We all like to feel a part of something. Don’t we?
We seek community for that very reason, and we build relationships with family and friends and neighbors just for a sense of inclusion, support, peace.
We build these foundations so that when times are hard, and when the noise and hustle is more distracting than ever, we have a place — an emotion — to retreat to. It feels good there. It feels hopeful. And safe.
When I visited Duluth, Minnesota, last month, I was envious.
In an industrial town where struggles abound, I felt nothing but hope and ambition and crazy love. I saw nothing but hugs, warm greetings and people being present because they wanted to be.
I was introduced to this beautiful community by Blake Thomas and Mary Fox, a married musician and actress who are making a go of life steeped in the arts, right there in Duluth, and inviting everyone around them to embrace the good, too.
“Isn’t the goal to make a living doing what you love?” Mary asks so honestly.
Of course, but how quickly we can forget that.
Blake and Mary run Take It With You, a live theater radio show and podcast with a funny yet meaningful, warm-hearted fictional story that has been unfolding for over two years now.
With their monthly performances in front of a live studio audience, they’ve created an environment — a place, an emotion — that you can’t help but want to feel a part of.
How did they create this setting? How do all these people continue to gravitate toward one another and embrace one another so genuinely?
Duluth is full of so many people who deeply care, and Blake and Mary’s zest for life brought them together. They listened to the beat of their little city and gave them what they needed:
Open arms. Joy. A reason to laugh and a reminder of what community can be.
It’s just a radio show with songs and sketches that make you smile, but when the audience keeps coming back to fill a theater, and when you leave a show with a full heart rejuvenated, it becomes more than that.
And it matters.
“I love being a part of something like this,” Mary says. “It amazes me, and I feel so lucky.”
Get to know Blake and Mary, and you’ll feel that way, too.
Meet the dynamic duo!
Blake and Mary grew up together in Chaska, Minnesota. He soon traveled around the country as a musician, and she went to school at the University of Minnesota Duluth to study theater.
“Then, the day after I graduated from college, I moved to New York City to be on Broadway,” Mary smiles. It really was a fantastic experience, she says, but something was amiss.
“I realized after living out there for a couple years that it was expensive, and all I was doing was bartending,” Mary says. “I wasn’t auditioning, I wasn’t playing music, I wasn’t doing any of those things of why I moved out there.”
She knew there was a better way.
“I don’t think it’s about living in L.A. or New York or Chicago and standing in line for auditions anymore,” Mary says. “We have a lot of friends who are living in New York City and just want to be back in Minnesota so bad, but they won’t move back here because they feel like they would have failed.”
Today, Mary is showing them the way.
“I think it’s making your own thing and creating,” she says. “And I think by living in Duluth, I will someday get to Broadway by doing what I’m doing here, in Minnesota.”
And, she’s fulfilled. Mary left New York City to come back to her home state and began working for Yellow Tree Theatre in Minneapolis, “and I haven’t stopped being in the arts and being creative and acting and singing since. That says something about being where you are.”
Blake also moved back to Minnesota to be with Mary after years on the road. While traveling, he lived in Chicago, Boston and Austin, Texas, to name a few. “I had a band in Madison, Wisconsin, too,” he says. “I loved it.”
But being home, they both have never been more immersed in community and in their work than they are today. They haven’t looked back.
“Committing to the arts is tricky,” says Blake, “but the best, most brilliant, truly life-changing performers I’ve ever had the good fortune to meet are the folks who are the kindest and the most giving and can take a few punches, knowing that it’s all just part of the puzzle. Fingers crossed, we’ll put all the pieces together someday and have a clear picture.”
That picture became more clear when they wrote a musical about a radio show in Minneapolis. They decided to make that radio show a reality and headed north for Duluth. It was a smaller market, “and the lake is therapy,” Mary smiles.
“Duluth was calling to us a little bit, and I remember having this feeling that there was some incredible stuff happening here,” she says.
Duluth was home, and that’s where Take It With You began.
About the show
From the beginning, the fictional story has taken place at a bar in Duluth. The cast ranges from half a dozen to up to 13 actors in one episode, with Blake and Mary as main characters.
Well, kind of.
“We play these outlandish, heightened versions of ourselves,” Blake says, “but it’s not based on the realities of our lives.”
“When we’re writing the script,” Mary says, “they are all of our names, but they look completely different to me,” she says. “Mary, to me, is not me. Isn’t that weird? It’s this ultra Duluthian-alternate universe!”
Along with singing original music, each episode includes local guest appearances as well. It’s their way of adding an educational component to each show.
“The guest has to somehow impact the community in a way that makes it better,” Blake says. “We want to talk about something that is changing the community in a way that we can see it — in a creative or emotional way.”
They write the local guest right into the script, so whoever comes onto stage not only gets to talk about their work but plays a character role who “gives advice” as well. It’s thoughtful, and it works.
“One of our main goals with this was to somehow give back and to help the community,” Mary says. “When you can use the arts as that medium for helping other businesses in town, that’s a no brainer for us.”
And, they are learning, too.
“We learn a lot just by being around the people in our community,” Blake says. “I’m really inspired by the people who are here, and all the people we have on our show.”
Sketches, improv, jokes, a little bit of everything
When starting Take It With You, one of Blake and Mary’s goals was to be respectful of their casts’ time and talents. But abiding by that means little time is spent preparing for each live show — as in, a day or two.
Performances are always on a Tuesday, and the cast usually won’t see the script until the day before.
“It’s scary at times!” says Take It With You actor Andy Frye. He’s a close friend of Blake and Mary’s and has been in all kinds of theater with them for years. They make a great team. “It’s like a master class,” Andy continues. “ ‘How am I going to make this work?’ You just have to be on your toes.”
And have fun with it. It is live theater, after all.
“Every show has an element of improv,” Mary says, “because you just don’t really know what’s going to happen!”
It’s what makes them special.
“Our live shows allow an audience to see our curtain pulled back,” Mary says. “The imperfections are celebrated. There is an old-school aspect about it — what musicians did long ago. Things in this day and age get so polished and so worn down that you can’t find the art in a well designed, looped-up thing.
“Here, things don’t sound perfect, or you don’t have the most powerful voice, but it’s a celebration of the arts in so many different ways,” Mary says.
She takes a long pause. She is so in love with her work, how can we not be, too?
“This is just about getting people together,” Blake continues. “Back in the day, families would gather around a radio and listen to what’s going on in the world. There is something about listening to our show that is very old-school and imaginative.”
Blake says their biggest struggle is getting the podcast of each show edited and up on their website in a timely fashion, but it doesn’t seem to be hindering listeners. They’ve had over 10,000 downloads from around the world and counting.
“Eventually, hopefully,” Mary says, “we do a show on a Tuesday, and that one that you just saw live will come out the next week. That’s ideal.”
They also talk about taking the show on the road, but they’re practicing patience for now.
“Not getting ahead of ourselves is our new motto,” Mary smiles.
Take it with you, always
At the end of each episode, the entire audience sings in unison with the cast. “Everybody!” Mary shouts with her hands in the air as the audience smiles and sways. It’s delightful.
Much like the title of their show implies, the feeling their work brings is something to take home with you and wherever you go — a reminder of how simple it can be, and how much joy is there to savor. It’s the kind of community worth striving for.
I can still hear the serenade: “… I don’t worry, I’m sittin’ on top of the world …”
They are, indeed.
Angela Tewalt, OTA