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Northern Light Opera Company garners regional theater awards

With gleaming Oxcars in hand, Northern Light Opera Company celebrates its numerous wins. Picture, from left, are Abby Sellnow, Brian Hobson, Gail Ahart, Jason Wright, Libby Sorenson, Paul Dove, Pat Dove and Bob Light. Below, the Oxcar statues, styled after Babe the Blue Ox, were constructed by Bemidji artist Al Belleveau. (Shannon Geisen / Enterprise)

By SHANNON GEISEN

In a playful twist on the Oscars, regional theatre groups were honored Sunday afternoon with “Oxcars.”

The Northern Light Opera Company snagged several awards.

The ceremony, held at Suzy and Hondo School of Dance, was hosted by Oxcar organizer Cate Belleveau and Bemidji actor Kevin Cease.

“Tonight’s celebration of a year of live theater honors the fine work that may have moved us to tears and laughter, warmed our hearts and touched our souls in a way that no other art form is quite able,” said Belleveau.

“We enrich our communities. We all know that doing theater is a labor of love in northern Minnesota,” she said.

Belleveau is founder of Mask and Rose Women’s Theater Collective in Puposky.

Awards were given for acting, directing, set design, costumes, up-and-coming youth and original work.

NLOC founders Paul and Pat Dove received a Lifetime Achievement Award for their “lifelong commitment to the arts.”

“There’s no way you can sum up the dedication to the arts by these two wonderful people,” said Belleveau.

To a standing ovation and round of applause, the Doves accepted their award.

“We’re not done yet, folks!” said Pat Dove. “We’re glad. We feel honored. We’ve had a terrific group of people that’ve been with us – cast, crew, supporters, volunteers, the whole nine yards. Thank you, all.”

Abby Sellnow was selected for “Best Female in a Musical” for her “lovely portrayal as Sergeant Sarah Brown” in NLOC’s production of “Guys & Dolls.”

Sellnow teaches second grade at Century Elementary School.

In her acceptance speech, Sellnow said, “I had just moved to Park Rapids and went out on a limb and auditioned for Northern Light Opera Company. I’m so grateful that they welcomed me with open arms into their family and I was able to be part of the show.”

The Oxcar committee also honored NLOC stage director Lisa Dove and technical director Greg Paul for “Best Direction of a Musical” for their work on “Guys & Dolls.”

The couple lives in New York City, so couldn’t attend the ceremony. Paul and Pat Dove accepted the Oxcar on their behalf.

“Pat and I retired to Park Rapids in 2001. We thought, ‘We’d better do something else,’ so we started the Northern Light Opera Company,” said Paul of the family-run venture.

“We got a Jerome Travel Grant to check how other groups had done light opera companies. The biggest thing they said to us: ‘Find the best director you can afford.’ Our daughter graduated from Juilliard in drama. Our son-in-law was at the University of Ohio in drama and now is a playwright and technical director living in New York. It’s fun to have the grandchildren come every summer.”

“For stepping up to the challenge of presenting ‘Lo speziale’ – ‘The Apothecary’ – a three-act opera by Joseph Haydn which plays out a love triangle,” NLOC received an Oxcar for “Best Opera Ensemble.”

The Oxcar committee described the opera as “a comedy of great warmth and excellence.”

Jason Wright, Brian Hobson and Gail Ahart, accompanied by pianist Cheryl Steinborn, reprised their roles from “The Apothecary” at the awards ceremony, performing a short trio.

Other theater organizations recognized at the Oxcars were Bemidji Community Theater, Mask and Rose Women’s Theater Collective, Minnesota Folklore Theater in Walker, The Very Exciting Play Society and Saaren Productions, both in Bemidji.

Similar to the Academy Awards red carpet in Hollywood, formal wear was encouraged at Bemidji’s Oxcars.

Hobson’s white tuxedo won “Best Dressed Male” in an impromptu costume contest.

Oxcar nominees are selected by a committee of twelve volunteer theater-goers with no affiliation to any arts board or organization.

“They are pure-audience theater-lovers,” explained Belleveau. “We ask people who love theater and want to go for free.”

Using criteria developed by the Hennepin Theater Trust Spotlight for Theater, Oxcar committee members view live performances from November to November.

“It’s a good, high-standard evaluation,” said Belleveau.

There’s currently a need for two committee members, said Belleveau, especially from the Park Rapids area.

Committee members have to be willing to undergo some training, drive to theater performances in the region and pay for their own gas, but they receive two free tickets to each production.

Nominations are hashed out by the committee, but a consensus isn’t needed, said Belleveau.

Now in its third year, the Oxcars is a great chance for networking opportunities as well as a celebration of theatre excellence.

“I started to feel all the little theaters were so isolated from each other and needed a resource to get to know each other,” said Belleveau.

Grant funding wasn’t available for this year’s Oxcars, she added, so theatres may have to include the festivity in their budgets or find foundation support.

The Ivy Awards, which recognizes theaters in the Metro area, plans to highlight one outstate theater each year in its annual ceremony.

“That’s a big hairy deal for us theaters out in the hinterland,” said Belleveau.

“It’s just so neat to see the strength of theater in northern Minnesota,” she said.

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