There’s something inherently thrilling about waiting for a live theatrical performance to start—the hush as the lights dim, the little noises and movements backstage, the anticipation that builds as you watch for the curtain to rise.

Live theater draws you into the story in a way movies and television just can’t do. The actors are only feet away from you, living, breathing, moving in real time. A painted backdrop can transport you to ancient Egypt or inner-city Brooklyn. All it takes are a few scattered props to pull you into a different world. Theater can be so simple—and yet, so immersive.

Mankato’s community acting troupe, the Merely Players, knows a thing or two about bringing fantasy worlds onto a real-life stage. Since 1982, the group has been delighting area audiences with everything from Shakespeare to Brigadoon, Harvey to Oklahoma! They’ve produced more than 100 shows and impacted more than 30,000 volunteers and theater patrons—and they’re not slowing down any time soon.

Setting the stage

According to former artistic director Travis Carpenter, the troupe was originally formed by Mankato educator Gretchen Etzell, who directed Oklahoma! at the request of Mankato’s Community Education program. When more than 170 people showed up to auditions, it became apparent that there was a hunger for community theater. After a few more shows, the official Merely Players (named after a line in Shakespeare’s “As You Like It”) group was formed.

Soon afterwards, the Merely Players moved into the Lincoln Community Center in Mankato, where they have been for the past 30 years. The group fundraised for new seat cushions, new carpeting, and a new coat of paint, taking their role as theater stewards very seriously.

The mission of the Merely Players Community Theatre is to provide opportunities for participation in the dramatic arts in a safe and creative environment. —Merely Players

“The organization has worked hard from the beginning,” Carpenter said. “You are never going to get rich being involved with community theater. You have to become very resourceful. We’ve scrimped and saved.”

Carpenter became involved with the Merely Players several years ago on the acting side of things, but it wasn’t long before Etzell asked him if he wanted to try his hand at assistant directing. He has directed shows, run props, run spotlights, helped build sets, taught acting classes, installed the sound system and served on the board of directors, and, in 2012, he took over as artistic director.

“I loved Merely Players and wanted to see it do well,” he said. “I had met such a wonderfully supportive and talented group of people, it kept me coming back.”

When it comes to deciding which shows to produce every season, Carpenter explained that the artistic director is the one who makes recommendations and then the board of directors will offer their perspective. It’s all about the balance, he said, trying to make sure every season has something for everyone in the audience.

“It’s always a tough balance between producing shows that are artistically challenging while also mixing that with shows that we know audiences will want to come watch,” Carpenter explained. “We want to provide opportunities for everybody in the community to get involved on stage while offering productions that are going to appeal across that same spectrum. Our seasons are kind of all over the place compared to more art house type of groups, but I think we serve a vital role in the community by offering something for everyone.”

Submitted Photo - Merely Players - Guys and Dolls
Submitted Photo – Merely Players – Guys and Dolls

Casting the roles

Luckily, Carpenter says, Mankato has a wide pool of talent to draw from.

“The Mankato area is just gushing with talent,” he said. “That’s been really interesting to watch over the years as different waves of people come through. There’s always this wonderful blend of new faces and familiar faces. All of our auditions are open auditions. There is no pre-casting. It’s a very egalitarian group, a very open and welcoming group.”

Kendra Braunger has been acting with the Merely Players since 2015, when she landed a roll in The Good Doctor. Since then, she’s also acted in Guys and Dolls, Junie B. Jones, Leading Ladies, Back to the 80s, All Shook Up and Robin Hood.

“You can’t beat the rush of standing backstage before opening night waiting to go on for the first time,” Braunger said. “I always flash back to the first rehearsal and take a second to appreciate the process it took to get us to opening night and the people who got us there.”

According to Braunger, the rehearsal process is about six weeks long, with actors rehearsing a few hours a night, a few days a week for the first few weeks. As opening night draws nearer, rehearsals become more frequent, with nightly practices during tech week (the week before opening). And musicals require even more rehearsals because of the song and dance numbers. But for Braunger, all the work is worthwhile because of the theater friends she has made along the way.

Submitted Photo - Merely Players - Little Shop of Horrors
Submitted Photo – Merely Players – Little Shop of Horrors, Riley Lindell as Seymour

“Aside from the joy that I get from making people laugh while I’m on stage, I would have to say that the best part of Merely Players is the people that I have the honor of calling my second family,” she said. “I have met some of the most important people in my life through this organization and I wouldn’t change a thing about my theater journey.”

Chad Brancamp is another actor who has participated in several Merely Players shows. His first show (and first acting experience since eighth grade) was War of the Worlds, followed by The Good Doctor, Miracle on 34th Street, The Snow Queen, Leading Ladies and Back to the 80s. He has also helped behind the scenes during some shows and even tried his hand directing during the troupe’s annual MN Shorts Festival.

