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A little 'Variation': FMSO director Boyd steps into spotlight with dramatic debut

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Linda Boyd as Dr. Katherine Brandt rehearses a scene with pianist John Roberts and Jay Nelson as Beethoven from Theatre B’s production of “33 Variations.” David Samson / The Forum

Fargo - In her day job as the executive director of the Fargo-Moorhead Symphony Orchestra, Linda Boyd does the bulk of her work behind the scenes, occasionally taking the stage at concerts for announcements or to bring flowers out for the featured guest artist.

It’s Boyd who will be front and center Friday night when “33 Variations” opens at Theatre B. Playing Katherine Brandt, a driven musicologist studying Ludwig van Beethoven’s obsession with a waltz, Boyd steps into the spotlight for the first time in a dramatic role.
“This has been the most incredible experience,” Boyd says.
It’s an experience that goes back about four years, when Theatre B’s Carrie Wintersteen first showed her a script for the Moisés Kaufman play to see if there would be interest in the symphony and theater working together on a production. 
They were each so excited about the prospect that a whole Winter Arts Festival was formed to give people something to get out and see and hear in February. Beethoven Fest, which kicked off Saturday with an all-Beethoven concert from the FMSO, continues this week with a family concert called “Meet Mr. Beethoven” on Thursday night and the regional premiere of “33 Variations” on Friday.
From the moment Boyd read the script, she told herself, “I have to play this part.”
Brandt is so driven to better understanding the works of Beethoven that she risks losing sight of her relationship with her daughter and her own losing battle with ALS.
Brandt’s particular focus is Beethoven’s near obsession late in life, in the 1820s when he was completely deaf, with writing 33 variations to a waltz melody by the lesser-known composer Anton Diabelli.
“There were so many elements that resonated with me,” Boyd says, adding that her own mother died of emphysema.
“The same things that drive my real daughter crazy drive my daughter crazy in the production,” she says, referring to her co-star Missy Teeters.
While Teeters is a company member of Theatre B, Boyd hasn’t been on a theater stage in more than 20 years, since her days in community theater and opera. That wasn’t a concern for director Brad Delzer, who says there are benefits to working with new actors – they can be more open to direction and advice than a veteran actor, he says.
Boyd says the process, with training starting in November, involved learning techniques as well as unlearning some old tricks. She says to project her voice in the opera or plays in bigger theaters, she would cheat or slightly turn her body to the audience. Delzer convinced her that wasn’t necessary in the intimate Theatre B space, which holds an audience of less than 100.
Boyd isn’t the only novice actor Delzer is working with. Jay Nelson plays Beethoven, who is on stage at the same times as Boyd’s contemporary character. The great composer struggles to create music amid his recent deafness, mirroring Brandt’s struggles with finishing her research as ALS eventually leaves her confined to a wheelchair.
Delzer says Boyd’s determination and drive to play the character make her a good pick to play Brandt.
“Her passion, her desire to do it right, to do it justice, means she’s bringing her A-game all of the time,” he says, adding that there are similarities between the actress and her role.
“They’re passionate, driven. They feel they can take on the work and won’t settle for less than the best that they can give,” Delzer says.
And they both love music. A trained singer, Boyd has loved being around a music-based drama.
“The music is another character in the play,” Boyd says. “There’s so much music in the plot.”
Actually there’s music all around the stage. John N. Roberts, a professor of piano and chairman of the Music Department at Concordia College is on stage, performing the “33 Variations” as Brandt studies them and Beethoven writes them. As Beethoven, Nelson and Roberts have to stay together in stride, with the actor needing to hit his mark as the pianist hits certain notes for dramatic effect.
The backdrop is a series of sketches of musical charts and transcripts written right on the wall, suggesting the composer working on the music.
“It is the way the Katherine (Brandt) looks to be transfigured as a person,” Delzer says of the dual importance of the music, pointing out how it also changes Beethoven.” It tells as much of the story as anyone’s lines.”
Another bit of non-verbal story-telling is Delzer’s decision to use wheelchairs as the only other set piece on the stage. He says it’s a “poetic symbol” for Brandt’s deteriorating health, which eventually leaves her wheelchair-bound. 
It’s not just Brandt who gets a wheelchair. All of the performers onstage spend time in wheelchairs, including Roberts, seated at the piano.
“We realized it’s a great way to both physicalize the journey that Catherine is taking and also an interesting way to tell different locations and aspects of the story,” Delzer says. “That’s one of those ‘I’m-not-sure-why-it’s-right-but-it’s-right’ things.”
Delzer says having a live piano player and actors in wheelchairs all on stage at the same is a way for Theatre B to push itself.
Even before opening night, Boyd says the whole experience has been a rewarding one.
“It’s hard to think of it as a challenge because I’ve loved every minute of it so much,” she says.

IF YOU GO

WHAT: “33 Variations”
WHEN: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and Thursdays through Saturdays in February
WHERE: Theatre B, 716 Main Ave., Fargo
TICKETS: $5 - $20. www.theatreb.org . (701) 729-8880.

Related Topics: THEATER
For 20 years John Lamb has covered art, entertainment and lifestyle stories in the area for The Forum.
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