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Bringing 'Oklahoma' to F-M stage

Detroit Lakes graduates debbie griffith and Christopher Damlo are in charge of this year's Gooseberry Park Players performance of 'Oklahoma." SUBMITTED PHOTO

Debbie Richards Griffith was just 11 years old when her mother took her to see “The Little Match Girl” at the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre.

Though she was impressed with the production, it was not enough for her to just watch the action unfold on stage.

“I wanted to be IN the show,” Griffith recalls.

So a year later, 12-year-old she became a summer intern at the Minneapolis Children’s Theatre, and that led to her involvement in a variety of roles, from playing the title role of “Rumpelstiltskin” at the Callaway Elementary School, to Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker,” and Dorothy in “The Wizard of Oz,” during her years at Detroit Lakes High School. 

That, in turn, led Griffith to a dual major in speech communication and theater arts during her post-secondary years at Gustavus Adolphus College in St. Peter, Minn.

Though she had aspirations of becoming the “next big thing” on the Broadway stage in New York City, and spent several years after her graduation preparing for that dream by working as a theater teacher, director, coach and performer in the Twin Cities area, Griffith’s life then took an unexpected detour — to International Falls, Minn.

“Something happened that I didn’t plan — I fell in love,” she says.

That was 18 years ago. The man she fell in love with, Dan Griffith, ended up becoming her husband, and the couple raised four sons in International Falls: Marco, 18, Peter, 15, Joey, 14, and David, 11.

Despite living thousands of miles away from New York City, in what Griffith termed “The Icebox of the Nation,” Griffith nevertheless managed to carve out a pretty impressive resumé as a motivational speaker, radio presenter and theater director.

Last year, Detroit Lakes residents had an opportunity to witness Griffith’s talents as a motivational speaker first-hand, as she brought her presentation to the Historic Holmes Theatre.

This summer, area residents will have a chance to experience her expertise as a theater director as well: Griffith is the new managing artistic director for the Gooseberry Park Players, a children’s theater group based in Moorhead.

Together, she and fellow DLHS alumni Christopher Damlo (Class of 2008) are directing the 2013 summer production of “Oklahoma,” which will be presented July 16-21 at the Frances Frazier Comstock Theatre on the campus of Concordia College. Damlo, who is also a 2012 Concordia alumni, is serving as associate director for the production. “I had never met Christopher before this summer,” Griffith said.

But after “an amazing hour-long interview” and a review of his credentials, Griffith hired him, along with a “large artistic staff” of 13, including a choreographer, assistant choreographer, vocal director, assistant vocal director, costume designer, technical director, assistant technical director, technical supervisor, design consultant, sound technician and lighting designer.

“We work extremely well together,” she said of Damlo. “The kids call me ‘Mrs. G.,” and they call him ‘Christopher D.,’ and it’s just been a delight.”

In addition to her crew, Griffith was also responsible for casting 42 student actors and six student crew members.

Though most of the actors in “Oklahoma” are from the Fargo-Moorhead area, the cast does include at least one Detroit Lakes resident, Maren Goldstein, who is playing one of the farm girls in the chorus, Griffith said.

“The first day of rehearsal was on June 4,” she continued. “We have rehearsals five days a week. The tech crew works from 9 a.m. to noon, and the rehearsals are from noon to 5 p.m., though we will be adding some evenings next week as well.”

Griffith describes the Gooseberry Park Players as “a wonderful, professional quality theater company” that offers children between the ages of 11-18 an opportunity to experience being a part of a professional summer theatrical production, at no cost to them.

“Our productions are based on classic and contemporary dramatic literature designed to intrigue, inform, educate, and entertain a family audience,” she said. “We believe in providing a theatre opportunity for every child. We are a fee free program — meaning there is no activity fee to participate.”

Since the beginning of June, Griffith has temporarily relocated from her International Falls home to a small apartment across the street from the Concordia campus, where she will reside until the conclusion of the production.

“Rehearsals are going very well — the singing, the dancing, it’s all amazing. There are challenges with people getting their lines right now, and usual challenges you have working with children this age, but I am very excited to present this show, especially with the caliber of talent that we have.

“Our lead, Andie Peterson, is just 12 years old, going into seventh grade — she will stun people with the maturity in her voice.”

The Gooseberry Park Players will present just six performances of “Oklahoma,” July 16-20 at 7 p.m., and a Sunday matinee on July 21 at 1 p.m.

Advance tickets are on sale at $10 for adults (age 14 and above), $5 for children (age 13 and under), through Monday, July 8. After that, tickets are $12 for adults, $6 for children. Purchase them by phone at 218-299-3314 or order online at

Follow Detroit Lakes Newspapers reporter Vicki Gerdes on Twitter at @VickiLGerdes.

Vicki Gerdes

Staff writer at Detroit Lakes Newspapers for the past 16 years, currently editor of the entertainment and community pages as well as covering city council and the Lake Park-Audubon School Board. Living in DL with my cat, Smokey.

(218) 844-1454