For Brancamp, community theater groups like Merely Players are important because of the opportunities they offer—both to people onstage and people in the audience.

“Community theater gives regular folks like me a chance to be on stage,” he said. “The people involved in shows are there because they want to be a part of something fun—not because it’s their job, but because it’s important to them to have this be a part of their lives and a part of their community. Hopefully, that dedication shows itself in the productions.”

Behind the scenes

Like any community acting group, the Merely Players and everyone involved within it have had their share of challenges during their 30-plus career. An obvious one is finding the funds to stage their productions. Technically, the group is a nonprofit organization, and everyone involved is volunteer. While they’re able to find grants to cover some of their expenses, they still rely heavily on patrons’ support.

“The people who know us and know the kind of work we put on really respect our group, but we have to work pretty hard at our marketing efforts,” Carpenter said. “We all have other jobs that pay the bills. It’s always an ebb and flow with people involved on the board of directors. We can’t offer much financially, so you’d better enjoy yourself while you’re down there.”

Still, Carpenter said the group is able to do some pretty amazing things despite their lack of funds. It just comes down to old-fashioned ingenuity, such as when their prop master was able to rig an arrow to be “split” on stage during last season’s production of Robin Hood.

“As a nonprofit organization run by volunteers on a shoestring budget, I couldn’t be prouder of what people are accomplishing,” Carpenter said. “With the dollar amounts we have, we’re not going to be able to compete with many organizations’ production values, but our group busts their tails and accomplishes some amazing things.”

Carpenter said another challenge is figuring out how to juggle everyone’s schedules, especially now that people are busier than ever before. It’s not uncommon for rehearsals to have someone missing every night, with the director trying to work around tricky scheduling commitments.

“Everybody does everything,” he said. “People are very over scheduled in all their activities. You’ve got to be committed to be a part of the show. It’s a demanding rehearsal schedule, but it’s not the same approach to rehearsals any more where people can make it every night. How do we respond to that? What can we do to keep these talented people involved?”

The show must go on

The Merely Players faced a new challenge during their 2018-2019 season as Carpenter stepped away from his role of artistic director. As he was quick to point out, everyone involved in the theater has a “day job,” and his requires relocating up to the Twin Cities area—too far to be involved in any leadership role with the theater troupe. But Carpenter said he wasn’t worried about the future of the Merely Players.

“I feel very confident that there are so many talented people in this city, so the [open] spots will spill over pretty seamlessly,” he said. “The circus doesn’t stop on account of one clown.”

No one has stepped in to fill Carpenter’s considerably large shoes. Instead, long-time board member and director Maggie Maes, who has been with the troupe for 22 years, has been stepping into some of the duties. Maes said there have been several interviews for the position so far, but no candidate has quite fit, so the search is being put on hold throughout the upcoming season.

“Before we rush into this and take someone that’s not going to work out, we’re going to put the search on hold for a while,” Maes said. “We need someone not only with the ability to do the job, but also the passion. I want someone who is passionate about growing and offering great theater in Mankato. I’m sure that person’s out there. We just haven’t found them yet.”

No matter how long it takes to find the perfect artistic director, Maes said the goal is to continue involving the Mankato community in every aspect of the theater world.

“That’s our No. 1 goal always—to involve as many of the community as we can,” she said. “You roll with the punches—that’s the magic of community theater. That’s exactly what we’re doing without Travis, and it’s working.”

This article first appeared in Southern Minn Scene Magazine.

Additional Links

A Supportive Environment

Community theater is an incredibly supportive environment. Everyone is welcomed and accepted from the minute you walk on stage to audition to when you take your last bow at curtain call and beyond. I have heard countless stories from people who were struggling to find their place and found it in Merely Players. There is a real family dynamic with every show I’ve been in that you can’t find anywhere else and that’s what makes Merely Players so special. –Kendra Braunger

Up Next: Jesus Christ Superstar

  • When:
    • March 13th, 2020 6:00 pm
    • March 14th, 2020 6:00 pm
    • March 19th, 2020 6:00 pm
    • March 20th, 2020 6:00 pm
    • March 21st, 2020 6:00 pm
  • Where: Kato Ballroom
  • Tickets: Available Here

Jesus Christ Superstar on MankatoLIFE events calendar

Upcoming shows

  • May: Rex’s Exes
  • October: The Rocky Horror Picture Show

For more information about upcoming shows, visit www.merelyplayers.com.

Author

  • Grace Brandt

    is the managing editor of MankatoLIFE. Throughout her 13-year career, she has written for more than two dozen publications. She lives in Mankato with her husband and two cats.