LANESBORO — No matter how much you know about Woody Guthrie, it’s probably more than Tod Petersen knew before he signed on to direct “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” at the Commonweal Theatre in Lanesboro.
“Woody wasn’t really on my map before,” Petersen said. “I honestly didn’t know much about Woody Guthrie, his politics, his music. But he’s my new teacher, my new mentor. He was true to himself; he was an adventurer, a traveler.”
The play, which opens Saturday, tells the story of Guthrie, a singer, songwriter, author and political activist, who influenced countless others, including most famously Bob Dylan. Guthrie died of Huntington’s Disease in 1967 at age 55.
Petersen estimated that about 75 percent of the play is music. “The music is used to tell his story,” he said.
And that helps explain why “Woody Guthrie’s American Song” is being produced this year at the Commonweal.
“It had been on the list for a while, but they didn’t know if they had the musical personnel to do it,” Petersen said.
Petersen took care of that concern by assembling a cast of five, all of whom have some background in music. Ryan Lee was a touring singer/songwriter for 10 years. Stela Burdt picked up the violin she had set aside a few years ago and learned to fiddle for this show. Gary Danciu and Jeremy van Meter sharpened their guitar skills. Megan K. Pence is playing the harmonica.
“We’re working really, really hard to put our band together,” Petersen said. “We started rehearsals back in January. At the first rehearsal, I sat down with the cast and said, ‘Our job is to become a band.'”
The songs are all by Guthrie, including “This Land is Your Land,” “So Long it’s Been Good to Know Ya,” “Pastures of Plenty” and “Hard Travelin.'”
Besides playing the songs, everyone in the cast takes a turn as Guthrie.
“All the actors play Woody Guthrie, in different ways,” Petersen said. “It’s a theatrical device that really works in this piece.”
The songs not only tell of Guthrie’s rambling life but of the times in which he lived. Much of Guthrie’s politics and music was influenced by the Great Depression and the effect it had on everyday, working-class Americans.
“He’s the kind of artist we all aspire to be,” Petersen said.