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It’s a hard knock life: Great River Road Theatre presents ‘Annie’

Jay Nesseth, who plays President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Great River Road Theatre’s production of “Annie,” is surrounded by the orphans and Annie as they prepare for their last dress rehearsal Wednesday, July 12. The show opens July 13 and will be at Prescott High School Auditorium. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia1 / 2
Jay Nesseth, who plays President Franklin D. Roosevelt in the Great River Road Theatre’s production of “Annie,” is surrounded by the orphans and Annie as they prepare for their last dress rehearsal Wednesday, July 12. The show opens July 13 and will be at Prescott High School Auditorium. Matthew Lambert / RiverTown Multimedia2 / 2

PRESCOTT -- When Judy Johnson first started The Great River Road Theatre, she didn't have much.

No microphones. No professional lighting. Not even a three-act play.

Now, with 25 years under her directing belt, Johnson is preparing to put on the play “Annie” in the Prescott High School Auditorium. The show opens Thursday, July 13.

Johnson calls The Great River Road Theatre “my baby.” She is serving as the co-director, producer and set designer for “Annie.” Johnson said she even makes a brief cameo in the musical.

“Annie” is a play about an orphan named, you guessed it, Annie. The play was inspired by the Harold Gray comic strip “Little Orphan Annie.” It debuted on Broadway in New York City in 1977.

Johnson said putting on “Annie” has been exciting, but challenging, dealing with last minute dropouts in a show that is already not heavily funded and dealing with a wide range of ages, from young children to adults.

In 1992, the Prescott Area Chamber of Commerce thought that bringing in theatrical plays could bring culture to the Prescott area. Johnson suggested theater; after all, she studied extensively and always wanted to be an actor.

The first three plays that Johnson staged  were all one-act plays, rather than the usual three-act structure such as “Annie.”

Johnson said they had close to no money, no technical marvels, costumes that were cobbled together, even a set that was mostly just black plastic. The plays didn’t even have a venue necessarily, going in easily rented outside areas or even someone’s back yard.

“It was just such a homemade thing...people came,” Johnson said. “Maybe just to eat the popcorn, but they came and they enjoyed it.”

After doing one-act plays such as “Almost The Bride of Dracula,” Johnson decided to go to two-act plays the next year. After some time, Johnson and the rest of the group began using the grounds of Prescott High School or the park near the middle school.

Eventually, they expanded to producing three-act plays and musicals, invested in microphones and lights, and are thrilled to now use the brand new auditorium.

“My big dream is to see some kind of amphitheater in Prescott,” Johnson said. “Well, the amphitheater never happened but now the auditorium did.”

When asked if she imagined she would get this far, Johnson could only laugh.

“No,” Johnson laughed. “I said I would do it for 10 years.”

Johnson has a cast of around 19 children and a handful of adults, with a backstage full of people ready to help, and even a band supplying music.

The curtains go up at 7 p.m. July 13, 14, 15, 20, 21, and 22 and at 1 p.m. on July 16 and 23. The performances will be held at the Prescott High School Auditorium.

Tickets are available at the door. If interested in advance tickets, Ptacek’s IGA and Twisted Oak Coffee House have them available for purchase.

Tickets are $10 for an adults and $5 for people ages 6-17. Ages five and under are free.

All in all for Johnson, when she considers the future of The Great River Road Theatre, she hopes the people in the Pierce County area will continue her work after she is done.

“On my wish list, I hope that the theatre will continue to grow after I’m gone,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how much longer I’m going to do this.”

Johnson said the people she’s been able to work with over the years are “wonderful.”

“I get people coming back to me, who have been in plays when they were little kids,” Johnson said. “I’ve met so many good people.”

For more information about “Annie” or The Great River Road Theatre visit their Facebook page.

Matthew Lambert

Matthew Lambert joined the Pierce County Herald and River Falls Journal in December 2016 covering government, school board, and writing features about the community. He is a graduate of Winona State University with a Bachelor's degree in Journalism. 

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