The curtain goes up

“We’re in Moorhead to stay,” says executive director Judy Lewis of the F-M Community Theater’s move to the Hjemkomst Center. Tickets for the FMCT’s first show in its new home, the musical comedy “Young Frankenstein,” go on sale Sept. 21. (Photo/Nancy Hanson)

Nancy Edmonds Hanson

The curtain goes up Sunday on the Fargo-Moorhead Community Theatre in its new home in the Hjemkomst Center.

After two years of trying times and plot twists, the 75-year-old drama company is opening its 2021-22 season of entertainment and education at its new permanent address in Moorhead. Executive director Judy Lewis and her team have planned a full season of stage productions, dinner theatre and education in the two black-box theatres now taking shape on the main floor of the center.

The theatre group is marking the occasion with “Ed on the Red,” as they’re calling their first annual Education Fair. The event from 1 to 5 p.m. Sunday is aimed at both young and old, combining an opportunity for family fun in Viking Ship Park with a chance to learn more about its ambitious schedule of classes on acting and musical theatre. Families can enjoy yard games, arts and crafts, an obstacle course and visits from costumed princesses outside. The Historical and Cultural Society of Clay County is also offering free admission to introduce the theatre crowd to their museum.

Ed on the Red kicks off what FMCT executive director Judy Lewis fervently hopes will be a more normal season for the amateur theatre company. That development will be a welcome change for her as well. Since she arrived here just two years ago, she has encountered more plot twists than an old-fashioned melodrama.

“I’d just been here a few months when the roof fell in,” she says. That was in December 2019. Dire structural problems forced the abrupt closure of the company’s 52-year-old headquarters in Island Park with three sold-out performances of “A Christmas Carol” left to go.

A month later, she contracted a mysterious disease that she now believes was Covid-19. It foreshadowed things to come: “And then on March 15,” she says dramatically, “the whole world shut down.” Finally, one year after the company had become temporarily homeless, she was named its executive director.

“Fortunately, theatre is all about pivoting,” she reflects. “Eloise (Breikjern, her predecessor who retired) worked so hard to keep everybody employed.” Thanks to the federal Paycheck Protection Program, the FMCT rapidly changed direction. The pandemic shutdown closed “Flanagan’s Wake” after just three performances. Schools sent students home; Judy, then the education director, put together an all-day program for students in Studio 6 downtown. Touring the children’s play “Dragons Love Tacos” was out of the question; instead, the company produced it on video and streamed it into 168 local classrooms over the next two weeks. The dinner theatre mystery, always a sell-out, moved to the Radisson and TAK Entertainment Venue in Dilworth, and the summer musical “Hairspray” went to The Lights in West Fargo in 2020 and TAK this year.

“We did everything you could imagine. I’m proud of our staff. We just pivoted like crazy,” she says now. “You see a disaster, then turn it into a work of art. That’s what theatre people do.”

Judy has pivoted a time or two in her own career. The Michigan native worked as an actor, singer and director in Detroit, New York and California before taking over music and theatre education for a Michigan school district, a role she played for 14 years. She has a master’s degree in applied drama and theatre for the young from Central Michigan University.

“I was stunned when I moved here. I couldn’t believe how big theatre has become here,” she says. “I went to everything I could go to – college, middle school, high school, everything. I was so encouraged. This community loves theatre.”

She started laying plans for the upcoming season last December. “We had one plan if we could be open, and one if we couldn’t. I started calling venues to see what kinds of spaces they could offer,” she says. “I knew what I wanted to do … if we could find the venue.” When Moorhead mayor Shelly Carlson talked to her about the possibilities that lay in the Hjemkomst Center, the pieces fell into place. They sealed the deal late last spring.

The FMCT crew has reshaped Heritage Hall to fit not only their own playbill, but the community as well. Their 7,000 square feet have been divided into two theatres – a main stage that will have seating for 220, and a second theatre space for 120. The first main stage show is the musical comedy “Young Frankenstein,” slated for October. Other shows on the docket are “Elf – the Musical” in December, the second annual short play festival in January, “Steel Magnolias” in February, “A Few Good Men” in March, and “9 To 5 – the Musical” in May. Three murder mystery dinner theatres are also planned. They too will be held at the Hjemkomst, with the first coming up Oct. 28-30.

The smaller space, the Community Theatre, will offer something new. Noting that auditioning for the main stage can be daunting for theatre newcomers, she hopes community groups of every stripe will use the second theatre to spread their wings. It’s a place where people new to theatre can spread their wings and try, she suggests. The space will be available for all kinds of groups when main-stage productions aren’t underway.

“This is a great facility,” she says of the Hjemkomst. “We do plan to always be in Island Park as well. Some great plans are beginning to come together. In the long run, we’ll have some performances in each space – perhaps big musicals there and more intimate productions here.

“After all, our very first performance in 1946 was stages at Moorhead High School. Our roots are in Moorhead. We’re going to be here forever, or as long as the city will have us.”

For more information on the FMCT’s education program and upcoming season, go to fmct.org.

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