South High graduates return for encore of Wilde’s 'Earnest'

South graduate Ahren Potratz and outgoing Artistic Director Louise Bormann rehearse The Importance of Being Earnest. The play, a benefit for the South theater program, runs June 24–27.

Photo by Jeremy Stratton

Artistic director takes stage as she passes torch to former student

The Importance of Being Earnest
South High School
June 24–27, 7:30 p.m.
3131 19th Ave. S.
south.mpls.k12.mn.us/Theater.html
$20 for adults, $10 for students
All profits benefit the South High Theater program

Running his fingers across the surface of a long white table set near the back of the stage, a character in a white terrycloth robe imitates piano music with exaggerated, off-key vocals. When his butler walks stiffly in from behind the stage, he takes a serious tone in describing his musical talent.

“Anyone can play accurately, but I play with wonderful expression,” he explains in a haughty British accent. “As far as piano is concerned, sentiment is my forte.”

“Good, ok, good,” interrupts director Ellen Fenster, and then instructs the two actors — 1997 South grad Ahren Potratz, playing Algernon Moncrief and 1998 grad Michael Ooms, playing the butler — as to how exactly they should move about the stage in the next couple of minutes, and specifically when the cucumber sandwiches should be requested.

This is a scene from a rehearsal of a South High School alumni production of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest. In it, Potratz and two of his cast mates — 1997 grads Ben Tallen (playing Jack Worthing) and Teresa Regan Hess (playing Cecily Cardew) — are reprising the roles they played fifteen years ago as high school freshmen under the direction of Louise “Frieda” Bormann, who takes the stage alongside her former students as Lady Bracknell, the fussy aunt. Other South alumni in the show include Justin Alexander, Michael Ooms (’98), Erin Search-Wells (’99) and Kelsey McMahon (’08).

Produced by Ahren’s mother, Southeast Como resident Virginia Potratz, the play is a fundraiser for the South High theater program http://south.mpls.k12.mn.us/Theater.html, a showcase for students who’ve benefited from it, and a chance to honor Bormann’s tenure as its director. Bormann, who began running the school’s theater program in 1991, is resigning her role as South’s artistic director to Fenster, another former student and 1997 graduate.

Despite having rehearsed for less than a week, Potratz seemed already familiar with the intonations, gestures and facial expressions that conveyed his character’s absurd sense of self-importance. Revisiting a role he played in 1994, it’s “kind of spooky,” he said, to find he still has the instincts for it. Tallen, who plays his bantering partner in the play, also said it was “bizarre” how natural the first read through had seemed.

Hess said it seems to be the perfect way to come back to the stage after turning off the theater route after college and spending five years in a Japanese Zen Buddhist monastery. So far, she said it has been fun to revisit her previous character with a better understanding of the play — and she’s excited to apply the tools of meditation to her performance.

See photos from a recent rehearsal here

‘Like a professional theater’

With budget cuts on the way and South High’s theater program already running “on a shoestring,” Virginia Potratz wanted to come up with a creative way to raise money. So instead of handing Bormann a check, she decided to get alumni — some now theater professionals — back together to demonstrate the results of Bormann’s program. Alumni in the production range in age from a ’95 graduate who’s doing sound for the show to two students who just graduated this spring. In addition, current South theater students represent the crew — a tuxedo-clad group moving props and set pieces.

This play in particularly important to Potratz, she said, because of the impact it had on her son Ahren when he acted in it fifteen years ago. “From that time on, we knew that he would end up being an actor,” she said. For his part, Ahren, now a professional actor living in Philadelphia, cites it as the reason he’s an actor. His experience the first time around was “very scary, but thrilling at the same time,” he said.

Praise for Bormann at the end of her tenure

He credited Bormann, as well, who kept him coming back to do shows during his years at South. “She’s so keen at understanding a play and the text, and utilizing peoples’ individual talents to serve the piece,” he said. She ran the program like a professional theater, he said, teaching her students that putting on plays is a business that requires hard work and must be approached seriously. That foundation sent him to college knowing that “it’s not all fun and games; sometimes it is really hard, and sometimes it is a job, just a job. … Once you’ve done all that work, then it’s play, and it can be fun.”

Hess said Bormann was a source of affirmation and confidence in high school. “I felt like she believed in us,” Hess said. “Her whole being would light up because of the talent of her students, and it was amazing to have that reflected back to you as a young person.”

South High Assistant Principal Dagny Waldeland echoed that. “I know she values very much what the students contribute,” Waldeland said, adding that Bormann’s work has been focused on South High and the kids, not her own recognition. Still, she does have a reputation and personality that Waldeland said draws kids to the program. An important part of that personality, she said, is being flexible enough to allow students to grow by doing thing like writing and directing their own one-act plays.

While former students credit her with helping them to grow professionally and personally, Bormann said she’s been “very fortunate … to have such incredible students.” Working directly with them on shows, she said, is what she’ll miss most after stepping out of her role.

Bormann said she decided to resign at the end of the 2007–2008 school year, because she felt she no longer had the support of the program’s parent group, Friends of South High Theater. Jeanne Carter, who has co-chaired the group for the past three years, said she hadn’t talked with Bormann about a perceived lack of support, but that declines in parent donations have prevented the group from being as generous to the theater program as it had been in the past.

In any case, Bormann called it water under the bridge now and said it’s time for her to retire from all the late nights at school that come with the job. She will stay on at South to teach English, which she had been doing on top of her theater duties — which she’s now passing on to Fenster: planning the season and budget, hiring adult staff and making sure student staff know their jobs, dealing with permits and royalties, and acting as a counselor.

Up to the challenge

Fenster has done a variety of acting, directing, producing and teaching work since graduating with a theater arts degree from the University of Minnesota and she said she’s looking forward to the new challenge of running the theater program she was once a student of.

“I’m amazed at what [Bormann’s] done, and I’m happy and challenged and honored to be the next person in there to grow and keep that program going,” she said.

Fenster said the student body has changed a lot since she was at South, in terms of race and culture. “It’s way more diverse now,” she said. “Now there’s Muslim students praying in the theater at lunchtime, and there’s Spanish being spoke, and the East Africa contingency is much larger.” The change, she said, is exciting in terms of storytelling — one of the aspects of theater Fenster said she loves.

One challenge Fenster will inherit is waning funding for arts education. Over the 18 years since Bormann began at South High, she said she’s seen her budget reduced to one-fifth of what it was originally. Now, the program has to have an activity fee to help cover costs, though they’ve been able to raise money to provide scholarships to those who can’t afford it. Still, Bormann said there are probably students who don’t try out because of the fee.

Beyond raising money for the program, Fenster said part of the idea behind the alumni production is to show how investment in schools can pay off down the road — in this case, with a group of people now working in the community as performers and teachers.

“All kids deserve that kind of investment early, because it’s the only thing that’s going to ensure that they’re eventually going to give back,” she said.

last revised: June 24, 2009