By Tanner Kent
Free Press Features Editor
MANKATO — The Merely Players Community Theatre wraps up its 2011-12 season by shattering old traditions.
After 30 years under the direction of Gretchen Etzell, new director Jonas Nissen assumes the helm for the upcoming production. Joining him (in trademark community theatre fashion) are a cast of likewise newcomers, including a first-time set designer, choreographer and others.
And if that’s not enough, the production is “Fiddler on the Roof,” the timeless tale of a father struggling to maintain the traditions of his tight-kit Jewish community against his daughters’ more modern values.
“Tradition almost becomes the antagonist,” Nissen said. “Sometimes, tradition gets in the way of love, gets in the way of happiness.”
When it was written in 1964, “Fiddler on the Roof” quickly became the first musical production to surpass 3,000 performances on Broadway. Today, it remains Broadway’s 15th longest-running show -- which is, perhaps, ironic given that the original producers feared its setting in 1905 Tsarist Russia and ethnic story line would preclude it from broader appeal.
The story continues to resonate with contemporary audiences and has become a favorite among youth and community theaters. That’s not to say, however, that the production comes without challenges.
“It’s a play that uses indoor and outdoor scenes,” said Dave Peterson, the first-time set designer who “tumbled” into the role after inquiring if the community theatre needed any technical help. “There’s a fairly substantial requirement for scenery.”
The cast includes more than 30 actors of all ages and dance scenes that must be confined to the relatively small stage at the Lincoln Community Center. That, coupled with the turn-of-the-century setting, meant Peterson needed to design a set that was, above all else, efficient.
The focus of the set is a rotating piece that Peterson designed to show the interior of a home on one side and the exterior on the other. That allows the cast to prep the next scene on the backside of the piece while actors perform on the front side.
And with limited space for incorporating contextual clues about the setting, Peterson had to make efficient use of the materials at hand to give the set an artificial petina of time.
“We put a lot of time and effort into painting,” said Peterson, a hobby woodworker who added that designing sets differs markedly from the exactitudes of carpentry. “With a set, there is no scale. It’s imaginary. There’s no standard to it. We just make it work. ... I’m hooked.”
Though “Fiddler” is Nissen’s Merely Players debut, he’s no stranger to theatre.
The communications instructor at Bethany Lutheran College also has a doctorate in theatre arts and has worked on hundreds of productions in many capacities, including actor, director, designer, producer, technician, choreographer and more.
He founded The Belltower Troupe in St. Claire in 2003 before serving as artistic director for the Mankato Mosaic Theatre Company. Nissen also received the “Lifetime Achievement Award” from the Theatre Division of the National Communication Association.
He praised his new cast and technical crew and said the upcoming production will be typical of community theatre with its wide variety of participants, from newcomers and veterans to community professionals, college scholars and elementary students.
“We really have a wonderful cross-section of the community,” he said.