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Black Dirt Theater mixes people, puppets, everyday themes

The founders of the Black Dirt Theater, left to right, Robin Starch, Andy Langenfeld and Mandy Langenfeld, with their friends Johnson, Norman and Gladys, are ready to present their Paul Bunyan play during this year's Rivertown Days.

An idea discussed and dreamed about for years is now reality for three Hastings area people - Andy Langenfeld, Mandy Langenfeld (Andy's wife) and Robin Starch. The passion each has for theater has led to the formation of the Black Dirt Theater Company, which will present three performances during this year's Rivertown Days festival.

Andy Langenfeld was a veteran performer in theater at Hastings High School, has a master's degree in the arts, and spent two years in London before returning to Hastings. Mandy Langenfeld's expertise is in music and composing. And Starch began her theater experience more than 20 years ago at Hastings High school, and now, as an employee of the district, directs plays and works with actors.

But the three, with the help of Maggie Langenfeld (Andy's mother) and Alissa Thompson, had long talked about forming a theater company. Their talk was put into action about a year ago.

"We talked about having a theater company that was locally based," Starch said. "We wanted it based from our hearts to bring to the community."

"Mandy and I came home (from London)," Andy Langenfeld said, "And we began to take steps to make this a reality."

Much of the initial work was creating a nonprofit organization - paperwork, finances, creation of a board of directors, and "developing the infrastructure," Starch said. It also involved connecting with the St. Paul-based Springboard for the Arts, which offers assistance to nonprofit organizations, resources and the "how to" for applying for grants.

"We were building a foundation," Andy said. "There are things we have to obtain such as a sound system, costumes, and a computer.

"Then, there is the show, which is Paul Bunyan, and the budget for it, including props and actors, and making sure it is affordable for people to come to. Here in Hastings, we are not charging anything."

Andy said wherever Black Dirt performs, the company wants to have it accessible for everyone.

"We want it to be creative and poetic," he said.

With that, too, is the educational component provided by Maggie Langenfeld and Starch. Different educational themes for the performances are offered.

The early part of this year was also spent generating story ideas and creating the music - Mandy and Andrew Gathright's (another Hastings resident) role, casting the play, and then beginning to book dates.

Play works

a different theme

The theme for this production is "Who I am doesn't fit how I'm living." Remember the play is "Paul Bunyan," but probably not the most familiar version to many.

The Langenfelds, Starch and Katy Clanton (who helped produce puppets for the show) each wrote a story, offering their own perspective about Paul Bunyan. Each read the others' stories.

"Katy's was the one chosen; it is an old story but with new life," Andy said. "It is a human theme with Paul Bunyan not being in the right place at this time."

This version of Paul Bunyan is definitely geared to families, they stressed.

The actors, Emily Niebur, John Bigelow, Rachel Cobian, and Andy Langenfeld, all have theater experience, and all are originally from Hastings. Each went through an audition process.

During this time, too, the planning and production of three puppets, which are handled by the actors, were completed. The puppets, "Norman," "Johnson," and "Gladys" are drawn from character traits the company founders have observed in people throughout their lives. Each becomes an integral part of the play.

The creation of the puppets, each taking about 100 hours of work, was done under the supervision of Sarah Lawrence.

And yes, the name of the company was decided early, too.

"It is about bringing art to what is essential, the foundation," Andy said. "And what is that? Dirt.

"Black dirt is the most fertile of all," he said

"Within each play, as with a foundation, we hope to create something lasting," Starch said.

The company rehearsed, and then presented its first performance in-house, and its founders adapted, tweaked, and fine-tuned. Feedback and questions were encouraged and appreciated.

"I consider each play a laboratory," Andy said. "We are improvising as we go (there is no set script). Each of us brings our own experiences as we view the world."

"This show is very physical, too," Starch said. "Our actors are on the stage for the entire show."

The first "community" performance was for children who participate in the Hastings Community Education Camp Horizons and Playgrounds in the Summer (PITS) programs. Following the 35-minute show, there was the opportunity for an interactive art activity and conversation.

Play comes

to Hastings

This year's Rivertown Days offered the opportunity to reach again into the community, their community.

"We want to share the play with the community," Mandy said.

Performances are scheduled for 11 a.m. and 3 p.m. Saturday, July 18; and 3 p.m. Sunday, on the Mississippi riverfront, at the end of the section for arts and crafts vendors.

All three are excited their dreams have become reality and bookings are coming in. After Rivertown Days, performances are set for the Washington County Fair and at this fall's Hastings Taste of the Arts (formerly the Art Crawl). They have hopes for the future.

"My biggest hope is that theater, art in general, will not be foreign to people," Andy said. "Clearly, we want it to be a fun time.

"In the future, we want it be well known and loved, branching out from a strong foundation, but always keeping its foundation here."

"We want all ages to have a positive experience," Mandy said.

"I think what makes us different from other theater is that we are bringing to the people a message that they otherwise would not receive," Starch said. "We want art to be experience. There is the education part. And we want it to be high quality and for everyday people."

"There is a lot of work involved," Mandy said. "We enjoy doing it; we are excited looking to the next step."

"I refer to it as patient ambition," Andy said. "We are committed to this one thing and want to do it to the best of our ability."

More information about Black Dirt Theater is available at