Moorhead High School (MHS) Theatre students took their show on the road so to speak with a few Concordia connections.
MHS Theatre’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” was recorded at the Comstock House in Moorhead for virtual performances that ran May 21-30.
The production involved two Concordia graduates, Becca (Klein) Green ’13 and Deacon Jon Leiseth ’92, and engaged the local community in some creative ways. The cast involved guest artists including Carrie Wintersteen, theatre and life partner of Dr. David Wintersteen, professor and director of theatre at Concordia. Together they are co-founders of Fargo-Moorhead’s Theatre B.
This wasn’t the first time Green and Leiseth worked together.
“When I was a visiting assistant professor of theatre at Concordia working with David Wintersteen, Becca was a student and I had her in class,” said Leiseth, who is currently minister for faith and spirituality in action in Concordia’s Campus Ministry office. “A few years back she contacted me, asking if I’d be interested in directing at the high school and I said yes.”
Leiseth earned an MFA in directing from the University of Montana and working as a teaching theatre artist was the way he earned a living for two decades, ending with two years at Concordia as visiting faculty.
“As a visiting professor, I initially covered the medical leave of Helen Cermak, my own college and theatre mentor,” Leiseth said.
Leiseth directed “Antigone” last spring and “Earnest” this spring for MHS.
“Unlike ‘Antigone,’ we were already living with COVID impacting our lives when we picked ‘Earnest,’” he said. “This is how we chose to record at the Comstock House, believing that recording there would allow us some choices in terms of how to continue the project safely while also engaging with our local community and giving the student-artists a performance experience that wasn’t primarily online. Though masked, the actors were able to interact with each other in the house.”
Leiseth said another reason for partnership with the Comstock House was to lean into community building at a time when there were many factors increasing experiences of isolation and it was fun to get a group of young adults into the Comstock House.
Emily Kulzer, director of operations at the Historic Solomon G. Comstock House, said working with Leiseth and the students was a great experience.
“The Comstock House was closed for over a year due to COVID and it was wonderful to have people in the house again after all that time,” she said. “The Comstock House has played host to many different types of events throughout the years, but this is the first play that has been filmed there that I know of. The cast and crew were a pleasure to host.”
The Comstock House is more than a house. Built by Solomon G. Comstock in 1882 for $45,000, it was a lavish building at the time. The family continued to live in the house after the parents’ deaths with the children donating it to the Minnesota Historical Society in 1965.
One of Solomon’s children provides another Concordia connection. George Madison Comstock, son of Solomon and his wife, Sarah, grew up in the house, graduated from Harvard, served in World War I, and eventually returned to Moorhead where he married Frances Frazier for whom the Frances Frazier Comstock Theatre at Concordia is named.
The former Humanities Center, built to house a 430-seat theatre, a laboratory theatre, art gallery, and language laboratory, was dedicated Sept. 28, 1969, and renamed the Frances Frazier Comstock Theatre in 1980 after the notable Moorhead businesswoman and benefactor of the college.
“Though the world of the play, the London of Oscar Wilde, and Moorhead in the 1880s are three very different worlds, there are historical connections and recording at the Comstock House that allowed us to bring the play to life in a unique way,” Leiseth said.
He said most of the costumes were borrowed or rented and the costume worn by Carrie Wintersteen as Lady Bracknell in Act I was designed by Concordia costume shop manager and designer Katie Curry for Concordia’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Wintersteen’s Act III costume was designed by Concordia alumna Rooth Varland ’85, costume designer for North Dakota State University.
“Jon originally invited Theatre B to collaborate on the project, but our ensemble was already planning some presentations for May. I was interested in Lady Bracknell. Lady Bracknell is a dream role for any actor, especially if you love to do this kind of period piece, which is called a ‘Comedy of Manners.’ It's a fantastic exercise for any performer,” Wintersteen said. “I was also interested in working with Jon again. He directed the last play I did at Theatre B and any opportunity to work with him is a delight.”
Wintersteen’s colleague at Theatre B, Monika Browne-Ecker, was also interested in being involved. She had worked with Leiseth on several theatre projects over the last couple of years, including “The Race” at Concordia. In addition, her husband, Scott Ecker, who serves on Theatre B’s board, was also interested in participating.
“I don’t know how typical it is for the high school theatre program to invite guest artists to participate, but Jon saw this as a great opportunity to help the Moorhead High Theatre students learn about vocal dialects, period style, and how to perform a ‘Comedy of Manners,’” Wintersteen said. “I hope they did learn from working alongside adult performers. We certainly enjoyed doing the show with them!”