The Spirits of Christmas – Women behind the scenes of the Words Players holiday production

MHP-2038copyAs the “streets of London” buzz at the Mayowood Stone Barn for “The Spirit of Christmas Past: A Christmas Carol,” produced by Words Players Theatre, Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick, Kathy Kuhlmann, Rebecca Ohnstad and Ava Sunnarborg will be four of the behind-the-scene characters. Their supporting roles are different, but what they share is an undisputed enthusiasm for the theatre.

Storytelling through theatre

Word Players began in 2004 as “sort of a whim by a group of homeschool families wanting to produce a play,” explains Kathy Kuhlmann, executive director. The group, under the direction of Daved Driscoll, has grown from producing two shows a year to shows year round.

    The non-profit troupe consists of children and adults of all ages performing locally and in nearby towns like Zumbrota. “We like to take the theatre to the people and make it accessible,” explains Kathy. “We keep the ticket prices very low and want to afford everyone the opportunity to experience the art of storytelling through theatre.”

     Partially funded by grants from groups like Southeast Minnesota Arts Council, each show pays for itself through ticket sales.

    “We’re grateful for the local business support we have,” says Kathy. “But we’re seeking additional support so we can continue operating year round.” Kathy is one of four recently identified part-time employees at Words Players: two administrative assistants and a costume designer in addition to the full-time director.


MHP-2091copyKathy Kuhlmann
Executive Director

The mother of Abby, 14, and Deepali, 11, Kathy has been involved in the theatre for several years as a result of daughter Abby’s participation. Homeschooling takes a sizeable block of Kathy’s time, but when it comes to the theatre, “it’s a family team effort,” she says. “Because there is no custodial staff, the kids will sometimes come to the theatre and clean when I’m there for a meeting. My husband is also involved doing photography for events and often works on the technical part of productions as needed. ”


MHP-2111copyKelly Rae Kirkpatrick
Costume Designer

Kelly Rae Kirkpatrick users her time and talent to raise her children,
Ellie, 17, and Aonghus, 10, manage her Green Spirit Garden Design Business and design costumes for Word Players.

    “It was a seamless transition for me from my education as a fashion designer to the theatre,” says Kelly. A freelance costume designer since 1989, she’s designed for 25 to 30 productions at Rochester Civic Theatre, Rochester Dance Company and theatres including The Goodman in Chicago, The
La Jolla Playhouse and The Globe in San Diego. Some of the costumes she’s designed have been purchased by The Guthrie in Minneapolis.

     Kelly shares her stitching skills with kids at Words Players by conducting periodic sew-a-thons. “Kids learn a lot by the end of the day as I teach them how to sew,” she explains. “Some realize they don’t ever want to do something like this again, but then some you can tell are inspired and may be future costume coordinators.”

     Known for her visions both as a costume designer and as a master gardener, Kelly enjoys transforming an idea into reality, “bringing falsehood into fruition and pretend people in a pertinent time and place—making it all real.”

     Her charge for the production is to dress a cast of about 70. “The first thing I do is measure everyone, do research, pull costumes that we have from stock and then fill in the blanks according to the design.”

    It’s not always as easy as finding a costume that fits, however. Some characters present significant challenges, such as her current task to turn a 4 ½-foot, 13-year-old girl into a 9-foot character. “But this is the fun part—bringing the vision to life.”


MHP-2021copyRebecca Ohnstad
Production Coordinator

The term “Christmas in your heart the whole year” has a new meaning for production coordinator Rebecca Ohnstad. She’s been working on the upcoming “The Spirit of Christmas Past” for more than a year with details involving contracts, budgets and putting together the production team. She keeps track of the show’s budget and manages communication between the director and individual production team members such as set coordinators, box office and stage manager.

     Rebecca got involved with Words Players several years ago as a high school student participating in “Hello Dolly.” Two years ago she served as stage manager, keeping a cast of 77 up to date on direction. She balances single life working part time for Words Players as an administrative assistant and teaching piano lessons to 30 students.

     “I love being with people of all ages, enjoying them and learning from them. Whether it be through teaching piano to eager little minds, spending time in China loving on babies in a special-needs orphanage (as I was blessed to do recently with a Christian mission team) or getting to know the families of our Christmas Carol cast by answering questions and working out details – loving people is such a special thing,” Rebecca says.

     “One of my favorite aspects of Words Players is how I constantly see people being put first. We’re interested in getting to know everyone and always welcome new folks to join us. ”


MHP-2074copyAva Sunnarborg
Volunteer, Dickens Market

Ava Sunnarborg has been a volunteer with Words Players for about seven years. All three of her children, Kari, 18, Avery, 16, and Emma, 12, have been involved in plays, and her husband, Randy, also participates in various tasks. “Our family volunteers about eight to ten hours a week,” says Ava. “It’s nice because it’s something our entire family can participate in.”

    Ava says volunteering with Words Players energizes her. “I enjoy the creative community, the coming together of children, teens, adults and families around a production. Going from basically nothing to actual performances is something wonderful. ”

     Keeping her theatre hat on as she goes about her daily routine allows Ava to stay productive in her volunteer work. For example, as part of her children’s homeschooling, Ava takes her two oldest daughters to the Twin Cities every Thursday for group homeschool education. “Sometimes when they’re in class I’ll go to a local coffee shop and work on my theatre tasks. Or sometimes when one of my children is at piano lessons and I’m waiting, I’ll use that time. ”

     Ava is creating the Dickens Market for the production. “The market is the retail and educational portion of the production,” she explains. “There will be a variety of products for sale, including soaps, teacup candles, red velvet cupcakes, hot cider, scones and floral arrangements as well as a Victorian parlour game of questions and answers involving cast members.”

     After this show is a wrap, Ava will set her sights on growing the market for the future production of the show.

     “There are so many different ways to volunteer and the benefit is rewarding,” says Ava. “To Words Players, it’s invaluable.”