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On with the show: Yellow brick road leads Trollwood down path to quarter-century of arts

The numbers say how Trollwood Performing Arts School has changed. But the people say the most important things haven't changed at all. In 1978, the school's first year, it operated on a $6,000 budget for the 60 youths it served. Trollwood now ope...


The numbers say how Trollwood Performing Arts School has changed. But the people say the most important things haven't changed at all.

In 1978, the school's first year, it operated on a $6,000 budget for the 60 youths it served.

Trollwood now operates on a budget of $850,000 and serves 350 children over the summer, almost half of those working in the mainstage musical and the rest taking classes.

That first year, Trollwood only offered four classes -- acting, singing, dance and technical theater. The program now offers 50 classes over the summer, with students able to choose areas in which they want to specialize.

The school marks its silver anniversary this year with one of its biggest productions, "Les Miserables."


Former students and staff say it's always been about giving students an experience beyond just learning theater.

Trollwood Executive Director Vicky Chepulis says that in the mid-1970s, Fargo Parks Director Bob Johnson visited Wolf Trap, the national arts park in Washington, D.C. He immediately saw possibilities for a similar facility back home.

Johnson pitched the idea to Vince Lindstrom, Fargo Public Schools facilities director, and School Superintendent Vern Bennett.

School district officials approached Ben Franklin Junior High teacher John Marks, who had just started a summer theater program at the junior high, and asked him if he was interested in doing something at Trollwood Park. Chepulis, at the time a free-lance costume designer, was enlisted along with Marks.

But before anything could be staged, the park had to be whipped into shape.

Trollwood had been the site of Cass County's poor farm until it closed in 1973 and there were a few buildings left -- the old caretaker's house, two barns and another building.

"We went into the hog barn and there was still hog doo-doo on the walls and dried food in the troughs," Chepulis says. "(Johnson) said, 'Can't you see making costumes in here?' "

Lisa Farnham now is Trollwood's marketing coordinator. But in 1978, she was a 16-year-old Fargo student who signed on to the tech crew for the first production, "The Wizard of Oz."


That meant signing on to the cleaning crew as well.

"You got dirty and sweaty," she says. "Other than that, I don't remember real specifics. We had a goal in mind and we had to travel down this road to get there."

The school also had to find creative ways to get things like costume material.

"We went all over the north side and put a flier in people's doors saying we're going to come around and (gather) anything that can be used for costumes," Chepulis says. "We had vans and we collected this stuff off of people's boulevards."

Meanwhile, Marks spoke to Hebron Brick, which agreed to donate rejected bricks from the factory for use in building the play's yellow brick road.

Creative staging

Staging the show required some technical creativity.

Trollwood was only able to find one wireless microphone, which was borrowed from the Fargo Holiday Inn. The microphone was carried onstage in Dorothy's small basket and Marks had to choreograph so the basket and microphone could be passed around as needed.


Once the show was over, Trollwood staff and parents shined their car headlights on the seating area so people could find their way out of the park.

About 3,000 people attended the first production.

"We were blown away," Marks says. "We were thinking maybe we'd get a couple hundred people."

In the mid-1980s, Trollwood began bringing in outside teachers and staff for the summer. Now, many of those who actually run the mainstage production are full-time theater professionals.

Chepulis says much of Trollwood's initial success can be credited to the collaboration between the school and park districts and the leadership of Bennett and Johnson.

"It wasn't, 'Whose job is it to do that, or who's going to get the credit,' " she says. "It was like, 'This is really good for kids, this is really good for the community. Let's make this happen.' "

"For 25 years, the Fargo School Board has been there and said, 'This is something we value,' " Chepulis says.

"They could have cut us in a heartbeat," Marks says.


Chepulis says Trollwood teaches important lessons that have nothing to do with theater.

Marks says many Trollwood students are youth at risk, either from behavioral problems or boredom.

"We recruit the kids, and we work with seven different agencies that refer kids to us," Marks says. "That's where I think we've really gone to the next level of transforming people's lives."

Farnham says the camaraderie was there even at the beginning.

"We all wanted to be here. We didn't have to be here. You had to be out here because you really loved theater."

If facilities in the early days were spartan, the really important things about Trollwood's summer program already were in place.

"When I was a 16-year-old, I didn't fit in," Farnham says. "I was probably a geeky, almost nerdy kid. I wasn't the popular girl, I wasn't the pretty girl, I wasn't the sports girl. I got good grades, I had a few friends. I just needed something to believe in about me, because I didn't have an identity for myself.

"Trollwood gave that to me. ... I learned that I had it inside myself all along."


Readers can reach Forum reporter Tom Pantera at (701) 241-5541

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