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From the Lutheran mission field to the church basement, Greta Grosch finds her niche as an actor and playwright

When she was 17, Greta Grosch was ready to step away from Lutheranism.
“Our family was as Lutheran as they come,” she told Metro Lutheran. “My dad
had even served as an assistant to a Lutheran bishop for awhile. So how did I
show my rebellion? I refused to attend a Lutheran college. Instead, I ‘went
secular’ and enrolled at Mankato State.”
Well, that was then and this is now. Grosch, who helps keep them rolling in
the aisles as part of the cast of “Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second
Helping,” is 40 now and has embraced her Lutheran heritage with no
reservations. In fact, she says she wrote “A Second Helping” in part to honor
her Lutheran relatives, whose lives helped inspire the storyline.
In an early-April interview, Grosch explained what it’s like to have one foot in
the church and the other in the theater.
Metro Lutheran: You grew up in a Lutheran missionary family. What was that
like and how did it shape your sense of vocation?
Greta Grosch: It’s interesting you should ask that. I was just discussing that
with my parents a day or two ago. Being a missionary kid was no big deal
when I was very young but became an issue when I was older. As a young
person I found myself concealing my real identity. “What does your Dad do?”
my friends would ask. My answer would be, “Oh, he works in an overseas
position.” Later, when I was out of my rebellion phase, I would happily say,
“My dad does mission work for the Lutheran Church.” But that wasn’t going
to happen at age 13.
I first acted in a play in Ethiopia at age three, and knew early on I wanted to
act — and write for the stage. Of course, the theater tends to be a secular
business, and I didn’t want to do ‘Christian theater,’ complete with
testimonials and all of that. So that meant I had to discover whether theater
and faith can be blended. I’ve discovered they can. In fact, sometimes I
actually get to preach to the audience. So, in a way, I feel as though I’ve hit
the jackpot.
What have you done in the theater since leaving college?
I have worked at dozens of theaters across the country for over 20 years. I
was in New York for a while. I’ve done regional theater. About 11 years ago I
was cast at Brave New Workshop. That was what got me anchored in the Twin
Cities. I’ve been in “Tony and Tina’s Wedding” at Illusion Theatre, several
other local venues. I’ve been with Troupe America (the company that
produced “Church Basement Ladies”) for three years, but I do other things at
the same time.
A lot of people wonder how an actor can do the same part, night after night,
without burning out or getting sick of the part. How do you do it?
It’s like any other job. Some days you discover something new in what you’ve
been doing for weeks and weeks. Other days you just have to do it because
it’s your job. But you think, “I can’t imagine wanting to do anything else but
this.” I did 800 shows of “Church Basement Ladies 1.” That’s a lot, but that’s
how it is in live theater. It’s eight shows a week. But think about it: A
schoolteacher has to show up every day, five days a week, and inspire his or
her students. Some days it’s fun and some days it’s work.
Church Basement Ladies is a funny play. But has anything ever happened that
was extra funny, because it was unplanned or unexpected?
Oh, yes. There have been times. Here are two examples. Janet Paoni, who
plays Mrs. Snustad, the sarcastic older woman in the play, once climbed onto
a stool which promptly collapsed. She ended up on the floor. We all laughed,
but the play went on. Then there was the time when I came on stage and,
instead of making a turn at the right moment, I just kept right on going, out
over the front of the stage. I landed in the audience, in the lap of a very
surprised woman. One of my legs was still on stage, the other sticking up in
the air.
It’s one thing to act in a play but quite another to write one. How difficult was
it for you to create the script for “Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second
Helping”?
I started writing scripts at Dudley Riggs. I’ve written scripts consistently for
the past 10 years. When we started “Church Basement Ladies 1,” I knew I
wanted to write the sequel. I wanted to honor my delightful Lutheran
relatives. And I also hope to write a couple more. There will probably be a
Christmas show, and also a prequel, taking the story back behind the first
one we did.
I don’t think of writing scripts as difficult. For me it’s fun, it’s satisfying, it’s a
challenge. I listen to what the “idea people” say. I tend to write everything
down. Out of all those notes the ideas come.
“Church Basement Ladies” filled the seats night after night, and “Second
Helping” seems to be doing it again. How do you account for that?
