Report from the Orchard: On tour with Luverne Siefert

For the last couple of weeks a group of stalwart performers has been braving the heat and touring Minnesota to present a production of Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard." The wrinkle is the actors mount the show in, and around, historic houses in small towns. Audience members sit sometimes just inches from the actors as they perform, and then follow action as it moves to other rooms, or even outside the house.

As the play details the trials of an impoverished aristocratic family losing its long-time home, each of the historic venues become a character in the production.


Luverne Siefert during rehearsals of "The Cherry Orchard" in Kenyon, Mn (All pictures MPR images by Euan Kerr.)

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Luverne Siefert and his wife Darcy Engen organized the tour, and both act in the play. With the trip well underway Siefert agreed to answer some questions about the show and what the cast is learning about it as they perform.

MPR sent him five questions, and in true creative spirit Siefert decided to combine some of them.

1) You are approaching the halfway point of the tour: what has the high and the low of the trip so far?

2) One of your concerns before you left was the heat. How has it been putting on shows in these uncoupled historic houses?

4) You add local actors and musicians into the cast at each venue. How have they localized each show?

1, 2 and 4) The lows of the trip so far have certainly been dealing with the heat. However, we have been quite successful in keeping the audiences cool by serving ice water and keeping the air conditioning on high. The actors probably struggle the most running around in their period costumes. But they are keeping a positive attitude and keeping hydrated.

Unquestionably the highlights of the tour are meeting and working with the actors in the community. Since we have a new group of community performers in each town we visit, we adjust the characterizations to the assets of the performers and so you will see a very different interpretation in each town.

Also, the houses each provide their unique characterizations as well. We are currently at the Musser Mansion in Little Falls and the house is jaw-dropping. Our outdoor scenes all take place with the mighty Mississippi roaring in the background. The house is stunning and we are fortunate enough to stay in it while we are performing here. We spend the evenings after the show preparing meals and dining on the back porch. We are living the life of the characters in the show during more prosperous times.


Actor Sarah Agnew chases Luverne Siefert with a lawn mower during the production of "The Cherry Orchard."

3) This production of The Cherry Orchard mixes bawdy comedy with the deep sadness of a family losing its home. How has it resonated with the audiences during the tour? Do you see differences in the communities?

It's remarkable how well the Cherry Orchard works as a tragic-comedy. The audiences have universally embraced these flawed and quirky characters through the comedic choices we have made. By making the characters likable, the audience builds a much stronger understanding of the devastation that the family faces at the end of the play. We root for these people to overcome their plights, but realize that they are too flawed to succeed.

The exciting part about greeting the audiences after the play is that we get to hear the stories of the house. At the Gunderson House in Kenyon, people talked about the previous owner who never let anyone see the house until she left. They tell us that they come to visit the house every chance they get. We also had a woman who told us that her grandmother was a maid in the house.

It's inspiring to see the pride the communities hold for these homes and the history that is contained inside these houses. Last night after the show in Little Falls a man came up to us to tell us that his father was a chauffeur for the Musser family and that he worked at the home as a young man. So, after we give our performance the audience shares their stories with us and we are equally entertained. Also, new to the show in Little Falls is that the Ljubov family arrives in an antique 1940's convertible. One of the board members at the Musser Mansion is letting us use it. You can't imagine a more picturesque arrival.

Since Taylor's Falls and Blue Earth are almost sold out and Worthington is 3 plus hours away, I would say that if people from the Twin Cities want to see the show they should come to Little Falls this weekend. It is really a magical place and we get numerous comments from the audience members that they feel like they are watching a film. You won't be disappointed if you make the trek up.

5) You have worked with many different companies in your career, and now also teach drama at the U of M. What does working on a show like this bring to you personally as a performer?

As an artist I always struggled with, if given the chance to lead a project, what story would I tell? I feel deeply connected to people who don't have the same opportunities as those with the greater resources because I grew up in a small southern Minnesota township and my family had little money and my dad only attended school till 8th grade.

Through the encouragement of my friends and a federal government that supported college students at the time, I had the privilege of attending college. So, when I thought about applying for a Minnesota State Arts Board grant, I knew I wanted to come back to my home town to share the what I've learned about theatrical storytelling.

After researching plays, I read Chekhov's "The Cherry Orchard" and I knew it would resonate with people in rural communities. It had the eccentric characters that only small towns can produce and it had the story of losing a home in a time of financial hardship. A story many of the communities know all too well.

And we hear these stories from the community after the performance. A teary-eyed man in Kenyon told us the story of recently having to sell the family farm in his family. There is so much history in these homes; babies being born, people dying, the great storms, the great floods, the lean times, the fruitful times. It brings back memories from my Grandfather's farm. My grandpa feeding chickens on the front lawn, the sound of the squeaky windmill in the distance, the smell of the fire from the wood burning stove in the basement. Being back in these communities, I'm flooded with the emotions of my childhood.

The Cherry Orchard tour continues to Taylors Falls (July 25-29,) Worthington (August 1-5) and Blue Earth (August 8-12.)