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Back to the 'Basement': Playwright Zuehlke reflects on success of humorous musical

A decade ago, a humorous play depicting the inner sanctum of the church kitchen made its debut at the Plymouth Playhouse in the Twin Cities. The production, "Church Basement Ladies," was an instant hit and became a cultural phenomenon, giving Upp...

Church Basement Ladies
The cast of the 10th anniversary production of "Church Basement Ladies" is seen in a promotional photo from the Plymouth Playhouse.

A decade ago, a humorous play depicting the inner sanctum of the church kitchen made its debut at the Plymouth Playhouse in the Twin Cities. The production, “Church Basement Ladies,” was an instant hit and became a cultural phenomenon, giving Upper Midwesterners a reason to laugh at themselves and spawning a number of spin-offs.
There is a familiarity about the play’s characters - although they are certainly exaggerated stereotypes - that may hit close to home, and that’s not surprising, given that one of the play’s authors, Jessica Zuehlke, grew up in Worthington, (the daughter of Nancy and the late Cal Zuehlke) and certainly drew on her own experiences to conjure up the scenes. Zuehlke was joined in the endeavor by her husband, Jim Stowell.
“It was a commercial endeavor, a commission,” explained Zuehlke during a recent phone interview from their Red Wing home. “We were the third set of playwrights, and we submitted several versions, a normal process in a commission.
“A commission is not a normal thing; it’s an unusual, but welcome, thing,” she elaborated. “When you are asked to write something, it’s a really nice gig, and if it gets used and more residuals come from that, it’s even better.”
Originally, the playhouse wanted four self-standing one-act scenes, following the pattern that had been successful in an earlier regionally-inspired production, “How To Talk Minnesotan,” based on the humor book by Howard Mohr. But the producer/director, upon reading what Zuehlke and Stowell put together, decided it would be better as a full musical with a continuing storyline, so they revamped it into that format.
“Jim and I had a blast working on it together,” Zuehlke recalled. “Most of the writing happened in Bayfield (Wisconsin, where the couple run a bed-and-breakfast operation in the summer months) in 2003-’04.”
Zuehlke has a background in teaching, but got interested in the theater specifically to learn how to write plays for student productions - an area she’d found lacking in directing high school endeavors.
Stowell, on the other hand, has been writing, acting, directing and producing theater in the Twin Cities for 40 years. Most recently, Worthington area audiences will remember his adaptation of Tim O’Brien’s book, “The Things They Carried,” as a one-man stage play that debuted early in 2014 at the History Theatre in St. Paul and toured to Worthington in November of last year. Stowell is currently overseeing another production of it in Lincoln, Neb.
For “Church Basement Ladies,” Zuehlke and Stowell drew upon their own Upper Midwest experiences as well as classic comedy.
“The phenomenon - the stories and visuals of these ladies - touched on everyone,” Zuehlke reflected. “It started from a Lutheran base, but we wanted it to be universal enough for lots of faiths and lots of churches, and it touched a nerve. We have Garrison Keillor to thank for grooming us for remembering and learning and crying a little and laughing and loving our own Minnesota culture.
“The other model that Jim and I used was Lucy and Ethel,” she continued, referencing the classic “I Love Lucy” sitcom. “It’s that time period and what these ladies would have watched then. Lucy and Ethel are goofy, but we love them. They don’t know they’re funny, and that’s key. The characters can’t think they’re funny. … We also used some strategies that the Marx brothers used. Everyone knows there’s a rhythm and timing. That’s why theater is like music. One of the things such comedians would do is count the beats, sort of orchestrating how the laughs are - medium, big, large - during the development process. … One of us would be backstage and one in the audience during the previews, and on each page we’d count the number of beats and the number of laughs and orchestrate it through that scene - where it needed to lead to, when do you have the big explosive laugh - and take people on that journey. So there’s a science to it as well.”
To turn the play into a musical production, they collaborated with composer-songwriter Drew Jansen.
