Sam Landstra — Staff Writter
A fragile atmosphere lingers in the 4th Avenue Theatre classroom. Student actors Dakota Klein and Sofia Bouma stand at opposite sides of the room with pained expressions on their faces. They stepped out of character after playing a heated exchange between husband and wife for the upcoming production Everything is Wonderful.
“How was that?” Director Laurel Koerner asks. A script and notes lay in front of her on the wintery afternoon.
“I just wasn’t in the right head space,” Klein says.
Koerner probes her students for what worked well from previous rehearsals and challenges Klein to consider the pauses during his monologues. With less than a month away from opening, most practices consist of fine-tuning dialogue. They run the scene again.
Everything is Wonderful tells the story of Miri, an excommunicated Amish woman who returns to her people after the death of her two brothers in a traffic accident. Upon arriving, however, Miri finds herself still unwelcome in her family while the man responsible for the death of her siblings lives in their barn. It’s far from your grandmother’s Amish romance books.
“I love how honest it is,” Koerner said. “These are not two-dimensional representations of idealized, romanticized, Amish people. It’s messy and ugly.”
Ideas of forgiveness and reconciliation surrounding trauma and abuse fill the play. In Amish communities, sins are treated as if they never happened upon confession. As the characters onstage wrestle with how to approach wrongdoing, Koerner hopes audience members will do the same.
“I think these are people we can see ourselves in,” Koerner said. “It’s important to me that the show is hosting conversations students want to have.”
Throughout the production process, the Everything is Wonderful team has maintained “early and ongoing dialogue” about the mature content on display. Koerner and the cast have connected with professors, the Family Crisis Center, and Campus Health. After the shows, they hope to hold a discussion panel on the topics seen onstage with counsellors available on standby
“What I hope for is a system that aids the integration of what’s happening in the arts on campus with what’s happening in the classroom,” Koerner said.
Klein and Bouma stand in their strained positions again after the second run through. Koerner asks them how their characters feel towards each other in the argument.
“Things are bad,” Klein says. “Things are really not good. Things are DEFCON 1.”
Klein, a sophomore transfer student from Tabor College, holds a special connection to Everything is Wonderful. His upbringing in a Mennonite community parallels the fictional Amish town in the show.
“It’s important to me to tell this story about the people who are not too far from my own,” he said.
Before repeating for a third time, Koerner leaves her chair and kneels next to Bouma, who sits on a rehearsal cube. In a quiet voice, Koerner illustrates the state of Bouma’s character in the scene. Unlike some directors, who give straightforward instruction, Koerner prefers to coax emotion out of her actors.
“She knows what she wants and knows how to get you to do that,” Klein said.
Koerner holds an MA in theatre history and performance theory and an MFA in acting. She has worked with professional actors in LA and in scene shops across the country. It was while a student Dordt, however, where she began her love for the theatre.
“I found the kind of community I wanted to be in for the rest of my life,” Koerner said. “[It is with] people who are asking hard questions and care deeply about connecting with the broader community.”
Before returning to Dordt as a professor, Koerner taught at Tabor College in Kansas (where Klein also attended). She and her husband bought their first house there and gave birth to their daughter, Amelia.
While driving in the car a year ago, Koerner’s husband handed her his phone with a job posting from Dordt. A position in the theatre department had recently opened.
“It had such a strong inevitability,” Koerner said. “Maybe that’s what we call calling.”
A difficult moving process to follow, Koerner and her family now live in Sioux Center. In addition to Everything is Wonderful, she teaches performance classes and a handful of core classes. This past fall, Amelia played a minor role in the mainstage production Known but to God.
Back in the theatre classroom, Klein and Bouma find success on the third try.
“Almost tears!” Klein says.
Even with the heavy subject material, the cast finds time for lightheartedness. Koerner calls for a ten-minute break before returning to the challenging script.
“Doing this ‘loving our neighbor’ thing can be really hard,” Koerner said. “We need to do it anyway.”