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Area Voices: A ghostly farce comes to Bemidji

Three people on stage in 1940s clothing and furniture.
Julie Kaiser
BCT's "Blithe Spirit" cast members Rebecca Swanson, left, Reed Peterson, and Amy Strande.

Bemidji Community Theater Presents Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit. The director Julie Kaiser joins Area Voices to discuss the show and the challenges of having a character be a ghost.

BEMIDJI — In the early part of the 20th century, spiritualism was a cultural phenomenon, and mediums and clairvoyants would be invited into homes to conduct seances.

Noel Coward’s play, Blithe Spirit, features just such a scene. The protagonist, novelist Charles Condomine, hires a medium to perform a seance. The medium, Madame Arcati, happens to summon Condomine’s dead first wife Elvira, and she does her best to disrupt his marriage to his second wife, Ruth.

Photo of director Julie kaiser wearing glasses and a jean jacket.
Julie Kiaser
Director of BCT's "Blithe Spirit" Julie Kaiser who will also be playing Madame Arcati.

This is not director Julie Kaiser’s introduction to Blithe Spirit. She was in the play seven years ago playing the eccentric Madame Arcati. Kaiser will be playing the role again, though she didn’t intend to when she chose the play.

“The actress that I had asked to play Madame Arcati wasn't able to play the part, and because I knew the part already and we were on a shortened time schedule we thought 'Well, I'll go ahead and do it.'”

Kaiser had initially planned to do a different play altogether and auditioned for it but didn’t get enough actors to cast all the roles.

“I was in a little bit of a quandary, and I started looking up plays that had the amount of people that I'd had audition and that I was going to cast, and Blithe Spirit was one that came up,” she said.

Kaiser has never directed a play that she is also acting in, and it has its challenges.

“The biggest thing is that you can't see what's happening," she said. "So you can't see how you look on stage in the other actors.”

Luckily for Kaiser, her stage manager Vicki Stenerson has joined on as co-director for the scenes Kaiser is onstage for.

“So, she takes my view and my ideas and what my vision is and looks at them and then gives me feedback,” Kaiser said.

Having played the role before, Kaiser isn’t worried about repeating her performance as Madame Arcati.

“One of the wonderful things about live theater, of course, is that every show is different,” Kaiser said. “You can rehearse a show forever and ever and once you put it up it becomes a different show every time you step on stage.”

Woman sitting on a cushion chair with a woman standing behind her on a 1940 stage set.
Julie Kaiser
BCT's "Blite Spirit" cast members Amy Strande, sitting, and Rebecca Swanson.

She also believes having a different cast, stage and set contributes to an overall different performance. She’s said she's hoping that people who may have seen her performance seven years ago will come away with a different experience.

Kaiser has been involved with theater since she was a little kid. Even when she was 7, she was a performer.

“It really just has become a large part of who I am," she said. "I don't know that there's ever been a time that I've not done some sort of performing.”

Directing was a more recent development. About 10 years ago, while she was on the Board of Directors for Bemidji Community Theater, she really wanted to see a production of The Elephant Man. No one was interested in directing it, so she decided she would. 

I had a brilliant cast, and I really enjoyed the process of taking something from script to stage and there's just not a feeling like that,” Kaiser said.

Stage ghost

Another challenge with a show like Blithe Spirit is how to portray an actor as a ghost. Even the ghost’s entrance proved to be a challenge. A ghost would not open the door or window if it could go right through them. Kaiser said you will have to see the show to see how they get around that challenge.

For Anna Mayer, playing the ghost, Elvira, presents another challenge: None of the other actors can acknowledge she’s there.

“She's doing a great job of being able to convey the feelings that the ghost has and the attention that the ghost has with the rest of the characters," Kaiser said. " ... It's fun to see her growing into that role.”

As for what Kaiser hopes people take away from the show she said, “I hope they realize that it's OK to laugh, even in the face of adversity and in the face of things that you know you really can't control.

And I hope that at the end of everything that people realize that it's a silly story about a very strong love.”

Performances for Blithe Spirit are July 12-14 and July 18-21, with Thursday through Friday performances at 7 p.m. and Sunday performances at 2 p.m. Tickets are available at Ken K. Thompson Jewelry, McKenzie Place or on the BCT website.

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Area Voices is made possible by the Minnesota Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and the citizens of Minnesota.

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