Live at the Grand: Return of The Church Basement Ladies

church_ladies3BY Will Stahl

During the fifties and sixties, I grew up in a small town Lutheran church in northern Illinois. As I was vaguely aware, a group of ladies, my mother sometimes being one, were at the center of all major church events involving food, which would have included most major church events.

It would never have occurred to my juvenile male mind that anything really was going on in there aside from cooking and cleanup, certainly not material for comedy and drama. Two women who came of age under similar circumstances knew differently and Janet Martin and Suzann Nelson wrote a book called Growing Up Lutheran that revealed the narrative possibilities inherent in a group of women who work together year after year and decade after decade as the warm heart of the church.

To find out how this seemingly mundane material could provide the basis for five very successful musical comedies, I had separate phone interviews with Curt Wollan, show producer, and Greta Grosch who performed in the first version and wrote the scripts for the last four.

Curt Wollan has been involved since the beginning. “My mother was a big church basement lady,” he said. “It was her friends, her country club.” The project was first discussed in 2000 after the book came out and proceeded haltingly until 2005 when the married team of Jim Stowell and Janet Zeuhlke finished the first script.

After The Church Basement Ladies opened at the Plymouth Playhouse in Minneapolis, it ran for two and a half years with up to 12 shows a week. “Attendance averaged 102% over that run,” Wollan said. “It had to be double-casted because actors can only do eight shows a week.” You are doing well if people will stand to see your show, I’d say.

That first show toured the country with William Christopher (MASH’s Father Mulcahy) in the role of the pastor. In all five shows, the characters are the same, the four church ladies and the pastor.

About this latest iteration, The Last Potluck Supper, Wollan said, “We will be all over Wisconsin. We always do well in Wisconsin.” In addition to Oshkosh, the show will play in Madison, Sheboygan, Green Bay, and Eau Claire.

Greta Grosch acted in that first production of The Church Basement Ladies, taking the role of Mavis, the good-natured farm wife who loves farming and is a willing worker but sometimes a little klutzy. Grosch had a most unusual childhood, growing up with Lutheran missionary parents. Her earliest years were spent in Ethiopia and after some time in Des Moines, Iowa, she graduated from an international high school in Papua New Guinea. She left there to study theater in college. “I never thought I could make a living at that. I always thought I’d have to get a real job.” Somehow that never quite happened.

church_ladies1Though she had 20 years of acting experience and 10 years of writing comedy sketches, it was only while doing the Basement show that Grosch realized she could tap her own experiences for comedy material. Her parents had grown up on Minnesota farms and she drew on their stories and stories from the writers of the source book to create the next four episodes: Second Helping; A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement; a Christmas show, Away in the Basement, and the current show, The Last Potluck Supper.

“Most of the scripts are based on true stories,” Wollan told me, “and sometimes truth is stranger than fiction, as you know.”
The Last Potluck Supper was inspired by the story, told in a documentary film, of a small Minnesota rural church that can no longer sustain itself as the congregation has been decimated by the farm crisis of the late seventies. In the Basement Ladies’ church, on its one-hundredth anniversary, the church has votes to dissolve. The play looks back over the years since the church’s founding.

Some flashback scenes feature the actors playing their characters’ ancestors at the time of the founding of the church. Other flashback scenes harken back to scenes in earlier plays, depicting the continuation or result of what happened in those scenes. But both Grosch and Wollan assured me that you needn’t have seen the previous shows to appreciate the current one.

“If people have seen one of the other shows,” Grosch said, “they can enjoy this one as it tells the story of their favorite characters. It’s like a sitcom, character-driven.” But each show is written to be enjoyed individually.

This is a play series that has inspired tremendous loyalty and resonance. “Once people recognized me from the show,” Grosch said, “strangers would stop me to tell stories.” Some of them she has been able to incorporate into scripts.

I asked Wollan if he saw any future sequels. “At this point,” he said, “this is the last. But when I say that to people they get mad.” A sequel would have to go back in time, but that’s not really a problem as the series has already gone from 1969, to ’56, ’58, ’60, and finally to ’79.

Wollan said he likes to listen to people talking as they emerge from the show, comparing characters in the show to people they know. All of us know these women, no matter what background we come from. They were our mothers, our aunts, our mothers’ friends.

Younger people certainly can recognize some people they know in these characters and learn about a time that is mostly gone.

“Bring the family,” he said. “It especially pleases groups of women, red hats, other senior groups. They remember when church basement ladies did the food for funerals. No one has time these days; when you go to a funeral now, it’s catered.”

The Last Potluck Supper will play at the Grand Opera House in Oshkosh on Tuesday, March 3 at 2 PM and 7 PM.

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