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Pioneer Profiles: Paul Bunyan Playhouse artistic director looks ahead to new season

On Monday, Bemidji welcomed the new artistic director of the Paul Bunyan Playhouse with a bright sunny day, surely an omen of good times ahead. Terry Lynn Carlson and his wife, Elizabeth M. Desotelle, arrived for the auditions and had a quick bite next door at Keg and Cork first.

We met at the playhouse and Carlson talked a bit about why he chose each show for the upcoming season.

"The Spitfire Grill" has a different ending than the movie. It is an uplifting story of a young woman who has had a very difficult life and how she finds meaning and promise of a great future in a small town in northern Wisconsin.

"Ever since I first saw it, I fell in love with the music," said Carlson. "It has this hauntingly beautiful music with a folk-country feel with guitar, mandolin, cello, violin and piano. I saw this show about six or seven years ago and wanted to direct it ever since. The play actually won the Rogers and Hammerstein Award for Best New Musical when it played off-Broadway a few years ago."

"I really like Neil Simon and have had the honor of being on two national tours of "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" and "The Sunshine Boys," Carlson said. "It's a delightfully written story about two aging performers who had a long run together but no longer speak to each other after a falling out."

This particular play calls for more mature actors and Carlson said that he can't wait to do it someday with a good friend of his.

""Nice People Dancing to Good Country Music" is funny. I actually saw it at a play competition that I was judging about a year ago," said Carlson. "It's about two guys and one of them has a girlfriend whose niece has come to town. The other guy keeps harping on wanting to meet her. It's a lovely little slice of life. The first act takes place outside this bar with the two guys working on a pick-up truck and we actually have a pick-up truck on stage. The author Lee Blessing was from St. Paul originally."

"The Dixie Swim Club" is the story of five women who were all on the same college swim team. Every scene is five years later at this beach house in North Carolina. They have been meeting every summer since college. The first scene they are in their mid-40's, they age to their 50's and the last scene they are in their 70's.

"My wife (Beth) did it at the Old Log Theater in Minneapolis a few years back," said Carlson. "There was an outpouring of women's groups; they came in droves to see the show. Every theater that has done "The Dixie Swim Club" has been successful because it speaks a lot to women's issues; what women care about. Men coming to the show have a good time too. The authors of the play are the same writers for the television show, "The Golden Girls."

"A number of years ago, we had a friend who was ill and he had a couple of projects forthcoming that he asked me to pick up," said Carlson, "and one of them was "Suessical, The Musical.""

Carlson said that he didn't know much about it (the play) but fell in love with the music right away, it is a beautiful story and a great message about the universality of people and how we are all in this together. Linda Talcott-Lee will be the director and choreographer of this show at the playhouse this summer.

"It's one big production number after another so it's really a choreographer's show and Talcott-Lee was in the original production on Broadway.

"My first year here, I really wanted to engage the community," said Carlson. "and get some of the kids from here.

"I didn't want to have a first season with plays that people already know like "Arsenic and Old Lace." I looked at what was done in the past and people with whom I have worked before but I'm still kind of up in the air about that," said Carlson. "For the first time in years, we are having open auditions in the Cities and I already have 100 people who have called in. A lot of people who have been here in the past want to come back; people love it up here."

Carlson went on to explain that he appreciates the support the community gives to the playhouse.

"Doing summer stock is not like any other theater experience; we rehearse for nine days and then we open for two weeks," said Carlson. "What I love is bringing people in from inside the community, outside the community and some professionals. We create a new world together and everybody gains because we all learn from each other. There is a great energy doing summer stock."

When asked why he chose to come to Bemidji with his wife and two children this summer, Carlson said, "I am thrilled to be here and one of the biggest reasons is that this community seems so much more invested in what is going on.

"There is an active, lively board that is functioning and making this place go and a community that supports it. There are businesses downtown that are supporting it and that is a huge difference from some other communities."