By Kris Kerzman, Variety contributor, Published July 14 2013
Gooseberry director champions belonging, teamwork in production of ‘Oklahoma!’
It’s that mentality she seeks to instill in the students involved in the staging of this summer’s Gooseberry Park Players production of “Oklahoma!” her first with the company since being hired as their managing artistic director last year.
The students are there to learn theater, but for Griffith, they’re there to learn how to do it together and realize goals that will serve them throughout their lives.
“Theater is more about life and learning than it is about theater. It’s not about acting, but being,” she said.
Finding personal balance, knowing your strengths and weaknesses, and working well with others form the backbone of Griffith’s personal philosophy in and out of the theater.
She found the theater in her Detroit Lakes, Minn., high school when she searched for a place to belong after a socially debilitating bout with scoliosis. She went on to study theater at Gustavus Adolphus College, and she’s taught theater and speech to high school students across Minnesota.
Now living in International Falls, Minn., she shares her philosophy through inspirational speaking engagements and “Everyday Matters,” a 60-second radio segment heard on 70 stations throughout the upper Midwest and Canada.
In life and in theater, Griffith is a champion for cooperation and positivity.
“I try to communicate that it’s not about the lead character or whether you got the lead or not,” she said. “It’s about communicating a story as a group.”
“You don’t have to let circumstances define you. You can look at them as an opportunity rather than a crisis.”
Her approach was on display at a recent “Oklahoma!” rehearsal. In order to dispense with formality, she gives each student a nickname, and they all call her “Mrs. G.” Interns provide hands-on theater training over the course of the rehearsal while Griffith observes, tying all the lessons together into a broader, more meaningful package.
During rehearsal, she picks out a student here, a student there, sharing those nicknames and demonstrating a deep understanding of what motivates them.
One of those students is 15-year-old Nick Cameron, who’s been in a handful of productions through his years at Moorhead High School. He was on the fence about being part of “Oklahoma!,” but after a good audition, he decided he wanted to work with Griffith.
He said he doesn’t regret the decision at all.
“I like her style,” Cameron said. “She’s energetic, and she likes to keep things moving and get down to business and get things done.”
Her excitement for the theater often shows during rehearsals, he said.
“She likes to yell, but then ‘Oklahoma!’ is a very ‘Yee-haw’ kind of a show,” he said. He added that working with Griffith has made him more excited for his future in theater.
Griffith ties her overall personal themes into the show itself, too, saying “It’s a deeper story than you think.”
She points to one of the musical numbers from “Oklahoma!,” “The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends,” in which farmers and cattle ranchers unite by recognizing that each is worthwhile.
“We should focus on what we have in common rather than focus on what makes us different,” she said.
To illustrate this, Griffith said that an “O” and a “K” from the play’s set pieces get pushed together at the end of the number, as in “everything’s OK.”
When the curtain goes up on “Oklahoma!,” the weeks of rehearsal students have put in will yield a stage show, but they will also yield a tighter knit group of youths who, like Griffith, have hopefully found something in the theater that excites them, something that gives them a sense of belonging.
Griffith said that the result is sure to be apparent to the audience.
“I’m going to be the first to stand and clap for these kids, and I can’t imagine other people not standing and clapping and screaming for these kids.”
This article is part of a content partnership with The Arts Partnership, a nonprofit organization cultivating the arts in Fargo, Moorhead, and West Fargo, and its online publication, ARTSpulse. More more information, visit http://theartspartnership.net/artspulse.