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Odd neighbors: Two Fargo troupes with distinct artistic personalities move in together

Over the decades, the 1890s-vintage building at 716 Main Ave. in Fargo has been an Internet gaming shop, a tattoo parlor, a leather goods store and a furniture place. But can it accommodate without crumbling into ruins its latest inhabitants: two...

Over the decades, the 1890s-vintage building at 716 Main Ave. in Fargo has been an Internet gaming shop, a tattoo parlor, a leather goods store and a furniture place. But can it accommodate without crumbling into ruins its latest inhabitants: two local theater troupes with equally soaring ambitions and radically different dramatic tastes?

Theatre B members tackle bold contemporary works by authors who have yet to snatch their first Pulitzers and Tony awards. The Tin Roof Theatre Company seeks to revisit the time-honored classics of American drama.

Instead of clutching at each other's throats in a standoff over artistic priorities, both troupes' members have been the model of neighborly amity. They already have two smooth-sailing productions to show for it: Theatre B's laugh-till-you-cry drama "Joined at the Head," which had a successful run earlier this fall and now Tin Roof's debut, "Death of a Salesman."

Before moving into its new home, Theatre B led a decidedly nomadic existence. A mold infestation drove the troupe out of the old Moose Lodge in downtown Fargo, where they had their opening season in the fall of 2003.

They staged their show "The Guys," about firefighters who lost their lives in the World Trade Center terrorist attacks, at the Fargo fire station. They performed at Fargo's American Legion to the sound of a rock band warming up downstairs and rented out - for more money than they could afford - a building next door to their current home on Main.


Rehearsals took place in co-founder Carrie Wintersteen's living room or another member's basement. "Here we were in our 40s and feeling like we had a garage band," Wintersteen says.

Therefore, when Dave Sheer, owner of the 716 location, suggested they take over the space, they readily took him up on it.

About the same time, a disparate group of Fargo theater buffs decided to form Tin Roof and looked around for a suitable space.

Tin Roof members were among more than 20 volunteers who helped Theatre B transform the blank first-floor hall into a snug performance venue. "It was just an empty space," says Tin Roof member Shelli Herman. "It's incredible how far it's come."

Theatre B members returned the favor by helping their younger roomie set up the stage and lighting for "Death of a Salesman."

The difference in artistic focus, rather than a source of cohabitation friction, lends the two troupes the camaraderie that comes from completing each other.

"We do completely different types of theater, but in many ways we have the same mission," says Herman of the troupes' goal to enrich and entertain the community. "They do that through contemporary theater, and we do that through classic American drama."

Two troupes, one stage


Average member age:

Theatre B: 35 (two married couples in their 40s and two recent college grads in their 20s)

Tin Roof: 35 (seven core members ranging in age from their 20s to their late 50s)

Day jobs:

TB: tenured theater faculty members, beginning actors reluctant to evacuate to the Twin Cities arts scene just yet, farming equipment dealer

TR: lady farmer, building contractor, stay-at-home moms, accountant


TB: "Rearranging the furniture of your mind"


TR: "Theater for the hungry mind"

Artistic goals:

TB: Present cutting-edge, contemporary plays in an intimate setting. "We appeal to an audience that likes to take a bit of a risk and see something new," says Carrie Wintersteen.

TR: Bring American classics back to the area in an intimate setting and show the enduring relevance of great drama.

Issues on the agenda:

TB: Refusing to shy away from provocative topics, the company has tackled themes ranging from the far-reaching repercussions of divorce in "Dinner with Friends," to homophobia in "Stop Kiss," to militant politics in 1980s Lebanon in "Two Rooms."

TR: "What interests us is the human condition," says troupe member Shelli Herman. The company is inspired by universal themes in the last century's masterpieces: Today, the American dream is as elusive as in Miller's 1949 classic "Death of a Salesman," and alcoholism still as insidious as in the upcoming "A Moon for the Misbegotten," a 1943 play by Eugene O'Neill.

Latest production:


TB: "Joined at the Head," which wrapped up earlier this month, by Catherine Butterfield, in which a famous novelist reunites with her high school sweetheart and meets his hilarious wife - who's dying of cancer. "It's such a beautiful mix of humor and sadness," says Wintersteen. "It takes the audience on an emotional rollercoaster."

TR: Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." The company knew they wanted to start out on a high note with a play by the master playwright, who died in February. "We wanted to pay homage to him, and we decided to go ahead and do the biggie," says Herman.

Favorite behind the scenes story:

TB: Wintersteen and her husband, David, starred as an estranged couple on the cusp of divorce in the company's debut, "Dinner With Friends." They were rehearsing a scene in which the couple's children barge in on an intense discussion about their breakup when Carrie and David's kids, ages 6 and 10, who tag along to rehearsals, raised a ruckus. "We laughed hysterically about how real the script was," she says.

TR: The company's stage manager also handles a small part in "Death of a Salesman." She sits in the tech booth behind the audience in costume and sneaks out right before her character hits the stage. She dashes out of the building and races to the actor's entrance in the back.

Favorite audience feedback:

TB: "Joined at the Head" audience member: "I was crying so much I couldn't tell if it was because I was laughing so hard or because I was sad."

TR: An actor's boss, who admitted to usually falling asleep during plays, said he was riveted throughout the three hours of "Death."


If you go

What: Tin Roof Theatre Company's production of "Death of a Salesman"

When: 7:30 p.m., today through Saturday. Also playing next weekend.

Where: Main Avenue Theatre, Fargo

Info: Tickets $10 or $15. (701) 261-4823

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