Every summer Linden Hills resident Kendra Waldauer would check out programs through the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board as she searched for activities for her sons.
Years ago, she signed her oldest son up for Theater Nest, a drama and arts program at Lynnhurst Recreation Center. He did a couple of sessions he enjoyed, but never quite caught the acting bug. When her younger son, Tyler, was 10, he gave it a shot.
“I signed Tyler up and it was just like a light bulb went off,” Kendra Waldauer said.
Now 13, Tyler Waldauer has been returning to Theater Nest ever since and is on the verge of aging out of the program. But Theater Nest, which has been serving youth in Southwest for more than 30 years, keeps kids like Tyler coming back for more.
Every session children are immersed in the myths of various cultures and countries before coming up with their own heavily improvised dramatic recreations of those stories, an engaging learning process Tyler enjoys.
“There’s infinite possibilities of where it can go,” he said.
Stories like the Waldauers’ have become the norm at Theater Nest, where youth embrace a time-tested creative process and become part of a community.
“You see a lot of the same faces because no one wants to leave,” said Rachel Williams, a Minneapolis Public Schools teacher who has a son in Theater Nest.
Rhonda Lund has overseen Theater Nest for years. She’s encouraged countless youth to embrace the creative process and found roles for them to stay involved when they age out.
“It’s not about who has the most lines or is going to be a big deal, it’s about throwing yourself into the creative process in every way,” Lund said.
Theater Nest, which hosts sessions in the fall, winter and spring, with multiple offerings in the summer, creates plays based on mythical traditions worldwide, but the program itself has its own mythical origins — or at least no one knows for sure when it began.
The program was started by two Lynnhurst women, Kathy Matalamaki and Jane Peck, sometime in the early 1980s, they don’t remember quite when.
“If I had known you were going to interview me, I would have kept track,” Matalamaki said.
What she does remember is an immediate interest. A year or two after the program began, they hired Lund to direct one show. She never left.
A full-time drama teacher at Sanford Middle School and a professional storyteller with years of acting and directing experience, Lund’s favorite job is Theater Nest, where she can experiment freely.
“This is my lab,” she said.
As a storyteller, Lund has always been curious about mythology across cultures and the majority of Theater Nest programming reflects that. Most sessions the group is performing the myths of places like ancient Persia, Russia or Cuba though, in recent summers, bonus theme weeks have been added for princesses, Pokémon, Harry Potter and Star Wars.
The formula for Theater Nest has largely remained the same these 30-plus years. They start with a broad theme, research the myths and culture they’re focusing on, give the kids some cues and let them go from there. Improvisation is common and encouraged.
“Almost anything can happen, and does,” Matalamaki said.
Matalamaki is Finnish and when they did a Finnish theme, she brought in a heavy metal CD some relatives had brought over, and the children transformed the gym into a Helsinki nightclub.
“The kids love it,” she said.
Today, Leah Seal-Gray is an instructor at Theater Nest, about a month away from leaving Hamline University with a teaching degree, but 15 years ago, she was a wide-eyed 7-year-old in the program.
“I just kind of never stopped,” she said.
Although Seal-Gray’s staff commitment is more serious than most, her story isn’t uncommon. As kids approach 13 or 14, Lund will tell them to not pay, just show up and help out with the younger children. If they’re still around at 16 or so, she’ll put them on the payroll.
“The problem was when the kids aged out of the program they wouldn’t leave,” Lund said.
But that problem has turned to a blessing for the program, which regularly has high school and college students pitch in for summer sessions. Five high school helpers graduated last year and four of them will be back to assist this summer, Lund said.
“The younger kids see the older kids in this role, and what I’ve noticed is the younger kids want to step into the role the older kids have taken,” Matalamaki said.
Marcus Williams started Theater Nest early, at around 5 years old. Marcus was a shy child, his mother, Rachel, said. Now 14, Marcus is a confident speaker and avid actor who serves as a helper in Theater Nest. There was a time when getting to play the comedic role in a skit with two teenage helpers was the highlight of his summer; now he provides that experience to younger kids and can see how far he’s come in the dramatic arts.
One of Marcus Williams’ favorite Theater Nest activities is “share what you like.” After each skit, kids in the program tell the group what they liked about the plays and ideas. It’s a training method for positivity and acceptance.
“She’s sneakily teaching social skills to kids in some of the hardest times of their lives,” Rachel Williams said.
Lund believes there’s no need to talk about what the group didn’t like because everyone can tell what worked and what didn’t, and while she appreciates artistic criticism, her main goal is to expand children’s imagination and confidence.
“If you introduce criticism too early, you shut down the creative process,” Lund said.
Some kids like to star in the plays, while others like to help with the costumes and more behind-the-scenes roles. Lund tries to meet everyone where they are and invite them into the process.
“I never push people beyond their comfort level,” she said. “They will make incredible leaps from year to year without pushing.”
Lund said she has several students who she could throw into a scene with five minutes warning and have no issue, due to the heavily improvised style.
Theater Nest serves many children with developmental needs and many more going through the trials of childhood and adolescence.
“It’s not a problem. When you create your own part you create everything you’re doing,” Lund said.
Sometimes those parts are strange. One summer, Lund recalled, a boy would only play a ham sandwich, so they found a way to work that into every performance.
“I have to say he was incredible at playing a ham sandwich,” Lund said.
Other theater programs are fun for Tyler Waldauer, who is active in theater at Justice Page Middle School, but nothing quite compares to Theater Nest’s improv-heavy process. He recalled a performance where a younger kid from the audience wandered up on stage to join them and instead of stopping the performance, everyone rolled with it.
“It’s more imaginative, more creative,” Tyler Waldauer said.
At a performance capping the end of the winter session in March, Lund would introduce the plays, a collection of origin myths from Cuba, step back and take it all in. Her white hair tied in a bun and eyes amplified by large-rimmed glasses, Lund beamed throughout the performance and cackled in her loud, distinct laughter when the actors began pounding on drums made from cat litter boxes on the floor of the rec center’s multipurpose room.
A space of their own
When the program started, Matalamaki was in charge of costumes and needed a place to put spare materials. The director of the Lynnhurst rec center gave them a closet, and they’ve kept it for more than 30 years.
“If I want to look back at what I’ve been doing in my life, all I have to do is open that door,” she said.
The closet might be the biggest recycling collection in the state.
“Materials are used and reused and used and reused again,” she said. “It’s constant.”
Once Marcus Williams dropped his phone in the closet and had to dig through it for hours to recover the phone.
“The prep closet is like its own realm,” he said.
Current Lynnhurst rec center director Nelson Evenrud has been in his role for about four years and learned quickly to let the Theater Nest machine keep running.
“I stay out of the way,” Evenrud said.
He said the age range of participants and the years of experience many have in the program make it unique to other rec center offerings.
“We have been enormously fortunate to have people who value what we do … and to give us space for what we do,” Lund said.
By now, Lund has several second-generation Theater Nest students. One of her colleagues at Sanford Middle School was in her class.
“Many, many times I’m out in the world and people in their 30s will run up to me and say, ‘Remember me, remember me?’ and I say, ‘No,’” Lund laughed.
Seal-Gray believes people keep coming back and fondly remember their experience because of the positive, welcoming environment Lund fosters.
“They feel good about themselves when they’re at Theater Nest,” Seal-Gray said.