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Outdoor theater to culminate workshop

"Voices of Our Sister" during a rehearsal break for their production will open tonight under the big tent behind Paul and Babe. In front from left are Anna Ingalls, Audrey Stoltenburg, Lori Martin and Rachel Schied. Second row from left are Berit Dybing, Nicole Noraos and Emily Kivi. Third row from left are Bella Fontana, Nikki Anderson-Weir and Alena Hrabcakova. Fourth row from left are Elle Barrett, Lily Fulton, Jadie Hunt. Missing from the photo is Mara Hanson. Pioneer Photo/Patt Rall

"Voices of Our Sister World Wide" will open at 7:30 today, July 30, in the big tent on the Lake Bemidji waterfront behind Paul and Babe.

The performance is a collaborative effort of 14 young women, some on the brink of adolescence, and the three teacher/counselor adults who have come together in the hope of improving the status of women worldwide. All have found that many of the issues are right here in our local community. Issues like racial discrimination, eating disorders, binge drinking, bullying, sexual exploitation and the push to identify them in other parts of the world have led the group to recognize that some of the issues are universal.

Artistic director of the Mask and Rose Women's Theatre Collective, Cate Belleveau; Brooke Wichmann, peace skills instructor at Schoolcraft Learning Center and Central Elementary; and Alena Hrabcakova, therapist at the Red Lake Nation High School came together to present a workshop for young women this past week at the Mask and Rose Theater. The workshop was based upon the book "I am an Emotional Creature" by Eve Ensler, taken from interviews she has had with women across the world during a 10-year period.

"We hope that people in the audience, men and women alike, will reflect on the status of women in the world," said Belleveau. "We want them to celebrate all of the achievements, but also to reflect on the problems still out there and how do we address those problems."

The directors are also looking at the rite of passage for these young girls who are now transitioning into young women. Some have experienced a complex background, and they need to know that their voices are also important.

Part of that learning began with the first two days of the workshop, "Voices of Our Sister Worldwide," studying Forum Theater practices. The audience is invited in to speak or comment during a performance, one of the tenets of Augusto Boal's, Theater of the Oppressed.

Morgan Miller, who is in the eighth grade at TrekNorth High School, will portray a 13-year-old Chinese girl, Chan Yan, who works in a sweat shop in China making Barbie dolls. Morgan will speak with the voice of this girl and convey her fears of being caught up in the machinery and the lack of a vision for the future because she has been sold into "slavery" with this job. Another actor, Berit Dybing, who is from Walker and a student at Schoolcraft Learning Community, will portray Mary, a 14-year -old Masai girl from Kenya, who is being sold into "marriage" for some goods. The stories of the young women are interspersed with musical interludes or some ensemble messages. For example, one is "What I Wish I Could Tell My Mother" that speaks to mother/daughter issues of the fears, desires and questions about growing up in this society.

But there are other young women in this group who have not only survived but defeated life changing and threatening episodes. One such young woman is Elle Barrett, a junior at Red Lake Nation High School, who has been writing for as long as she can remember. She will tell her story during the production. Elle was witness to a murder in Red Lake, lost two of her best friends within a year's time, as well as a relative, and turned to binge drinking and substance abuse to dull the pain and depression. Elle will tell her story and how she now tries to be a role model for younger girls in the Red Lake Nation.

Another participant is 19-year-old Audrey Stiltenburg, who suffered traumatic brain injury at the age of 13 months of age and is now finishing up an associate degree in liberal arts at Bemidji Statet University. Audrey is paralyzed on the right side of her face, deaf in that ear and has little-to-no feeling on her left side. The doctors gave the prognosis that she would never get past an infantile state mentally or physically. Audrey has proven them wrong and has had to endure bullying from middle schoolmates because of obvious physical differences. Audrey will portray a Palestinian girl who watched her boyfriend in the act of being a suicide bomber in a café and then has to decide if she will also commit the same act herself.

All of the young women in the workshop are proud and excited to show their parents and the rest of Bemidji how they empathize with their sisters worldwide and nearby.

Other family members are Rory Martin Jr. and Rory Martin Sr., who are did behind-the-scenes work in preparation for the move to the big tent and Lori Rose, who is the youngest member of the workshop.

Additional performances are scheduled to begin at 7:30 p.m., Saturday, July 30 and 31, and a 2 p.m. matinee July 31 and Aug. 1 under the tent on the lakefront. The workshop and productions are underwritten by grants from Region 2 Arts Council, the Women's Fund of the Northwest MN Foundation and the George W. Neilson Foundation.