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Sewing their way: A musical celebration of women who settled the West

Sarah (Verna Fricke) drives a covered wagon and sings with her daughters (Kiki Gheen, Brittany Westerberg, Hannah Kowalchyk and Leah Buysse) during rehearsal for "Quilters," which Red Wing AAUW will stage Sept. 23 and 24, 2017, in Zumbrota's historic State Theatre. Hannah Coyle / RiverTown Multimedia 1 / 2
Brittany Westerberg plays a daughter in "Quilters," a musical tale about a family of women who carved out a life in the American West. Hannah Coyle / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

A musical about about the joys and struggles faced by pioneer women in everyday life grasped the attention of Mary Ellen Halverson back in 2009. The Red Wing woman saw the show "Quilters" and realized how relatable it was to life today with life lessons that span the ages. Eight years later, her efforts, along with the help of many others, are bringing the story to the Zumbrota State Theatre stage.

At an American Association for University Women picnic over two years ago, Halverson brought the idea to the attention of Linda Thielbar, then co-president of the Red Wing AAUW branch. From there, the idea took flight.

Halverson expressed how the show reminded her of AAUW and women in the community. Since AAUW's purpose is to promote education and equality for women, she pictured this as a great way to share their purpose from the stage.

"Quilters" is a story of a frontier woman with six daughters in the mid-1800s. A series of stories set at this time in American history illustrates the hardship, perseverance, love, heartache and spirit that many women faced. All of the cast members are women.

After Halverson, the driving force behind this event, brought the idea to the AAUW board officially in January of 2016, there was no question the production would be placed on the schedule.

"'Nevertheless, she persisted'" is the motto I use for her," Thielbar said. It was all a matter of planning from that moment forward.

The production team approached the Evening Star Quilt Guild to see if members would assist in making the pivotal prop, the Legacy Quilt, for the show. The team received an ecstatic "yes!" They also contacted the Goodhue County Historical Society to serve as fiscal agent.

The team then had to start talking dollars and cents. The budget had to include lots of things, but most importantly, the salary for the women in the show. As a women's organization, the team really wanted to pay their actors for the hard work ahead.

Sandy Wollschlager, an AAUW member, applied for grants during 2016. Defeat struck multiple times, but she never gave up. She went back to the drawing board, revised, and edited until she got the funds they needed. They came away with money from the Clean Water Land and Legacy Amendment (because they will promote the folk art of quilting) as well as a contribution from Walmart. The last notification they received about funds was from the Southeast Minnesota Arts Council, who awarded $10,000 for the production.

"The SEMAC people, one of the things they were impressed with was that artists were being paid for their work," Thielbar said.

What the team needed next was a theater for the production. The Sheldon Theatre in Red Wing had been ruled out early in the decision process due to renovations happening during planned show dates. Luckily, Zumbrota extended an enthusiastic hand. Shopkeepers there advertised through their windows and the community showed great interest in the production. They soon offered up the usage of their State Theatre.

Julie Martin and Gretchen Anderson were asked to direct the show. Both women were intrigued by the idea of an all-woman cast. Martin has been an active director and actor in Red Wing and Anderson, a retired teacher, has always been very involved in the musical scene. They used their connections and experience to find the perfect women to participate in the show.

"Not only were we looking for strong actors, but also strong voices." Martin said. The women recruited range in age from 17 to 50.

"Part of the value of the story is that it's intergenerational." Thielbar said.

Martin had two main goals when casting: to find women who aren't in every community production and to find women of many ages.

"The best part is the cast. It's so great to work with a small group. We get to know everyone in the cast and are able to joke around and have fun." said Brittany Westerberg, a college student participating in the show.

Two years in the making and the show is finally on the horizon. The show will run 7:30 p.m. Sept. 23 and 2 p.m. Sept. 24 in Zumbrota. For tickets, go to zaac.org/.

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