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Focus group explores Paul Bunyan Playhouse topics

Smiles all around for the Paul Bunyan Playhouse crew and facilitator Rita Albrecht after the first focus group meeting last Tuesday at the historic Chief Theater: (bottom) board chair Becky Lueben and Albrecht with business manager Janet Brademan and artistic director Terry Lynn Carlson in the truck. Patt Rall | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI – Members of the Paul Bunyan Playhouse Board, business manager Janet Brademan and Artistic Director Terry Lynn Carlson met with invited guests in a focus group Tuesday night at the historic Chief Theater.

The guests included long-time PBP subscription holders, coupon book holders and members of local media who were all asked three questions by moderator Rita Albrecht.

Albrecht was invited by board member Natalie Grosfield to moderate a focus group of theater-goers, some of whose loyalty to the PBP dates back 50 years.

After setting the ground rules for the group, which included not monopolizing the conversation and moving on when a subject has been sufficiently covered, the group was asked the first of three questions by the moderator.

“What is your favorite PBP production?” garnered titles from shows still at the original site of the playhouse, Ruttger’s Birchmont Lodge, like the comedy “Three Men on a Horse” and “Fiddler on the Roof,” to this season’s “Spitfire Grill” and “Seussical The Musical.” The majority of people chose a musical, with comedy a close second and drama coming in last.

The second question was “What makes the Playhouse special?” The answers ranged from the longevity of a summer stock theater in a small northern Minnesota city to the professionalism of the casts. Some offered that they liked to see the blend of local talent with the professional actors from the Twin Cities. Others said that the ticket price is remarkable considering the professional talent and technical expertise of the backstage workers.

Two themes emerged from the answers: the quality of productions and how the Playhouse is instrumental in building community among the downtown business establishments, citizens, visitors and summer residents.

Lois Jenkins commented on the magic of live theater that she had the chance to experience when she took her grandchildren to see “Seussical.”

The third question asked what would make the theater experience better for the audience.

Sound and all the issues surrounding it seemed to dominate the answers, because there are hearing challenges for the audience. Some admitted to needing to wear hearing aids while others spoke to the issue of singers competing with the musicians and how the sound changes within the venue depending upon where one sits.

Others spoke about the enhancements to the theater: expanded box office, additional insulation that helps to keep the theater temperature stable and “it smells better.”

However, it was the renovations that caused a glitch in the timing of printing and mailing tickets last spring. Most of the patrons there complained about not getting their tickets in a timely manner and wondered if that problem could be addressed. But they were also complimentary of the box office staff, saying that the staff members were pleasant, efficient and presented a professional appearance.

Some of the ideas from the group that the board will examine are related to internal and external issues and how they are sometimes the same.

Patrons asked if downtown eateries could be open for after-show libations or desserts and coffee. In keeping with that suggestion, some asked if the evening show time could be moved up to 7:30 p.m. instead of the current 8 p.m. Patrons also asked if there be better partnering with the downtown businesses to stay open later on show nights. Chocolates Plus, Brigid’s Pub and Book World already are open during shows, and the new owners of Tutto Bene will be asked to try being open later for the after-show crowd.

Others asked if the season could be restored to six shows a summer as they are sorry to have no more plays to attend this year. They added a request for more dramas. Some questioned why the publicity and/or marketing of the PBP is not reaching enough people. Lou Buron of Paul Bunyan Broadcasting spoke to the need for a specific person to contact for publicity. And he said the station does its best to promote the summer season with commercials and interviews with actors and directors.

The board was asked to look at upgrading the lavatory to accommodate a raised toilet and to make handicapped seating more accessible. Someone suggested an entirely new venue with a thrust stage rather than the present proscenium so the audience could be closer to the action.

Another suggestion that interested all was the need for a volunteer base headed by a paid coordinator who would oversee some activities, e.g. mass mailings, to make the work of the current board easier.

In the end, all agreed that the Paul Bunyan Playhouse is a jewel in the crown of Bemidji’s cultural/arts presenters.

“This was a wonderful experience with lots of valuable information,” said Carlson. “I hope it can happen on a regular basis.”

To that point, the board would welcome hearing from people who would like to participate in another focus group session. Just leave a message at the box office (751-7270) with your name and contact information or email

“Communication is the path to success in any relationship,” said Grosfield.  “Talking and listening brings wonderful results … Our audience needs to know we care about what they have to say.  And this is a way to do that.”