Plymouth Playhouse’s Church Basement Ladies

Plymouth Playhouse finds success with familiar, Midwestern characters.
The Church Basement Ladies Next Door are back for their fifth and final installment.

Chances are you already know a few of them. Maybe it’s your hard-working neighbor who loves to impart common-sense remedies. Perhaps it’s a woman at church who loves to direct showers or dinners. Or it might even be a bossy aunt who seems to know everything. Chances are you already have a church basement lady or two in your life.That’s exactly what the creative minds behind the popular Church Basement Ladies musical comedies have counted on—their characters resonating with just about anyone. The shows follow the duties, mishaps and triumphs of four women who keep the kitchen of a small, rural Minnesota church running in 1979. They organize church dinners, solve problems and share hotdish recipes. “It’s celebrating the women who keep the church running,” says Drew Jansen, who composed music and lyrics for the show. “The women are behind the scenes, but without them, the church probably wouldn’t function efficiently.”The Church Basement Ladies and its four sequels have prompted laughs from thousands of people and have been showcased in theaters around the country. The series has put the Plymouth Playhouse on the map for shows that can strike a deep chord with anyone, regardless of heritage.  “My favorite part is watching the audience ‘get it,’” says Curtis Wollan, co-creator and director. “You can see the smiles on faces, nodding heads, and see that there’s something going on that they can totally relate to.”Act One: Meet the Lutheran LadiesWhen Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson met during their first week at Augsburg College in Minneapolis back in 1964, they became fast friends and, later, writing partners. They describe themselves as 100 percent Norwegian-American Lutheran farm girls who grew up in rural North Dakota and Minnesota. Both knew they should write about their unique, sometimes quirky heritage that included Christmas pageants where everyone used a bathrobe as a costume or church dinners topped off with egg coffee and served up by dedicated farm wives. “There’s a lot of Lutherans in the Midwest, and someone needed to tell the story, because they are serving tacos in the Lutheran food halls now, so they are going to forget all about the food we had,” Martin says. “No one had recorded what it was like to grow up Lutheran in the area, so we needed to do that.”When the storytelling duo started talking about life growing up, they discovered they could finish each other’s sentences. “We just started to write, and it poured out of us,” Martin says. The women have written nine books, but are most known for 1997’s Growing up Lutheran: What does it mean? which became a national award-winning bestseller.From the beginning, Martin and Nelson knew their material was fodder for a comedy. “When you look back, it’s very funny what life was like in the 1940s and ’50s in the rural Midwest],” says Nelson, now of Grand Rapids, Minn. She points to hard-working, gracious women who dashed to and from work at home, farm, church and community, accomplishing their many jobs with zeal and a sense of purpose. However, they never failed to cherish the time spent working together and find humor in their daily life. They loved to laugh. “They were hardworking, patient … everything, including funny,” Nelson says.Act Two: From page to stageAfter a successful five-year run of How to Talk Minnesotan: The Musical (another local play based on another local author’s book) at the Plymouth Playhouse, Curtis Wollan was looking for a new, fun play with material that could resonate with Minnesotans. When he heard about Martin and Nelson’s book, he was intrigued. “It’s something I grew up with,” says Wollan, who is credited as a co-creator, director and producer of Church Basement Ladies. “My mom was a church basement lady, so I witnessed it all firsthand.”Wollan says it just seemed natural to develop stories from so many Midwest childhoods into a musical. “It wasn’t easy at first. It took seven years to get it off the ground, but now we’re working on the fifth version, and we just get to know these characters better and better.”One of those characters is Mrs. Gilmer Gilmerson, or Mavis, played by Greta Grosch (the original cast is still intact). “Scandinavian blood flows through my veins along with coffee,” Grosch says. The actress drew inspiration from her aunts, herself and comediennes like Carol Burnett to bring the Mavis character to life. “Mavis Gilmerson is a good-natured farm wife who is always willing to peel a potato or scrub a lutefisk pot,” she says. Grosch also came on board to write the four sequels. “The important thing for me as a writer was to make sure these characters are always approachable people and that they relate to a wide audience,” she says.  Act Three: SequelsBefore the first show opened in 2005, producers saw potential. They extended the show to run a year instead of the original six months. “When this show hit, the entire country paid attention,” says Jansen, who wrote lyrics and music for all of the Church Basement Ladies shows. By the time the first show closed in fall 2008, more than 250,000 people had laughed and loved the Church Basement Ladies in 1,123 performances at the Plymouth Playhouse. The show was touring nationally, and the next installment, appropriately coined A Second Helping, was in the works.“People keep wanting new shows, and I like to keep writing them,” Jansen says. “It goes back to good storytelling, culture and heritage.” A Second Helping ran for 18 months. The third play was a festive production called Away in the Basement: A Church Basement Ladies Christmas, which drew upon nativity scene rivalries and bathrobe costumes to entertain patrons during two holiday seasons. A Mighty Fortress is our Basement opened in September 2011 and again featured the stalwart matrons reacting to changes that influenced the world in 1960.This fall, Plymouth Playhouse theatergoers will be treated to another new story featuring the original cast in The Last (Potluck) Supper.  “We’re intentionally trying to break the mold with this one,” says Jansen, who hints at a disco number, a mysterious character who will finally make an appearance and some flashbacks to the early days of the church.The creative team insists that each show, including the new one, can be appreciated without any further knowledge of the series. “It’s important to know if they’ve never seen the show, they can still enjoy it,” Grosch says. “It’s a new experience with crazy antics, and people can feel free to bring spouses, friends and family to see what all the fuss is about. No one will be lost.” The plan for The Last (Potluck) Supper is for a 30-week run, ending in February 2014.Curtain CallThe Church Basement Ladies has grown to be the most successful show produced locally and nationally by Troupe America Inc.—the acting troupe housed at the playhouse—in its 25-year history. “The most exciting aspect of the show is that it’s been produced in so many theatres and has provided good roles for women in theatre,” Jansen says, adding that many female actors struggle to find good roles as they age. Jansen says this play is a game-changer, knowing it has helped resurrect some careers. “It’s a good feeling to know I had a part in getting people back on stage when they thought they weren’t going to,” Jansen says.The play has also been the most successful show in the history of Plymouth Playhouse, and that may be because people can relate so well to the characters and the stories. “These memories are so universal,” says Janet Martin of Hastings, who continues to consult on the sequels with Nelson. Audience members frequently tell people who work on the show that the character reminds them of a family member.“I’m most proud of the fact that it works everywhere,” Wollan says. “People are people, no matter where you are. Whether you are in a church, Masonic order, or synagogue, people are excited about their organization, and out of that develops a hierarchy of people who run the place out of the goodness of their souls.”