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Home > Arts > INTERVIEW: On Orphans and <em>Orphan Trains</em> – A Chat with the History Theatre’s Ron Peluso and Anya Kremenetsky

INTERVIEW: On Orphans and Orphan Trains – A Chat with the History Theatre’s Ron Peluso and Anya Kremenetsky

A group of orphans with their chaperones in New York City’s Grand Central Station in 1923, prior to being sent to Minnesota.

On Saturday, November 19, the History Theatre opens its holiday revival of Orphan Train, a critically praised musical about orphan children from New York City who were shipped off by train to the Midwest. This show, which premiered at the History Theatre in 1997, has been revived by the theatre three times and was last seen in the Twin Cities in the 2007 revival. Its story explores the varied lives and experiences of these children in their new homes

The Twin Cities Arts Reader‘s Basil Considine chatted with co-directors Ron Peluso and Anya Kremenetsky about Orphan Train.

This is the fifth time that the History Theatre has staged Orphan Train. How has the production evolved in the two decades since its premiere here? Are there different resources or considerations in play now?

This time around we have engaged Richard Kriehn from A Prairie Home Companion, long-time fiddle/mandolin/guitar player, to arrange the music for the show.  We’ll have piano, with fiddle, mandolin, and bass.  This new arrangement should provide a more intense and emotional feel to this already powerful folk musical.  We also have an entirely new ensemble of actors.

The general story of NYC orphans being shipped to the Midwest has attracted a fair amount of attention from playwrights, with several plays and musicals setting the general story of Orphan Train. What makes Patty Lynch’s book and story work so well? 

Patty’s book doesn’t shy away from the dark side of this American social experiment.

As there were many wonderful stories of adoption, it is important to understand that there were also many abuses and tragic outcomes that came with the orphan trains.  In fact, as there were so many children who were injured, abused, or lost their lives in Minnesota, our state stepped forward with the nation’s first laws to formalize the adoption process.  The Children’s Home Society of Minnesota was created for that very purpose.

Part of the History Theatre lore involves some of the actual orphans who were shipped to Minnesota having come to see the original run. Can you share a few anecdotes?

Over the years, we’ve had a number of former orphan train riders join us for the shows.  As the orphan trains stopped in 1929, there are currently no living riders remaining that we know of.  That said, during the opening night of our first run in 1997, there were a dozen or more “orphan riders” sitting in the front row of the theater.  When I introduced them to our audience, I asked them, “Where and when did you get off the train?  Please describe your memory.”

A gentlemen in his late 70s or 80s recalled that he was adopted by a family in Albert Lea, MN.  His infant sister was not selected there and went on to the next stop – he thought he’d never see her again.  As it turned out, she was adopted down the line by a family that would move to Mason City, Iowa – and 40 years later, they would be reunited with the help of the Orphan Train Society of Minnesota.

In our play, a brother and sister are also separated and reunited.  During the curtain call, when the actors playing the brother and sister came out to take their bows, the gentleman from Albert Lea walked up onto the stage and hugged the two young actors.  The audience cheered and applauded and cried for several minutes as this beautiful real-life scene played out.  Over the years, many orphan riders have shared their stories with us, and the same can be said of their descendants.

You’ve already added a pair of 10 AM matinee performances after the first five sold out. How have school audiences responded to this show in the past?

We have always done really well with student groups for this show. There is an uptick in sales for schools from this year to the last time we did it. Partially from the new interest and the Orphan Train books.

This production occupies a prime spot in the History Theatre season – it opens a week before Thanksgiving and closes right before Christmas. Has it always occupied this spot?

Usually it does fit into this schedule. Our first productions in 1997, ’98 and ’99 all ran during the November/December holiday seasons and were greeted with great success from the public and especially school groups from 4th to 12th grade. We did a short run in February 2007, which got a slightly smaller audience turn-out.

Basil Considine