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INTERVIEW: Ron Peluso on Glensheen, Murder, and Revivals

Glensheen opened last Wednesday at the History Theatre in St. Paul. This revival of last fall’s hit came early – just seven months after the world premiere at the History Theatre brought in surging audiences and sold-out show after show. The Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine spoke with the History Theatre’s artistic director Ron Peluso about the show’s genesis and resonance.

Ron Peluso, the Artistic Director of the History Theatre and director for Glensheen.

How is the show doing in terms of ticket sales and audience response?

We just opened Wednesday night and the show is a hit, like it was last fall.

As I recall, the scale of the audience response last fall took the History Theatre somewhat by surprise, leading to a scramble to add extra performances to keep up with demand. This time around, have you left any room for adding extra performances?

We can probably add one more performance – we have an arrangement with the McNally College of Music, but they’re doing a renovation of the building now and generously allowed us to have the month of July. After that, they have to continue with the renovation [as planned].

Do you have the whole company back this time around – actors, musicians, creative staff?

The saxophone player had an emergency appendectomy the day before opening, so we had to scramble and replace him…we did by Thursday night. The bass player has his sub covering him for the first two weeks, then he’s coming back…but, basically, everyone is back.

Scheduling a revival with the same cast is tricky for scheduling – how did that come together?

It took us a little while to work out the schedule with the college to see if we could do it again [because of the renovation]. Everyone wanted to come back, all the band members, the actors, the designers, so they put a hold on their schedules, and then in January we confirmed that they would do it again.

How much time did you have for rehearsals in the original run?

3.5 weeks of rehearsals.

How much rehearsing did it take to put back together a show that last played just half a year ago?

It was about a week and a half. We walked into rehearsal and could have opened in the first week, but it’s nice to have more. There are 140 light cues and all that…a lot of costume changes…

And the result?

I think the show’s even better than it was before.

Tell me about how the show is selling.

The audience responses have been just like last year, with people standing and cheer. Every night, they scream and laugh and cheer and whistle…last night, I was walking out and one of the audience members said, “This play is so funny!” I had something of a negative reaction to it…it has funny moments, but we try and respect the characters.

It is a black comedy…

What about repeat visitors?

The show opened on Wednesday and we’ve seen people come back already…with different people. It’s a piece of Minnesota history…and [the history is] still going on because Marjorie’s still around.

How did this commission come about?

Jeffery Hatcher and I had been talking about this subject for more than a decade. We were jokingly saying, “We should do this show after Marjorie’s passed down, because our houses are made of wood…we don’t want our houses burnt down…” We kept thinking next year or the year after, and years ago I brought it up to Jeff again, and he said, “Oh, I just started working with Cham Polling in a workshop, he’s a fabulous musician…and I think it should be a musical!”

We connected with Peg Meier, the Star Tribune Night Desk reporter who was tracking the story, and Joe Kimble. Joe was on his first job out of college, was in Duluth covering a Strawberry Festival and sent over to cover the murder…ended up living out of hotels—had to buy clothes and everything—to keep covering the case. Joe wrote a book on it. We got Peg and Joe together on my back patio to talk about what was possible. We decided if we could do it respectfully, we would.

What happened next?

We did a preview 2 years ago for their Rough Stages…about 200 people in the audience. One of them was Velma’s niece, who came down from Duluth for the reading. She said, ‘Thank you so much for honoring my aunt’s death in this show with a beautiful song and [being] respectful. At that point, I thought we should go forward with this play – [knowing that we could] look at this bizarre murder story and be respectful.

It is one of the great Minnesota tragedies and involves the First Family of Duluth.

Who picked the title?

We go around about titles all the time. The theatre likes to have the final say, but we go around. We all agreed that Jeff’s title Glensheen was the best, but before that we had all these titles like the Murders on London Road

I understand that there’s been a bit of buzz about other theatres doing Glensheen – selling out added performances is the problem every theatre wants to have, after all. Does the History Theatre, as the commissioning party, have any interest or control in what happens next with the musical?

When we commission a play/musical, the rights belong to the playwright. We have rights to do it [exclusively] for a limited period and we get a small percentage when it’s done elsewhere… but we’re a nonprofit and we hope that the show [ultimately] goes elsewhere. If the playwright makes a great deal of money we’re happy for him or her.

Back to the revival – the History Theatre doesn’t normally operate in the summer, correct?

We normally don’t produce during the summer… I don’t think we’ve done a summer show since 2002, when we did Sisters of Swing

We’re not doing Hello, Dolly or other standard summer entertainment. Most of our shows have some sort of history education…not a summer musical like the Guthrie.

And how has the response been to this summer show?

Our phone numbers are so busy that the phone rolls over into my office, which is dangerous…patrons don’t want me handling their ticket sales, because I might screw it up. We [also] sold lots of tickets over the 4th of July Weekend, which is normally a silent time for us. Every show so far has had 400+ [attendees]. If this keeps up, we’ll sell out a few near the end of the run. There were 450 people at the opening…on a Wednesday [which is unusual].

You never know what’s going to be a spark and ignite both an artistic success and a box office success. I always tell my Board of Directors that every show is going to be a success…but you never know what will also be a box office success. Because we do new work, you never know, too, until opening night.

Glensheen plays through July 31 at the History Theatre in St. Paul, MN.


Basil Considine