Front Row Seat: Duluth Playhouse class peeks behind scenes

The Show Study class, led by director of education Courtney Laine Self, invited adult learners to follow the development of "Into the Woods."

Group of people in casual winter gear, standing in the lobby of a theater and smiling as they pose for a photo.
Participants in the Show Study class pose for a group photo at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth on Saturday.
Contributed / Duluth Playhouse

DULUTH — Even though he's taught theater for years at Hermantown High School, Ken Ahlberg found he still had a lot to learn about how a professional musical theater production comes together.

Inside a darkened theater, several people wearing casual clothing and face masks sit closely together.
Participants in the Show Study class watch a tech rehearsal of "Into the Woods" at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth on Saturday.
Contributed / Duluth Playhouse

"I'm a musician, and so I got into theater directing the orchestra," said Ahlberg. When producing a full musical, "you have to do the lights, and you have to do the costumes, and you have to do the props, and you have to do the budgeting and you have to do the publicity."

Ahlberg appreciated the opportunity to study "darn near every aspect of what it takes to put on a show" through a new Duluth Playhouse class called Show Study. The inaugural series of Show Study sessions, offered to adult learners, followed the development of the Playhouse production of "Into the Woods."

Courtney Laine Self, who joined the Playhouse last fall as director of education, developed and taught the class. "This class is based on a class at New York Theatre Workshop in New York City," she said, "which is one of my favorite off-Broadway theater producing organizations."

That company's Casebook class, according to its website, "designates one of its productions as a case study and hosts a class designed to provide theatre lovers of all experience levels with a true insider’s view of the life of a theatre artist and the process of realizing a full professional production."


"What I loved about taking that class was, there were so many different kinds of people," said Self. "There were people who had never done theater before, and really hadn't even seen much theater before, all the way to people like myself, who were already working in the industry as professionals."

The 14 participants in Show Study similarly hailed from across the community. "We had people from North Shore Bank," said Self. "We had people from Essentia. Then we had some parents of students who have been taking classes, been in shows at Duluth Playhouse."

Those parents included Tasha Ellis, whose 14-year-old son has been in "quite a few of the classes there," she said. Ellis found that Show Study did lend insight into her son's experiences, "but I loved it beyond that as well."

Ellis explained: "We actually had a guest speaker every night in the class, and it was somebody involved (with) 'Into the Woods.' Not the people you see on stage; it was like (the scenic) director, the music person or the lights person, and we got to sit with the director and choreographer and costume designers."

Duluth Playhouse Show Study class NorShor Theatre
Members of the Show Study class watch a tech rehearsal of "Into the Woods" at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth on Saturday. "You can see the tech table where designers/stage manager are working," instructor Courtney Laine Self pointed out.
Contributed / Duluth Playhouse

"Courtney brought us around and gave us a tour of the entire facility," said Ahlberg, referencing the NorShor Theatre. "She brought us up above ... what you think is the roof, but it's the ceiling of the performance space. There's a level above that where you can see the framework and the original ceiling of the space."

"We got to see some real VIP behind-the-scenes, behind locked doors, sorts of things," said Self. "The tour, I think, was a crowd favorite."

On Saturday, class participants were invited to sit in on a tech rehearsal. That's the point in the rehearsal process when all the elements of a production finally come together in the space where audiences will see the show.

"These are long, stressful, hard working days," said Self. "Unless you are in the industry, you do not get exposed to what that work looks like."


Tuition also includes a ticket to the finished production. Ahlberg said it was "cool" to hear director Phillip Fazio articulate the concept for this production of the Stephen Sondheim musical, which premiered on Broadway in 1987. Ahlberg helmed a Hermantown production in 2018.

The Duluth Playhouse production, said Ahlberg, is seen to inhabit "a theater that has been abandoned, and nature has taken it over ... it was just really neat to see that the story that I'm so familiar with, and I spent months working on, can be told in a vastly different way."

"There's a lot more to it than I ever imagined," said Ellis about the process of putting on a professional show. The stage manager, said Ellis, "probably had a 3-inch binder full of details down to every line of the play, what lights, what sound, where the actor was on the stage ... it was mind-blowing how much information there is."

"This class got to understand," said Self, "there's this one layer that the audience watches, the performance layer. And there's this whole other level of talking, communicating, cuing that's going on underneath that, that nobody hears."

The next Show Study class will delve into the Playhouse production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time."

"The original Broadway production was conceptually, design-wise and direction-wise, extremely specific," said Self regarding that play. "I'll be really interested to see our production of it as compared to what that original concept was."

Both Ahlberg and Ellis had high praise for Self. "Courtney is just phenomenal," said Ellis. "Just a wonderful addition to that whole program."

"Courtney is really top-notch," said Ahlberg. He praised the Playhouse's leadership team, including producing artistic director Fazio and executive director Wes Drummond, for their openness. "It's a professional theater that feels very community-based," Ahlberg said.


Self, who moved from New York City to take the Duluth job, said she's enjoyed her first months here. "I don't mind the cold, and I don't mind the dark," said Self. "The lake is such a cool thing to exist next to."

She also arrived at an inflection point in the history of the 109-year-old theater, which last year consolidated operations in Duluth's Historic Arts and Theater District.

"A thing that I've found really rewarding," said Self, "is trying to figure out the balance between what has the Playhouse been and what people love about it, and thinking about how it can evolve in ways that continue to be even more exciting and really serve Duluth."

"Into the Woods" opens Friday and runs through April 2. The next Show Study class runs from April 27 through June 1. For more information, see

Members Only
After her family sold an Iron Range fairytale attraction, Faith Wick became a nationally known collectible doll artist. In a former Grand Rapids school room, her life's work lives on.
Spending five nights onboard a thousand-foot Royal Caribbean cruise ship makes for a vacation experience of such intense leisure, it gets a little awkward ... especially for a Minnesotan.
"Villa Leila" is subtitled "A Muddy Tale of Love and Monsters." Other new local titles include a Julie Gard poetry collection and a memoir about "Navigating Life After Loss."
The dark comedy “Daniel’s Gotta Die” leads the five-day event featuring international filmmakers, Q&As and even more movies.
Find something to do in this week in the Northland.
Mark and Faith Eskola have strong ties to the district and play in bands, both of which are set to perform as part of an event Thursday.
The organization is dedicated to empowering youth in Duluth's Central Hillside neighborhood
The Duluth East High School graduate has been in TV shows including "iCarly" and the new "Wolf Pack," not to mention movies like "Merry Kiss Cam."
Jess Morgan has written a love letter to Duluth through a collection of poetry set to be released March 30.
Find something to do this week in the Northland.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in 2022. His previous experience includes eight years as a digital producer at The Current (Minnesota Public Radio), four years as theater critic at Minneapolis alt-weekly City Pages, and six years as arts editor at the Twin Cities Daily Planet. He's a co-founder of pop culture and creative writing blog The Tangential; he's also a member of the National Book Critics Circle and the Minnesota Film Critics Alliance. You can reach him at or 218-279-5536.
What To Read Next
Get Local