.

These teens genuinely appeared to have fun while trying to scare the crap out of us. (Sorry for using that word, but I couldn’t think of a better one.) I fully expected one of the 25 Zombies to creep down the dark theatre aisle and grab me. But my sister Lanae was sitting closest to the aisle, so they would have gotten her first.

The mood-setting music, lighting and sound effects added to the chilling, frightening atmosphere.

Honestly, folks, you must see this show. It’s that good.

Two of the 25 horrifying Zombies.

FYI: Performances are scheduled for 7:30 tonight (Nov. 18) and Saturday and again at 2 p.m. on Sunday in the Michael J. Hanson Performing Arts Center at Faribault High School.

I would not recommend taking young children or anyone prone to nightmares about Zombies. I would also suggest locking your car doors, especially if you’re driving past a cemetery on your way home.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


Presenting Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper at a Minnesota church April 19, 2011

The parking lot at St. John's United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is nearly full 20 minutes before the congregation's annual performance of The Last Supper Drama.

AS THE FINAL wisps of daylight dissipate into darkness, the church windows glow with the subtle warmth of welcome on this Palm Sunday evening.

Inside, worshippers are already gathering in the tightly-knit pews, eyes focused on the long table before them.

As I wait, seated in a pew tucked under the rim of the balcony, I study the stained glass windows, the suspended ceiling lights where lady bugs cling, the golden cross high above the altar.

Then, shortly after 8 p.m., after the hymn and the invitation and recitation of The Lord’s Prayer, the drama begins unfolding—for the 49th consecutive year.

St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is presenting its annual The Last Supper Drama.

The Rev. Lora Sturm provides brief historical background on Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper painting, the visual basis for the evening’s drama.

Leonardo da Vinci's painting of The Last Supper inspired the dramatic presentation at St. John's. This print was donated to the church in memory of Arnold Keller.

And then the lights fade, slowly, until a spotlight shines only on the cross. Soon that light and the organ light are extinguished, plunging the sanctuary into near darkness save for the remnants of daylight filtering through the stained glass windows.

A quiet reverence, a sense of anticipation, falls upon the congregation in the moments of silence and darkness before the actors begin filing into the church. Small clusters of men, seemingly engaged in conversation, without words to be heard, walk toward the table set with bread and a chalice and a bag of silver, although I am not sure whether the betrayal money was there initially or was carried in by Judas, the betrayer.

In darkness, these actors, these 12 disciples, pose themselves, replicating the positions da Vinci painted into his famous The Last Supper painting. But no one plays the role of Jesus, represented instead by an empty chair draped in white cloth.

The actors position themselves to replicate da Vinci's The Last Supper, except for Jesus, who is represented by the empty white chair in the middle of the table setting.

When the lights flick on, the frozen scene catches me off guard, even though I’ve previously seen the performance. The stillness fills me with a certain sense of peace, yet uneasiness.

I know what is coming. Words from Scripture that will tell of Jesus’ forthcoming death. The accusation that one of the 12 will betray Christ. It is the moment da Vinci depicts in his art—that moment when the disciples learn that one of them will give up their Lord to death.

Yet, in this script penned by a St. John’s pastor, Walter Rasche, 49 years ago, it is the depth of faithfulness that causes me to pause and look inside. Would I be so faithful as to become a martyr, to die, like the disciples, by stoning or crucifixion or beheading?

In their monologues, each disciple speaks honestly of his struggles, his lack of faithfulness, his travels to preach the gospel, and, then, the blessed words of a better and more abundant life found in following Christ.

The actors freeze as they role-play the disciples.

Five of the six disciples sitting to Jesus right with Christ represented by the empty white chair.

The disciple/actors to Christ's left, including first-time actor, 13-year-old Kyle Keller, the youngest cast member.

Judas’ words—that he regrets betraying Christ with a kiss, turning him over to the authorities for 30 pieces of silver—sting.

Judas, front, betrays Jesus with a kiss and 30 pieces of silver.

But the pastor’s prayer afterward encourages and uplifts me: “…hear your voice calling us to follow you…you call us to simply follow…”

And then her benediction blesses me with peace: “The Lord bless thee and keep thee…”

As the actors exit, as the worshipers file out of the sanctuary, I linger, waiting for the opportunity to shoot photos, which weren’t allowed during the performance. The men return, pose at the table, some of them telling me how they watched this drama as boys and now role-play as men.

This year a boy-becoming-a-man, 13-year-old Kyle Keller, plays the part of Philip, standing behind his father, Keith, who has assumed the role of Matthew. The seventh grader is the youngest participant ever in the St. John’s re-enactment. He was talked into playing the part, but says now that he’ll be back.

With two casts, the actors (most of them) return every other year to assume the same character roles. Some travel from the Twin Cities back to this, their home church near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park. They speak and gesture like seasoned actors, some growing beards for the occasion, others sporting fake, glued-on facial hair. Sharon Meyer jokes that she has the shaver charging at home, ready to shave off her dairy farmer husband’s beard. Alan Meyer has played the part of Andrew in the evening’s performance.

