Nancy Lee stands in a stuffy classroom on the second floor of the old St. Ansgar Elementary with several boxes of wigs laying at her feet. Beyond those, mountains of wardrobe racks clutter the creaky wooden floor.

Blazers, dresses, shirts of every size and color hang on hooks — any sort of costume needed to put on a summer’s worth of Broadway musicals.

And that’s exactly what they do, and exactly what St. Ansgar grad Lee has been doing for the last three summers with her Cedar Summerstock theater programs.

Rural, agricultural and with a population of less than 10,000, Mitchell County is far from what one might consider an artsy-place.

The cast uses South Square as a practice space. EJ Photo/Travis Charlson

But Lee’s drive, vision and expertise has planted seed, and the former choral director is starting to pick up some momentum and spark community interest in theater.

For Lee, this is what retirement looks like. Recently stepping down from a job in Minneapolis, Lee spend much of her career in education, and more specifically, building up the arts in places where they lacked. 

“I ran a big theater program at a big urban school in Minneapolis, where I turned things around,” Lee said about what she was doing before Cedar Summerstock. “That’s been my whole M.O. — is I go into places that don’t have anything going on, and I build these programs.”

From jobs in Minneapolis to Milwaukee, Lee bounced around building program after program, by instilling in her students a passion for the arts.

And after 30 years, Lee said, she’s finally bringing back what she’s learned to the place that raised her.

The decision to come back home with a theater program wasn’t automatic – Lee knew she wanted to do something, but location was going to be a key factor.

“Two of my children are performing artists, and they did Summerstock theater on the east coast,” Lee said. “I saw them performing out there in this model of bringing college kids together to do basically theater boot camp, at a really high level.

“So I saw what was happening out there, and [thought] there’s really nothing like this in the Midwest, and was looking all over for the right place to start my theater company. We just happened to roll through town one day, and this amazing theater was just opened in Osage,” Lee said, referring to the CRC Auditorium. “Then we found out that St. Ansgar was closing this elementary school.”

And with that, the pieces fell into place for Lee.

“[We needed] a place to rehearse, and a place to perform.” Lee said. “And I thought, ‘here it is’.”

The program is wrapping up its third season of production, and has brought college students from across the country to Mitchell County to perform in these plays, which have included several Broadway hits like Annie, Jesus Christ Superstar, the Music Man and Oklahoma, just to name a few.

Community support for the program is starting to snowball as well, and Lee, who has essentially been volunteering her time to get the project off the ground, will finally be able to make the program a part time job for herself by next summer.

One of the most important benefits, Lee said, is that its exposing the area to the arts, and giving local kids the chance to try something they might not have before.

“[Our schools] need fine academics, we need excellent athletics, and we need the arts,” Lee said. “The arts cannot be an add on, they need to be equal.”

Lee has long been passionate about the arts, and said that it was her choir and band teachers in school that encouraged her to pursue those passions.

“It’s very collaborative – theater is.” Lee said. “We need technicians, visual artists, dancers… I love that collaborative spirit that theater brings to the table.”

It’s also been a collaborative community effort that’s made the program possible. Many of the musicians, performers and stage hands that help out with productions are drawn from the local population.

“There’s no winners and losers in the arts,” Lee said “Everyone can be a part
of it.”

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