At 8 years old, Eric Hedlund started out his theater experience with Black Hills Community Theatre playing a dancing hunchback dwarf. Since then, he has been in more than 35 plays and musicals.
This fall, he finds himself back where it all began, this time as the director of education and outreach for the organization.
“It’s like a whirlpool. I am now back where it started for me. I get to look back and say I was a part of it as a child and now I’ve gone full circle and have come back again,” Hedlund said.
Hedlund grew up in Rapid City. When he was a child, he participated in the Black Hills Children’s Theater Troupe, the precursor to the Cherry Street Players. He spent his youth working with the theater group, as well as participating in theater at Central High School.
“I admired a lot of people that I worked with while growing up here. It is great that many are still here and I have the unique opportunity to work with them as a peer,” he said.
His ties to the Cherry Street Players and Black Hills Community Theatre were part of the reason he was brought on board, according to Dennis Gleason, managing artistic director.
“It is good to see people take what they have learned and be able to pass it on,” he said.
One of Hedlund’s fondest memories was working with Christine Gradl, artistic director of the Children’s Theater Troupe.
“We called her the dance nazi because it didn’t matter if you were 6 or 65, you had better get it right and not forget your steps,” he joked. “But everyone loved it and her. The show looked good and we loved that. I liked being pushed by her. I hope that I can push the students and end up with as good of results.”
Hedlund has been on the job since mid-September. Typically, by this point in the year, the fall and spring sessions are planned out and in full swing. The fall classes are going, but Hedlund said he is still working on getting things organized for the remainder of the year.
As director of education, Hedlund works with the students in the Cherry Street Players, is a tuition-based educational theater program.
The students work for a semester on different aspects of theater. At the end of the program, the students present a show to the public. This semester, Hedlund is working with about 26 students.
“I like working with kids because they have a good energy. Their lives are happy and they are happy with where they are at,” he said. “Kids in general come from their own experiences. It’s inspiring. It teaches me to let go of all of this external stuff and be a monkey. They drop all pretenses.”
Hedlund graduated from the University of California at Santa Barbara in film and media studies. He worked in Minneapolis before moving back to South Dakota, and spent a year working with the Children’s Theater of South Dakota. He traveled to small communities throughout the state.
While Hedlund worked with the Children’s Theater, he performed the “Bard of Ballyfiddle” about 70 times with 34 different casts of kids.
“Being able to do that week after week was a wonderful testament to him,” Gleason said.
“I try to play to what I know. I come from a background of sketch comedy, student film and film acting,” Hedlund said. “The actual teaching and directing are a huge learning experience for me.”
Besides the education aspect, Hedlund is also director of outreach programs. In the past, members of the Cherry Street Players performed at rest homes and to smaller audiences. Hedlund would like to return to doing more outreach.
“I hope I can give the actors the thrill of thrilling the audience,” he said.
Hedlund said he would like to work with the schools to develop an after-school program for those students who cannot afford to participate in the Cherry Street Players. There are scholarships available, but there are many more students who could benefit with an after-school program, he said.
“Theater is expensive, but I think we can have a version that everyone can afford. There’s got to be a way to do it,” he said.
Gleason said another reason Hedlund was hired was because of his desire to expand multiculturalism in the productions. The group’s first production will be “Around the World in 8 Plays,” a comedy that is set around the world and features many cultures.
“We do have a diverse population in our area. Anything we can do to let people know it’s OK to be who you are is great,” Gleason said.
Hedlund said he would also like to tap into the South Dakota talent pool by inviting professionals from around the state to work with the students.
“Eric has a lot of experience and knowledge to bring,” Gleason said. “But he has the knowledge to tap into others and bring in even more talent to the area.”