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The Little Theatre in New London has been renovated twice in the last decade. The current renovation deals mainly with improving the building's exterior and energy efficiency. (Tribune photo by Eric Ludy)

Little Theatre renovation highlights its local connections

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entertainment Willmar, 56201
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Lately, it seems there's something about the Little Theatre that inspires the local community to action.

The building, built in 1921, has served, among other things, as a silent movie house and a basketball court, but it came to its present form as a playhouse after a group of concerned citizens banded together to save it from destruction in 1997.

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Now, two major renovation projects -- one initiated, planned and partially funded by a group of eighth graders, and the other funded mainly through donations from local community members and organizations, have been completed.

The theater plans to hold an open house this Saturday from noon to 2 p.m. in appreciation.

"It's been an awful lot of commitment," said Ginny Lief, co-president of the Crow River Players, a nonprofit organization that owns and operates the theater.

The two projects have been ongoing since 2007.

As part of a New London-Spicer school special projects class, taught by Teresa Copley, local eighth graders worked to lower the building's environmental impact and strengthen its local ties.

To lower the heating bills in the winter, foam insulation was fastened to the cement blocks of the building's exterior, with a thin layer of stucco finish to cover it up. Compact fluorescents replaced inefficient light bulbs. Food from area farms replaced the standard theater concession fare.

"It was really neat to see them get so involved in this," said Copley of New London-Spicer schools.

Their project was only part of a larger renovation project on the small theater. Long term projects to build a steel roof, expand the previously cramped stage and beautify the exterior are now all completed.

None of it would have happened, said Lief, without the passion the local community has shown for the tiny building.

Today, everything from school plays, to art exhibits, to concerts featuring local bands are held there. It's become something of a hub for the local arts community, said Lief. Many students in the New London-Spicer High School, raised into the theater in their formative years, are now firmly attached to it, she said.

"It's become their second home," she said.

It was the building's small size and strong roots in the community that appealed to Copley as she searched for a project that her eighth grade class could feasibly tackle.

She was initially approached by Julie Joplin, then the president of the Crow City Players. She had a vision for more student involvement with the running of the theater, said Copley.

That same week, Copley learned of the Youth Energy Summit, a Minnesota program to get students involved in active energy projects. She applied for the program, and eventually received a $1,000 grant for an energy project. The class decided to focus their efforts on a single building, the Little Theatre.

"We wanted a place that would be a community. This is such a place," she said. "It's the perfect stage from which to be heard."

Over the course of two years and two successive classes, students raised more than $12,000 for the project. They also planned the whole thing, working with theater administrators to find environmentally friendly building materials and the most cost effective ways to make the building more energy efficient.

"The most fascinating thing is how they became part of the adult world," said Copley. "It was real, good, hard life lessons."

Throughout that time, the theater was undergoing an overhaul in addition to the students' project. This time, though, the exterior of the building was the focus of their efforts, in contrast to the project in 1997 that completely remodeled the building's interior.

While inside, the indoor stage was expanded, allowing room for more elaborate theater productions, the bulk of the theater's renovation project was replacing its aging shingled roof with a new steel roof.

New renovation projects will still be ongoing in the future. Any profits from theater productions go to the improvement of the old building.

"We just want to preserve this building," said Lief.

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