Bringing stories to life on stage

February 21, 2019

SPEARFISH — He remembers that his first role was playing Santa Claus in his eighth-grade class’s holiday production, and since then, Max Merchen, who retired in 2015, has been involved with theater one way or another. In the last 20 years since moving to Spearfish, he’s either acted in or directed around 30 shows in the Northern Hills, most of which took place at Matthews Opera House in Spearfish.

“I like to tell stories, to bring the printed page to life and bring the audience to tears … if I can make them cry one way or the other, then it’s a good show,” Merchen said, describing that the tears could be from laughing so hard or from being powerfully moved.

After his eighth-grade debut, he remembers acting in the musical, “Half a Sixpence,” during his sophomore year at Springfield High School in Springfield, S.D., and he would go on to get a master’s degree in theater, with an emphasis in directing, from the University of South Dakota in 1982.

Merchen worked as a health education specialist at Fort Meade VA Black Hills Health Care Center, living in Custer before moving to Spearfish in 1998, and after retiring in 2015, he started working as an aide at Creekside Elementary School in Spearfish in August 2016, working with fourth- and fifth-graders. Merchen’s wife, Lisa, retired from teaching at Creekside in 2017.

Merchen, looking to get involved with theater when he moved to Spearfish, got involved at Matthews Opera House, acting in “Never Too Late” and “Murder Most Fowled Up” in 1999. Since then, he’s been in at least one show every year since in either Spearfish or Sturgis, and his list shows plenty of years where he was involved with more than one, up to four. If one factors in that each show requires two to three months of rehearsals to prepare for a performance, the stage kept Merchen quite busy.

He has served on the board for the opera house and has directed one-character shows up to those with 50-plus casts, such as “Annie” in 2003 and “Carousel” in 2005. He said that one of the beautiful thing about directing is that he never knows who will walk through the door for auditions, and he always enjoyed seeing people who had never been involved in theater “get bit by the bug” and return to the stage over and over again once they tried it.

Merchen said he enjoys both acting and directing, finding both to be really rewarding, as well as bringing their own special pressures. He said that he finds that 90 percent of a show’s success has to do with finding the right cast, and then of course directing also means being involved with set design, costumes, props, etc.

“It’s great fun,” he said.

He remembered that in “A Christmas Carol” in 2005 at Matthews Opera House, during which he played the role of the Ghost of Christmas Future, he borrowed a skeleton from a friend who is an EMT/paramedic instructor and used the skeleton’s hands under the large robe he was wearing as part of the costume.

Merchen also remembered directing a trio of plays written by Jamie Wooten, Jessie Jones, and Nicholas Hope, which involve “Red Velvet Cake War,” produced at Matthews Opera House in 2012, “Rex’s Exes,” produced in 2013 – and then, when the opera house called to inquire about the third installment, they learned that the writers hadn’t completed the script yet! So “Last Roundup of the Guacamole Queen,” the final installment, was produced in 2015, making it the South Dakota premiere of the new play.

Merchen explained that the opera house has a loose-knit theater committee that sits down to consider which community theater shows to produce. When he started 20 years ago, they would generally plan for four shows a year, including a comedy, serious show, musical, and farce/mystery. Recently, with the opera house’s involvement in the Big Read, they consider tying shows to the Big Read’s theme, and directors also pitch ideas they are interested in.

Merchen, who is directing “The Curious Savage” this spring, said that he’s been trying for 20 years to get the show to Matthews Opera House. He performed in the show when he was in college; has directed it at the high school and community theater level; and is excited to bring it to Spearfish.

“It’s one of my favorite shows,” he said, describing that he always looks for shows that “say something.” One of the lines in the show he described as a kind of mantra for him: “For, as Byron says, ’And if I laugh at any mortal thing – ‘Tis that I may not weep.’”

He explained that he prefers comedies, and one reason is that it’s easier for actors to feed off the energy of the audience, because when they react, the actors can react to that reaction.

Merchen was quick to point out that theater is not a one-person job.

