June Erdman would be pleased.
The theater teen company that she started in 1990 to help other teens cope with life is going strong.
In fact, the SOS Players now have a troupe of pre-teen actors who perform for elementary and middle school audiences -- as well as a second group of teen actors based at the Landmark Center in St. Paul.
Erdman died July 4 of complications from a surgery. The SOS Players' current leaders -- all of whom worked with Erdman -- are sure that she would be gratified to know that the company's message on issues such as drug and alcohol abuse, sexual and physical abuse, violence, racism and depression is going to an ever-growing audience.
"It's the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life, other than raise children and have a family," Erdman said of founding the SOS Players in a 1998 interview with the Star-Observer. "I can't even tell you how many times we've heard that SOS has changed someone's life."
Sue Oberg, executive director of the SOS Players since 2006, says the addition of the Landmark Center cast and location will allow the troupe to reach more teens in the Twin Cities metro area.
Because of tight school budgets in Minnesota, it will be easier for educators to bring students to the Landmark's Weyerhaeuser Auditorium for a performance than to have the SOS Players come to the school.
Visits to the Landmark Center will be considered a field trip, Oberg says, and Minnesota educators have an easier time getting approval for field trips than they do for bringing performers into the school.
"We can bring the schools to us," she says. "The whole idea is to get as many kids as possible to hear the message."
Oberg adds, "Our main building and our firm foundation is right here in Hudson, and always will be."
Erdman saw to that in 1999 when she and her husband, Jack, provided a generous down payment that allowed the SOS Players board of directors to purchase the former St. Paul's Episcopal Church at the corner of Fourth and Orange streets and turn it into the base of operations for the organization.
Now the Fourth Street Playhouse, the former church building provides a rehearsal stage and seating for a small audience on the main floor. The lower level houses a business office, kitchen, and a meeting and dining room.
While SOS leaders have recruited a group of Twin Cities-area teens who will rehearse and perform primarily at the Landmark Center, they consider all of the approximately 50 actors (Hudson- and St. Paul-based) to be members of the same troupe.
"Landmark and Hudson actors will be interchangeable, basically," says Andrew Bernstrom, the troupe's artistic director.
Bernstrom, like Jenna Solie, the troupe's associate director, is a former actor with the SOS Players.
He joined the troupe as a high school freshman in 1992 and continued with it through his senior year.
After graduating from Mahtomedi High School in Minnesota, Bernstrom stayed on with SOS for another year as an artistic intern. He helped with script writing, directing, playhouse maintenance and a host of other tasks in return for a modest stipend.
Bernstrom returned to SOS five years ago as the troupe's artistic director after earning a bachelor's degree in theater arts from Augsburg College and a master's degree in education from the College of St. Catherine.
Solie, too, is a Mahtomedi High School graduate, as well as a former actor and artistic intern for the SOS Players. She studied theater arts at UW-La Crosse before returning to SOS in 2006 as the associate director.
"It's still the same company, but it's definitely evolved," Bernstrom says of SOS today as compared to when he was an actor in the mid-1990s.
"We really try to stay current with what's going on in the schools and what's going on with youth," he says. "Sketches that still work, and we still like, we keep in the show. Sketches that aren't working as well, or maybe aren't as much of an issue, we take out."
The company's official name, Skits Outreach Services Inc., reflects the vehicle used to carry its messages on social issues affecting young people. Each show, usually about an hour in length, consists of a handful of skits on a variety of topics.
New skits are often a result of SOS receiving requests from educators to address a particular topic. For example, a piece on grief was written after four Granite Falls, Minn., High School students were killed in accidents over a short span of time.
Bernstrom and Solie do the script writing after getting input from the actors.
"Then we'll take it back to the kids and say, 'Do you like this?'" Bernstrom says. "They're pretty good about quality control."
Another change for the SOS Players has been the addition of an SOS Juniors troupe.
Oberg started the junior program when she became executive director with eight actors ages 6-12 that she had worked with at The Phipps Center for the Arts.
There are now 65 SOS Juniors who meet for one 90-minute class each Thursday at the Fourth Street Playhouse. They perform for only local elementary school audiences.
Bernstrom has written a new "Kingdom Choices" show for the juniors that deals with issues such as bullying, divorce, sexual and physical abuse, body image and drug use.
A number of issues that the SOS Players were formed to confront originally are now problems in elementary schools as well as high schools, according to Oberg.
The SOS Players have performed for more than one million people since Erdman thought of putting teenage actors to work encouraging their peers to make good decisions.
Last year, the company performed about 150 shows for mostly high school audiences in Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa. But SOS also does programs for adults and sometimes travels to other Midwestern states and beyond.
The troupe did a show for teachers, principals and guidance counselors at the National Community Education Convention in Minneapolis last December.
It has an invitation to perform in Japan's international schools this fall -- and will if it can raise the money for airfare.
Oberg, Bernstrom and Solie are the company's full-time paid staff. The company also employs two director interns, Greg Lund and Katie Klinger, and a part-time bookkeeper, Bettyann Henry.
A number of charitable foundations, corporations and civic organizations provide much of the funding for the SOS Players, whose 2008 budget is $237,000. Oberg says the Andersen family of Andersen Windows is especially generous.
The joining of theater and a message remains a powerful method of communicating with young audiences, according to the SOS Players' leaders.
"You get a lot of feedback," says Solie. "The kids in the audience really open up."
She says the responses range from "You were so good," to "Wow, I thought no one understood that about me" or "I had a friend who did that."
The actors are sometimes approached after a show by teens with serious problems. They are trained to bring an SOS director into the conversation when that happens, and the director puts the teen in contact with a school counselor or principal.
The troupe also receives numerous e-mail messages from teens who have attended a performance. Teens are encouraged to contact SOS through the company's Web site, www.sosplayers.org.
"All of a sudden, someone who might not have opened up otherwise has a safety net," says Solie. "To get them to that next step -- to the help they need -- is something that is very, very powerful and something that we as a theater company are blessed to get to do."