Well, the plays are a hit and Minnesotans love them. We opened in Grand
Rapids, Minnesota. During that performance the audience went absolutely
wild. I thought to myself, “This is what it feels like to have a hit.” But you
need more than individuals to fill a theater and sell a play. Bus groups are the
bread and butter of theater. You need group sales. There are lots of bus
groups in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and the Dakotas. We’re really tapping into
those groups. In fact, it was members of the bus groups who really urged us
to create the sequel that we’re staging right now.
What’s in your future?
I’ll stay on with Troupe America. But I’ll also audition for other plays. I’m
always looking for other things. I’ll audition at the Guthrie when
opportunities arise. And, of course, I still dream of ending up on Broadway
some day. When you’re young, you have grandiose dreams. But God always
dreams for you bigger than you could have imagined. So I have to stay open
to what may come.
What advice do you have for a young Lutheran who aspires to be an actor or
a playwright?
You have to be realistic about it. You may need to take a second job.
Personally, I’m fortunate. I make enough in theater to live without
supplemental income. But for a while I also worked at Starbucks to get by.
Whatever you choose to do in life, you have to follow your heart. A college
professor of mine wisely said, “If you can imagine being happy in another
profession, do that.” I can’t imagine being happy doing something else.
Garrison Keillor likes to characterize Minnesota Lutherans as dour and
humorless. Does he have a point?
Lutherans in general have a grim work ethic, a sort of martyrdom complex.
You’ve heard the expression: “I don’t want to be a burden.” But what keeps
us Lutherans going in good times and bad is a sense of humor. In “A Second
Helping,” my character, Mavis, says, “Get up. Work hard. Have some fun. Go
to bed.” I could add, “And laugh at yourself.” Lutherans aren’t generally the
type to crack jokes. Instead, they find humor in life. Life can be hard. Having
a sense of humor gets them through it.
REVIEW OF CHURCH BASEMENT LADIES 2: A SECOND HELPING
One potluck dinner deserves another
Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping, now playing at Plymouth
Playhouse, I-494 and MN Hwy 55, Plymouth, Minnesota. For prices, call
763/553-1600. Group tickets: 763/383-1073.
www.plymouthplayhouse.com.
When Troupe America created a comic musical stage play rooted in rural
Lutheran culture, Minnesotans gobbled it up. When the production company
dished up “a second helping,” the hungry hordes returned. “Church Basement
Ladies,” the story of four women and their madcap antics in a Lutheran
church kitchen, sent audiences into paroxysms of laughter. (It’s still doing it
in audiences outside Minnesota.) Guessing the sell-out crowds might return
for a sequel, the company offered “Church Basement Ladies 2.”
Cast member Greta Grosch, who plays Mrs. Gilmer (Mavis) Gilmerson, a
farmer’s wife, wrote the script for the second play. So far the gamble is
paying off. The crowds are flocking in once again, and a significant number of
those climbing off the tour buses to fill the seats at Plymouth Playhouse have
already seen the first play.
Troupe America’s publicist, Linda Twiss, told Metro Lutheran that the plays
have succeeded for several reasons. A key one is this: The production’s
marketing team has put the multiplier principle to work. Church groups,
community groups, travel groups, and other like-minded coalitions swelled
the ranks of those who saw “Ladies 1,” and that pattern is now repeating
itself for “Ladies 2.”
What will audiences see when they show up for “A Second Helping”? In the
spirit of the first play, there’s a fresh supply of cleverly written and executed
music, lyrics, and choreography; another goofy and just-barely-plausible
storyline; and more wonderful wackiness, all rooted in the experience of
small-town Minnesota church life.
But it’s not simply wall-to-wall levity. There are two sobering plot elements,
the inclusion of both of which seems appropriate and inspired. There is an
untimely death that shakes the close-knit fellowship. And, at the close, we
get a moving and deeply touching musical sequence based on the gift of a
baptismal blanket. The rehearsal of the history embedded in the quilt
squares is enough to bring the most stoic German or Norwegian to tears.
There’s genius in this plot element. Any audience member who ever helped
create a quilt for Lutheran World Relief will experience an instant connection.
“Church Basement Ladies 2: A Second Helping” is a happy, wholesome
marriage of very funny writing and accomplished acting, with pious truth-
telling at a very deep level. Bring your appetite. This is a feast for the soul.
— Michael L. Sherer