BEMIDJI - Four old friends met for lunch last week to celebrate and reminisce about the last 30 years of theater in Bemidji and environs.
They also met to bid a fond farewell to a man who has been a fixture in the arts since 1982 when he was cast in four different shows for the Paul Bunyan Playhouse.
If you have not guessed who that man is by now, here's a hint: He was the actor who portrayed a memorable Santa Claus in "Miracle on 34th Street" and Marley's ghost in "A Christmas Carol," both at the Playhouse.
He's Greg Gasman, who will be moving to Duluth this week. In addition to his theater work, Gasman has been general manager of Harmony Food Co-op for 15 years.
"Actually I was at the Playhouse for four summer seasons," said Gasman. "I read for Michael Brindisi and he hired me. You know, the guy who's at the Chanhassen Dinner Theatre. We stayed after that first summer season, my girlfriend, Kay, and I decided that Bemidji was where we wanted to start a family so we got married that November and raised our two boys here in Bemidji."
It's an exciting time for Gasman as he is returning full-time to what he loves to do most in the world: theater. It has taken him 30 years to get back to his dream to act; a dream that began in 1977 as a young actor living in Los Angeles.
After leaving California, Gasman relocated to Minneapolis and then came to the Paul Bunyan Playhouse for a summer season. The burning idea of having a local community theater company here in Bemidji was realized when he got in touch with a fledgling group of actors who had recently done a live radio broadcast of "A Christmas Carol."
"The first productions of Bemidji Community Theater were two one-act plays and we did that for three years," said Gasman. "I directed them all and at the same time directed at the Val Chatel Dinner Theater near Lake George. Todd Haugen, Judy Amundson and I started the Headwaters Players in the late 1980s. We toured three or four different shows in Bemidji and the surrounding small towns. We took our shows to all the casinos, even up to Fortune Bay Casino (in Tower, Minn.)."
In 1992, while still at the PBP, he started the Listening Winds Theatre with the touring show, "Turtle Island Blues," which played to audiences from Duluth to Grand Forks, N.D., for five years in 24 different theaters.
Although Gasman has directed or taught theater in every school district and for almost every non-profit in the area, his most loyal friends and actors seem to be in his hometown of Bemidji.
The friends admitted during that lunch: "If it hadn't been for you (Greg), I would not have done theater."
One of those men is Dave Moffett, who has been in almost every Gasman production for the last 30 years.
"Greg is very perceptive when it comes to casting a show," said Moffett. "He sees the potential in people, he had the confidence in me that I didn't have at the time. His approach is low key but the experience is impactful in stretching one's ability.
"I will always remember his wild-eyed energy, which drew us in, his loud and almost sappy laugh which echoed infectiously, his joy of theater reflected in the way he treated others and looked at life. Those who knew him are different and better for it and he will be missed and that is how it should be."
Gasman agrees that finding the actors is fun and watching them come alive on stage and seeing what is coming out of them is gratifying.
"Greg likes to shape a show, layer by layer, adding and refining it each time your rehearsal," said Kevin Cease. "I call it GBD's (Greg's bits and directing) he keeps adding these brilliant bits to a scene to make it dimensional, funny or poignant."
Gasman wants to do more intimate theater like German dramatist Bertolt Brecht, who once said, "What happens to the hole when the cheese is gone?"
"Brecht would want the audience to see the technical aspects of a show at first, but it all fades away so the audience can focus on the actors and the story," Gasman said. "I want to do more intimate theater like Brecht. I want to do stand-up comedy again. I want to investigate the theater scene in Duluth and go to auditions in Minneapolis.
"It's been too long getting back to my craft. And, finally, I want to start a theater company in Duluth and direct more plays like "Death of a Salesman," "Of Mice and Men" or "Wait Until Dark" that we did here with KG Entertainment. Doing "Twelve Angry Men" at the courthouse was an amazing experience for the audience - it was so real."
Bemidji bids farewell to the 2009 Friend of the Arts recipient, or shall we say, "au revoir," for who knows when he will appear on the playbill again at the PBP.