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Front Row Seat: Duluth Playhouse's new education director excited for future

Courtney Laine Self is moving from New York to join what she calls a "special" organization. In a major moment of transition, the Playhouse has also bought the former Encounter skate park building to use — for now — for storage.

Simple portrait of white-presenting woman with short dark hair, wearing black and leaning against a wood-grain wall or pillar against an out-of-focus dark background.
Courtney Laine Self is the newly hired director of education and children's programming at the Duluth Playhouse.
Contributed / Courtney Laine Self
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DULUTH — To hear Courtney Laine Self talk about her new job at the Duluth Playhouse, this is the opportunity she's been working toward for her entire life.

"What I'm missing is a place that feels like a home, an artistic home," Self said via Zoom from New York on Monday. "That sense of accumulation, that sense that what you're working toward, you can feel it add up to something."

Self, who's been a freelance theater artist for most of her career, is about to make a professional home on Superior Street. She's the Playhouse's newly hired director of education and children's programming, succeeding outgoing director Amber Burns.

"Duluth Playhouse is special, man," said Self. "To see a theater establishment that is thriving and really growing ... that's exciting to me."

Self, who grew up in Kansas, started her career as a musical theater performer before realizing she was more interested in directing. "I have strong opinions about not only what theater should be, what theater should do for society, but strong thoughts about existing as a human: who we should strive to be as people, as a community, as a culture."

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Education has grown into a central thread of Self's work, and she's excited to start working with Duluth families. "To have so many young people who are involved," she said, "to have so many family members of those young people interested and engaged and committed to it, that's a game changer for me."

She's arriving at a pivotal moment for the nonprofit, which traces its roots back over a century. In March, the Playhouse announced it would be vacating its lodgings at the St. Louis County Depot to consolidate programming at the NorShor Theatre in Duluth's Historic Arts and Theater District.

The organization was already based at the NorShor for mainstage performances and administrative purposes, so the move's most visible implication for the community was that Family Theatre programming would be relocated from the Depot's performing arts wing.

While Family Theatre productions have continued apace — "The SpongeBob Musical" runs on the NorShor stage from Friday through Sunday — classes have been put on pause this fall to accommodate the transition between spaces and between directors.

"It gives me a little bit of time to create the curriculum, then we're going to be doing a winter session and a spring session," said Self. "We're going to, right after the new year, have an offering of classes." In addition to classes for children, Self said, she's also committed to expanding the Playhouse's educational offerings for adult learners.

Exterior view of a three-story brick building positioned on a downtown street corner. A tall new glass-enclosed building is visible in the background to the right.
The Duluth Playhouse now owns a building at 201 E. First St. in Duluth. Formerly home to the Encounter skate park, it's now used for costume and set storage, and continues to provide rental office space for various tenants.
Jay Gabler / Duluth News Tribune

A less visible aspect of the Playhouse's consolidation is that the nonprofit has purchased 201 E. First St. to use for storage. "This building being one block from the NorShor Theatre, was kind of a perfect solution," said Executive Director Wes Drummond. "It will really allow us to have space to save a lot more sets."

The property was formerly home to the Encounter skate park, but previous owners Head of the Lakes Youth for Christ had already vacated the space by the time the Playhouse bought the building in July for $695,000. "There are a lot of wonderful organizations and nonprofits that still do rent some of the smaller office spaces in the mezzanine level," said Drummond.

There are no immediate plans to use the space for events or shows, which could require additional renovations. "Of course that would be cool," said Drummond. "It would have to be something that we would raise money for, to be able to update the building to be in proper code to host a large group of people."

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It was Drummond who suggested that Self apply for the Playhouse job. The two have been friends since meeting a decade ago at Southern Illinois University's McLeod Summer Playhouse. "I remember the way Courtney ran a rehearsal room was so energetic and dynamic," Drummond remembered. "This is going to be a huge addition to the Playhouse."

With her specialty in musical theater, Self will be in a position to build on the Playhouse's established record of success presenting youth musicals — but don't expect an out-of-the-box approach, even if a given show is familiar. "I sort of deconstruct what musicals look like," said Self. "Any time you do a show, you can't do what it was before. Then it's a museum piece."

Self's history includes a "Little Mermaid" with costuming that explored the tension between being free and being bound. For "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," she worked to balance instantly recognizable representations of the iconic Peanuts characters with a collaborative, improvisation-based rehearsal process "in order to create the most fun and innovative staging and interpretations," she wrote on her website, courtneylaineself.com.

Woman in workout wear is shown in a rehearsal room. Through a mirror at left, it can be seen that she's pointing at a large cluster of smiling dancers.
Courtney Laine Self is an experienced director and choreographer.
Contributed / Courtney Laine Self

As part of the interview process, Self taught a children's class at the Playhouse and said she's "over the moon with how strong this education department already is."

She added: "I have been all over and have worked with all sorts of populations of young people. Every place is different. ... I have to listen to the people in the program, to the young people in the program, to the staff, to the parents. What are the needs of this particular community?"

New York to the Northland is a big leap, but Self's jumping in with both feet. "Duluth is a hopping town," she said. "It's an exciting place to be."

Short cuts

When I wrote about a new James J. Hill documentary in this column last month, it was about to become available online, but only at the fairly steep purchase price of $79.99. There's now a rental option, if you only want to watch the four-hour series once — or as many times as you like, within a 30-day window. "The Empire Builder" is now rentable for $29.95 at vimeo.com/ondemand/theempirebuilder.

Documentarians Stephen Sadis and Kyle Kegley take four hours to examine "Empire Builder" James J. Hill's transformative career. Hill's Great Northern Railway is well-represented in the Lake Superior Railroad Museum's collection.

The last decade has been a remarkable period for craft of all sorts in Duluth, and Duluth Coffee Company has become a staple of the scene. Founder Eric Faust started out roasting beans for wholesale distribution, then "business continued to progress and get better and better," he told the News Tribune in 2012. "I figured it was time to finally open the store." Duluth Coffee will be celebrating the 10th anniversary of its downtown shop on Tuesday from noon onward. At the shop's adjacent roastery, baristas will help attendees try their own hands at making latte art. For information, see facebook.com/duluthcoffeecompany.

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Duluth-News-Tribune-August-2017-picture-3565049.jpg
Latte art created by Duluth Coffee Co. barista Mayce Klein in 2017.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

I'm not going to say my wife and I are the biggest "Lord of the Rings" fans in East Hillside, but we do have two different sets of the books on our shelves — and a lifesize cardboard standee with Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin in our basement. We eagerly watched the extraordinarily expensive new Amazon prequel series "The Rings of Power," and all in all I enjoyed the just-completed first season. I appreciated that showrunners Patrick McKay and J.D. Payne steered into the utter sincerity that made Peter Jackson's films so beloved.

Some viewers find the new series pales in comparison to the movies, but that comparison means less to me since I didn't grow up with Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, but with the Rankin/Bass animated "Hobbit" (1977). That movie's available on various streaming services, but if you really want to travel back in time with me to the coziest closet in our Chester Park house circa the early 1980s, you can just hop on YouTube and enjoy the "See, Hear and Read-Along" storybook. Truly, multimedia storytelling at its finest.

Arts and entertainment reporter Jay Gabler joined the Duluth News Tribune in February 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; and a member of the National Book Critics Circle. You can reach him at jgabler@duluthnews.com or 218-279-5536.
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