After its initial two-year run at the Plymouth Playhouse, the original play became a national touring production, and eventually the rights were released to both professional and community theaters. Most recently, it’s crossed the northern border with Canadian productions. Additionally, there have been four sequel/spin-offs: “Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping,” “Away in the Basement,” “A Mighty Fortress Is Our Basement” and “The Last (Potluck) Supper.” Zuehlke and Powell didn’t have a hand in those subsequent shows, but they are proud of the winning formula their efforts begat.
“All of us in the theater, if we knew how to write a hit and have it go for 10 years, we would do it,” Zuehlke said.
Currently, “Church Basement Ladies” is finishing up a 10th-anniversary run that began in June and will end Nov. 15 at the Plymouth Playhouse. Publicity materials for the show describe it thusly:
Complete with 12 songs, Church Basement Ladies is a celebration of the church basement kitchen and the women who work there, featuring four distinct characters and their relationships as they organize the food and the problems of a rural Minnesota church. From the elderly matriarch of the kitchen to the young bride-to-be learning the proper order of things, the book and music give us a touching, funny look at their lives as we see them handle a record-breaking Christmas dinner, the funeral of a dear friend, a Hawaiian Easter Fundraiser, and a steaming hot July wedding. They stave off potential disasters, share and debate recipes, instruct the young, and keep the Pastor on due course while thoroughly enjoying (and tolerating) each other. Funny and touching, audiences will recognize these ladies as they begin to see the year unfold from below the House of God.
Due to both personal and professional commitments, Zuehlke and Stowell have yet to see this newest version of their humorous script, but they hope to get there the last week of its run.
“It will be really fun to see them,” said Zuehlke. “We’re really thrilled about (the play’s success), not only because of the audience numbers in that phenomenon, but also that we know there are over 80 professional actors who got to make a really good living out of that show. We’ve heard from so many theaters that it was their one sell-out production, that this was their cash cow. They had fun, the audience loved it, and they were able to get through another season financially.”
Zuehlke and Stowell continue to work on future projects both together and individually. Zuehlke, who taught full-time in Red Wing for 17 years, is back to doing in-school residencies and is preparing for another session of those. Out of her archives, she has pulled a couple of Native American plays that she hopes to get published and perhaps work with a Native American musician on a production in the Red Wing area.
In addition to the Nebraska production of “The Things They Carried,” Stowell is shopping around a new one-person play based on an award-winning Minnesota book on organic farming called “Turn Here Sweet Corn.”
“The book’s author is Atina Diffley. She and her husband, Martin, pioneered organic farming,” Zuehlke detailed. “There’s not a producer or production yet. The script is done, ready to go, and a couple of theaters have read it and loved it. One-man shows are easier to fund. Jim is so skilled at the 10 one-person shows he’s done; this is his turf now as we get into our late 60s and 70s. If you want to do a one-person show, he’s the guy you want to hire.”
Together they are working on a project that is near-and-dear to Zuehlke’s heart, as it is based on the origin of the city partnership between Worthington and Crailsheim, Germany. Called “A Wagon Load of Shoes,” it tells the story about a young girl who goes around collecting shoes to help her penpal in Finland, which eventually blossoms into a community effort to aid a city across the ocean in the wake of World War II.
“We’re reconfiguring how we’re going to try to get it done,” Zuehlke said. “We went to the normal paths, to producers, who loved it, but nobody has the money to do this kind of show. We’ve looked at grant writing and are thinking about that. … We may try to go to family foundations and put it together. The first hurdle is getting $10,000 to hire a composer. We haven’t given up on it. It’s been ready to roll for two years, ready for a composer and producer.”

For more information on the Plymouth Playhouse production of “Church Basement Ladies,” visit plymouthplayhouse.com or phone (763) 553-1600.

Stowell-Zuehlke
Jessica Zuehlke and JIm Stowell are based in Red Wing, on the banks of the Mississippi River.

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