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Winnett is a mastermind of props, production design

Cheryl Winnett is creating props for a play at Horace May Elementary this spring. Patt Rall | Bemidji Pioneer

BEMIDJI — Cheryl Winnett cherishes life’s textures with a curious "can-do" attitude and a mind that looks at challenges with the eye of an engineer.

A few years back, Winnett saw an ad for a "cattle call" in the Bemidji Pioneer for actors and technicians — a werewolf movie was set to be shot in town.

At the cattle call, she ran into local actor and director Greg Gasman, who was handing out applications and information, she said. "I came back to a production meeting later that day and already had many of the props he needed," she said.

After that shoot, Gasman asked Winnett to build costumes and props for "The Princess Bride" play at Bangsberg Hall. There, Winnett met Mary Knox Johnson, who was on the faculty of the theater department at Bemidji State University. Johnson asked Winnett to do props for "Cinderella, a musical by Bemidji Community Theater being staged at BSU.

With the addition of Winnett, community theaters had discovered a new person who could volunteer behind the scenes to bring reality to the fantasy of theater. But Winnett has been active in theater in Bemidji since her son Wilson, now getting ready to graduate from Bemidji High School, was in a second-grade school play.

She kept helping out at Horace May, or as she likes to say, "They promoted Wilson but kept me back." This year, she’ll be back again, helping out with the current production, "Bebop and Aesop."

Winnett is making "hare spray" for the tortoise and hare story using an oatmeal box as a foundation and a pair of floppy, fake rabbit ears for the cap. The giant chocolate cake decorated with vanilla icing and pink roses with green leaves is actually Styrofoam sheets cut into rounds, painted with acrylic paints and decorated with spackle dyed to order. There are giant marshmallows on a stick made from foam and painted with glue and dusted on flour. The cookies on the plate are a type of clay you form and then bake in the oven until hard. They are painted fancy colors, ready for "The City Mouse and the Country Mouse."

"It is total whimsy," said Winnett. "You get to create hare spray, giant marshmallows on a stick. (The children) look at my stuff and ooh and aah!"

One of the more complicated set pieces Winnett has made was a car that would crash through the front of a house for Saarens Productions’ "Reunited We Fall." Winnett searched junk yards and found a vehicle that had the front panel with the grill and headlights still attached for the model year she needed. The owners loaned the "car" to Winnett, who took it to the shop and wired it to a wheelbarrow. The set carpenter, Dwayne Johnson, built a cutaway that would fold back on itself when pushed. Each night of the show, someone would run the wheelbarrow up a ramp and the "car" would smash through the wall.

"The audience would jump out of their seats every night," laughed Winnett.

Winnett goes from one theater project to the next, plying her skills in creating set pieces and costume design. Bemidji Community Theater is depending on her for their production of "Arsenic and Old Lace" which will be on stage at the Historic Chief Theater on Mother’s Day weekend. Waiting in the wings is "Out of the Hat," an adult comedy night given over to quick writing, focused rehearsing and many hands moving props, primarily gathered by Winnett, on and off stage.

Working with children is her favorite leisure activity, although anyone who has worked on a show will admit the action is not leisurely. But there are moments that make it all worthwhile for the players and the technicians, she said. Winnett remembers working with a young girl who was very nervous about going on stage. Winnett told the girl that the red necklace she wearing with her costume was a magic necklace that erased fear when touched.

"About four years later, I was doing Christmas Carol over at the Boys and Girls Club," said Winnett. "A girl came up to me and asked if I remembered her. Then she told me she still had that magic theater necklace and was still doing theater and loving it. That makes it worthwhile for me."