Church Basement Ladies 10th anniversary—the inside scoop

Photo courtesy of Plymouth Playhouse From left to right, the Church Basement Ladies: Greta Grosch (Mrs. Gilmer Gilmerson / Mavis), Janet Paone (Mrs. Lars Snustad / Vivian), Dorian Chalmers (Mrs. Elroy Engelson / Karin), and Tara Borman (Mrs. Harry Hauge / Beverly).

Photo courtesy of Plymouth Playhouse
From left to right, the Church Basement Ladies: Greta Grosch (Mrs. Gilmer Gilmerson / Mavis), Janet Paone (Mrs. Lars Snustad / Vivian), Dorian Chalmers (Mrs. Elroy Engelson / Karin), and Tara Borman (Mrs. Harry Hauge / Beverly).

Heidi Håvan Grosch
Sparbu, Norway

For ten years the Church Basement Ladies, based on the book Growing Up Lutheran by Janet Letnes Martin and Suzann Nelson, have taken audiences on the journeys of life in the sanctuary of their church basement kitchen. Now the original cast (Tim Drake, Janet Paone, Greta Grosch, Tara Borman, and Dorian Chalmers) returns in a production of the show that launched the legacy of these stalwarts of hotdish and humor in 2005. Hundreds of performances later, their story still rings true for many.

I was curious how living with the same characters for so long would affect the actors themselves, and Dorian Chalmers (who plays Karin Engelson) and Tara Borman (who plays Signe/Beverly) shared some of their insights with me. “Playing a character for so long has really taught me a lot about acting and endurance,” comments Borman, adding that she has learned how to leave “real” life behind when she walks onstage. She says she has gained confidence in her own ideas and about her character, “who is not afraid to speak her mind in any situation—which sometimes gets her in trouble—but often times inspires change in others.” Chalmers has observed that both she and her character have learned from each other. “Karin has taken on some of my characteristics” comments Chalmers, learning to “laugh loud and sing from your heart.” Karin in turn has taught Dorian to “serve others with joy each day, to be patient, and to move forward through hard times.”

The very first performance of the Church Basement Ladies was in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, and both cast and audience knew from that moment that it was destined to be something special. According to the press release for this anniversary show, the ladies of the basement have shared their story with more than three million people and all five versions of the show have run in all contiguous 48 states and Canada. That says volumes about the relevance of these women for so many.

Chalmers commented on the attachment audience members have to both the characters and the story. “I think we all want our story told, and this show does that for a large group of people… either it’s about them or the women they love: their grandmothers, mothers, aunts, and friends.” She adds, “we love these women, hence our audiences do too.”

If the Church Basement Ladies could leave one word of wisdom with the world, what would it be? “Laughter is the best medicine,” said Chalmers. “Change is good,” said Borman. “I am so proud to be a Church Basement Lady,” adds Chalmers. “This show has brought so much joy and laughter to so many people, and I get to share in that.”

Director Curt Wollan on the Church Basement Ladies webpage (churchbasementladiesonstage.com) calls these ladies the “Steel Magnolias” of the church, and with his collaborators he has created a phenomenon that “celebrates the women who work so hard and with such dedication in the church kitchen. Whether they be Lutheran, Methodist, Jewish, or Catholic,” the need to serve is universal.

“If you find yourself in Minnesota,” invites Borman, “come and spend some time in the basement… a good time will be had by all.” The Church Basement Ladies 10th anniversary show runs June 18—November 15, 2015. Contact the Plymouth Playhouse (plymouthplayhouse.com) for ticket info.

Postscript: I have been away for the past few months wrapping up my master’s degree in English and other languages, but now am back writing for the Weekly. More to come…

This article is a part of Heidi Håvan Grosch’s column Rønningen Ramblings, which appears a couple times a month in the Norwegian American Weekly.

This article originally appeared in the June 26, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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