“The talent pool (in the area) is unfathomable. I’ve not been to the bottom of it yet, and that includes technical folks as well,” he said, naming David Whitlock, Don Petersen, Ryan Murphy, Craig Mickelson, Jack Hughes, and Ken Froelich, as wizards in their talents behind the scenes. He also gave kudos to Ann Froelich, who has assisted him as director’s assistant, for getting him through many productions.

Froelich, who has been involved with the Matthews Opera House for many, many years, most recently directing the children theater’s company, worked for the first time on a show with Merchen during “Little Shop of Horrors” in 2007.

“It was awesome,” she said, describing that during the preparation for the show, people would keep asking her questions about what they should do, and she would say, “We have to call Max.”

“I just am incredibly grateful that I’ve been able to work with Max and with all the other directors,” Froelich said of her involvement with community theater.

Amy Ruff, of the Matthews Opera House and Arts Center board, who has been involved in community theater there since about 2004, has known Merchen for years and has both acted with him and been directed by him on the stage.

“He has so much experience, and he has such a vision of what it’s going to look like,” she said of his directing.

She described that Merchen is a “staple” at the opera house: “It’s very secure, knowing that if you’re in a pinch, you can turn to him … the experience to know what works, what the audiences want, and how to get the best performance out of the awesome talent that we have in this area is awesome,” she said.

Ruff remembers acting in “Picasso at the Lapin Agile” with Merchen in 2011. Her character was the girlfriend of Merchen’s character.

“It was super fun,” she said, adding “You’re secure because you know he’s going to know his lines, and if you forget yours, he’s going to save you.”

Merchen is appreciative of all of the help he’s had from fellow actors and those behind the scenes who all are involved in making a performance a success. He described that he is always amazed by what people could come up once their ideas are out in the open, from finding props to creating sets. When doing “An Inspector Calls” in 2002, which was set in an English country manor, Merchen said offhandedly that it would be nice to have a boar’s head over the fireplace on the set – and a couple of weeks later, what should meet his eye but that exact item, above the fireplace.

“It’s just amazing,” he said of asking people if they could try something and seeing what they came up with.

And that is true for making a show fit a location. Merchen described the Spearfish opera house as the “biggest little stage in the Hills,” and tells his casts, for the most part, to cross out the stage directions in their script, as they were written for another production on another stage – which was most likely larger than the Matthews Opera House stage. He remembers that in the 2000 production of “Wait Until Dark,” they had to cut about a third of the desired set, which called for an apartment, simply because it wouldn’t have fit on the stage.

Such adaptations are true for his own process, as well. Merchen sees that his directing has changed through the years. At the beginning, he used to sit down with a script, ignore the directions, go through the script, envisioning it, and write it out how he saw it. Anymore, he doesn’t do that; he instead plays with stage directions and the cast with the set, telling that cast that they saw something when they read the script, just as he did, so while they are rehearsing, to share those visions, working toward a collaboration for what eventually becomes the performance movements.

“As long as it stays within the realm (of the script), that’s great. … Everything you need to know is in the script, and then everything else isn’t – and that’s the fun part,” he said, describing that casts get to expand on their visions and make the productions their own.

Though he doesn’t necessarily have a bucket list of plays he would like to see produced in the area, Merchen might try his hand at scriptwriting, “for grins and chuckles,” he said, describing that since he enjoys bringing the printed page to life, the next step would be creating what’s on that page to bring to life.

And for those who might be interested in getting involved with theater, Merchen encouraged them to try out for a play, with Theater on the Run, a progressive event featuring multiple shorts play, being a great place to start. For those who may have stage fright, he encouraged them to consider offstage opportunities, such as set design, costumes, props, etc.

“It’s the biggest little theater in the hills. We have fun. Not that it can’t be frustrating from time to time, but we have fun,” he said of the community in Spearfish involved in community theater.

And his colleagues hope Merchen will continue his involvement for years to come.

“I just hope that he continues (acting and directing) because we want to have more and more theater,” Ruff said.

More information about “The Curious Savage,” which Merchen directs this spring, with performances April 25-28, is available at matthewsopera.com/event/subscription-series-curious-savage-community-theater-2019-04-28/.

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