Siblings (left to right) Kerry Casserly, Laurie Casserly Coleman, Robert Casserly, Amy Casserly Ellis, Susan Casserly-Kosel and Janie Casserly McMonagle at the Lundstrum Center for the Performing Arts in north Minneapolis. Photograph by Amber Procaccini.
Siblings (left to right) Kerry Casserly, Laurie Casserly Coleman, Robert Casserly, Amy Casserly Ellis, Susan Casserly-Kosel and Janie Casserly McMonagle at the Lundstrum Center for the Performing Arts in north Minneapolis. Photograph by Amber Procaccini.
There's a whole lot of singing and dancing going on in north Minneapolis. This summer, 170 kids are participating in classes at the Lundstrum Center for the Performing Arts, a nonprofit organization located just off the I-94/West Broadway exit. The Center is owned by the Casserly sisters, who have a long history with the place, and each sister has her own impressive resumé and Rolodex.

A family affair
Amy Casserly Ellis, executive director, has performed with Gregory Hines and Michael Jackson. Kerry Casserly, artistic director, spent 23 years working on stage in New York. Susan Casserly-Kosel, who now serves as the center's vocal director, used to perform with the Minnesota Opera. Janie Casserly McMonagle teaches dance and musical theater at the center and has performed internationally and worked as a model. The fifth sister, Laurie Casserly Coleman, has worked as an actor and volunteers at the center. In the past, the family's one son, Robert Casserly, served on the board.

How did the sisters end up running a nonprofit center for the performing arts? The answer is easy: They inherited it from their teacher, Dorothy Lundstrum. Lundstrum started the center in the 1920s with two of her sisters. At the time, it was called the Ascension School of Dance and was located in the Ascension Club, next door to the north-side Catholic school. The Casserly girls were regulars at the dance school because their mother, Lois Casserly, taught there. Their mom was actually an alumna of the school herself and even though she and Dorothy were a generation apart, they were good friends.

Surprising inheritance
The sisters remember Dorothy, who never married, saying that they were going to take over her school. It was a total surprise, however, when they learned at her funeral in 1998 that she had indeed declared so in her will. "It was an intriguing but frightening concept," Amy Casserly Ellis said. "We knew it was a good idea waiting to happen, but how?"

A year later, when their own mother passed away, the Casserly sisters, reunited and reeling from their loss, decided to resurrect the center in honor of Dorothy and their mother. "The thought of all of us sisters, with our combined talents, working together sounded great. It seemed like a wonderful way for us to grow old together," Kerry Casserly said to guffaws from her sisters, who admit that running a nonprofit arts center is a lot more stressful and hectic than they had imagined.

"In the beginning," Susan Casserly-Kosel said, "every letter we wrote was a group project. We had one office and one computer. We've had to learn how to give each other space, for our own families, for our own lives."

"Because we are family," Kerry Casserly said, "we've been able to accept one another's personalities, to step back and say, 'That's just how she is.'"

Artfully powerful
One of the things all of the Casserly sisters share is faith in the power of the arts. The center accepts all students, even if they can't pay, so long as they demonstrate a genuine desire to be there, and puts kids to work cleaning and photocopying in exchange for classes.

Students are learning and perfecting their skills in the theater arts so that they can become a "triple threat," or in other words, a performer trained in voice, dance and drama.

The Lundstrum Center has turned out several triple threats. Its students have accepted roles with the Guthrie, the Ordway and the Penumbra. Some have scored spots in commercials. Others have gone on to attend prestigious university acting programs. "There is a lot of networking going on here," Susan Casserly-Kosel said.

Of course some of the center's students possess more raw talent than others, and while it is fulfilling to help shape potential rising stars, the sisters refuse to turn their backs on the center's urban roots. They continue to be amazed by the number of kids stereotypically dismissed as unlikely to succeed in the arts who walk or bike tens of blocks each day just to feel included in the Lundstrum community. "Everybody wants to be somebody," Susan Casserly-Kosel said. "Even our kids who are here just because they need someplace to be, still have aspirations."

And all of the kids, whether they really do have a future in the arts or not, are learning valuable lessons that will stay with them into adulthood. The sisters rattle through a list of life skills taught by the theater: reading, diction, voice projection, self-confidence, improvisation, cooperation and more.

"I tell the kids that success isn't a surprise," Amy Casserly Ellis said. "Success is when preparation meets opportunity." Luckily, the Casserly sisters were able to recognize their opportunity when it came along.