Occasionally, a new cast member like Kyle is recruited. He’s the grandson of Elsie Keller, who stands after the service next to a print of The Last Supper angled onto an easel in the church narthex. The Keller family gave the print to the church in memory of Elsie’s husband, Arnold, who died in 1999. On Palm Sunday the print is moved from its usual spot in the fellowship hall to this place of honor.

Elsie Keller, 85, stands next to The Last Supper painting given to St. John's in honor of her husband, Arnold.

The evening takes on special significance for this 85-year-old as she watches Thomas and thinks of her husband. Arnold played Thomas in the debut performance at St. John’s and continued with that role for many decades thereafter. Elsie, who was baptized, confirmed and married at St. John’s, as was her husband, hasn’t missed a single performance of The Last Supper Drama.

Her son, Craig Keller, the church organist, tells me that the drama originally was staged on a Wednesday during Lent. At one time there were two evening performances and even an afternoon presentation with the windows covered in black plastic to block out the light.

On this evening, some half-dozen church pews remain empty and I wonder why this place is not packed with a standing-room only crowd.

I’ve been deeply impressed with so many facets of the drama—by the level of commitment within this country congregation to continue a nearly 50-year tradition, by the professionalism of the actors, by the words they’ve shared that make the painting and Scripture and apostles come to life and, certainly, by the actors’ ability to freeze without barely an eye blink or a twitch. How do they do it?

The congregation's original chalice is used each year in the drama.

"Take eat, this is my body..." bread on the table during The Last Supper Drama.

FYI: Next year plan to attend the 50th presentation of The Last Supper at 8 p.m. on Palm Sunday. St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, is located about a 15-minute drive east of Faribault on Minnesota Highway 60 and then north on Rice County Road 24. At this point, I expect organizers may add activities to commemorate the 2012 anniversary production.

Credit goes to the following for their parts in presenting this year’ production: directors Shirley Little and Kelly Dahl; co-director Pauline Wiegrefe; organist Craig Keller; narrator Don Katra; prompter Steve Wille; lighting, Ben Heil; greeters Steve and Deb Wille; the youth fellowship ushers; the church council coffee hour servers; pastor Lora Sturm; and actors Alan Meyer, Grant Meese, Craig Mueller, Kyle Keller, Todd Lien, Thad Monroe, Keith Keller, Doug Spike, Marty Budde, Brian Little, Randy Tatge and Paul Meyer.

Thank you all for this exceptional gift during Holy Week.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling


The Last Supper at St. John’s April 14, 2011

Rhody Yule, a 92-year-old Faribault artist, painted this version of The Last Supper.

LIVING ART. A tribute to Christ. A contemplative event to mark the beginning of Holy Week.

However you view it, a dramatic presentation of Leonardo da Vinci’s The Last Supper by a rural church should be on your must-see list for the weekend if you live in my area of southeastern Minnesota.

For 49 years now, St. John’s United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township, has presented Drama of the Last Supper in the old limestone church set among flat farm fields and scattered farm places near Nerstrand Big Woods State Park in Rice County.

At 8 p.m. on Palm Sunday, April 17, as darkness falls upon the land, the sanctuary too will darken and the spotlight will shift to 12 men seated at the front of the church. Alan, Grant, Craig, Kyle, Todd, Thad, Keith, Doug, Marty, Brian, Randy and Paul will assume the roles of the 12 disciples.

Christ, if I remember correctly from attending a previous performance, is not portrayed by an actor.

When evening came, Jesus was reclining at the table with the Twelve. And while they were eating, he said, “I tell you the truth, one of you will betray me.” Matthew 26:20 – 21

The Betrayal, a painting by Faribault artist Rhody Yule.

So the scene unfolds with a monologue featuring each of the 12 disciples and their relationships with Christ.

“I tell you, I will not drink of this fruit of the vine from now on until that day when I drink it anew with you in my Father’s kingdom.” Matthew 26:29

Enveloped in darkness, listening to the somber words of forthcoming betrayal, worshippers experience the tense emotions that marked The Last Supper, setting the mood for a week that leads to the crucifixion of Christ and then, on Easter morning, to his glorious resurrection.

It is a thoughtful, serious drama presented by the local men, many of whom are repeat performers.

It is worth seeing, worth hearing and worth contemplating as Holy Week begins.

And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body given for you; do this in remembrance of me.” Luke 22:19

St. Johns United Church of Christ, Wheeling Township

FYI: St. John’s is about a 15-minute drive from Faribault. Take Minnesota Highway 60 east and then turn north onto Rice County Road 24. The church is located at 19086 Jacobs Avenue.  A fellowship hour, with food, follows the presentation.

© Copyright 2011 Audrey Kletscher Helbling