Theater’s heart is bigger than the community

By Kelda J.L. Pharris
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Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect the correct spelling of Kristi Brunes’ name.

Broadway’s best won’t be found at 267 Rondell Ave., but that is where you can locate the heart of Stratford.

Stratford Community Theatre began with some errant scripts and a bar bet in 1994.

“Years ago, when I was a little kid in Stratford, the community, school, PTA would put on a play,” Kristi Brunes said. “We’d always talk about doing it again, when people weren’t so busy in the winter.”

The Stratford born-and-raised woman’s memory then took her to a visit with a friend at a bar a generation ago.

“A gal from the elevator brought in a bunch of scripts from Conde. … She said, ‘Here, put your money where your mouth is,’” Brunes said.

The scripts had been rejected by another small-town theater group because the play called for a couple of men to dress as women. Brunes took her friend, Kristy Henjum of Conde, up on the idea. That year, proceeds went to the community center in Stratford and some other charitable causes. Brunes tucked away the last $250, just in case the group decided to do it again.

And it has — for 25 consecutive years now.

In the quarter-century, the group has raised and donated hundreds of thousands of dollars. Brunes lost count after she tracked the total to $300,000, and that was years ago. She said that after costs, the theater puts $10,000 to $12,000 back into Stratford and surrounding communities annually. And that’s likely an underestimate, she said.

The group does about 10 performances over three weekends each March. Sometimes more. There are dinner theater, wine-and-cheese and soup-and-sandwich options offered during the run. It costs 30 bucks to get in the door, but the cost and showtimes don’t matter if you don’t yet have your tickets for this year’s selection, “The Money in Uncle George’s Suitcase.”

“We sold out in about three hours,” Brunes said. “It always sells out.”

The theater added an 11th performance this year. It also sold out, then had to be postponed a week after Tuesday’s winter storm made road conditions miserable.

Performances continue through next week.

The popularity of the annual event is not because of Tony-worthy performances or an exquisitely crafted menu, but the result of the unity felt by members of the small town of Stratford and the surrounding communities. Fun plays are chosen and the atmosphere is relaxed.

“We always do comedies. I’ve played everything from a little Mexican maid to Mother Superior,” Sherri Hansen said.

She has been in every play except one in the early 2000s when she had shoulder surgery and had to drop out at the last minute. Hansen couldn’t pick a favorite role, saying they’ve all been fun.

Stratford has a population of about 85, Brunes estimated. It’s less than that — in the low 70s, according to recent Census estimates. And it takes nearly that many people to pull off the shows. There are eight cast members and three crew members this year. And others help with duties like cooking, serving and cleaning. Forty to 50 meals are needed just to feed volunteers. Those are in addition to the 120 needed for people who have tickets to each performance.

Boy Scouts and 4-H’ers help wash dishes and clean.

“Local cooks make food, the local bar cooks the entrees, local men act as waiters,” Brunes said. “To put on the dinner theater it takes the whole area.”

That effort and good faith go full circle as the theater then pours those glad tidings back into the communities.

In the past year, the community theater was able to give six $1,000 scholarships to students in Leola, Northwestern, Groton and Warner. In other years it has helped fund a new fire hall in Stratford and donated to the Aberdeen Rural Fire Department, numerous churches, families with medical costs and school clubs. In 2015, the theater auctioned a table for the construction of a new 4-H building on the state fairgrounds in Huron on behalf of the Rondell Robins 4-H Club.

In the early years, Stratford Community Theatre would go on tour. At the time, there was no stage with a seating area in Stratford. Eventually enough money was raised to add a permanent stage and seating to the Stratford Community Center. That was in the early 2000s. That area is now the heart of the community every March.

“I always wanted to be on stage when I was in high school and stuff. I prayed to be on stage, I just forgot to tell God I wanted to get paid for it, too,” Hansen said. “But we get paid in the long run with everything we help, so it’s worth it.”

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