Playwright critiques, acts with cast of 'Don't Hug Me'

Playwright Phil Olson, center, and the cast and crew of the Hill Country Community Theatre's production of "Don't Hug Me."

By Lew K. Cohn

Managing Editor

The Highlander

The laughter and chuckling coming from a seat in the middle of the auditorium was easy to notice on Labor Day evening. Coming from any other audience member would be encouraging enough for the cast of Hill Country Community Theatre's latest offering, the musical comedy “Don't Hug Me.”

That the laughter belonged the man who wrote the book and lyrics to the musical, playwright Phil Olson, seemed to make rehearsal even more electric for the cast and crew.

Olson came to Cottonwood Shores Monday, Sept. 5, to watch the cast perform his hit play and to offer notes and suggestions at the request of HCCT executive director Mike Radamaekers, who is directing “Don't Hug Me,” a comedy about a Minnesotan bar-owning couple (Gunner and Clara Johnson) at odds over whether to stay in freezing Bunyan Bay or pack up for Florida; a waitress (Bernice) with performance aspirations as great as her performance anxiety; her wealthy but boring fiance (Kanute); and the salesman (Aarvid) who comes to town to sell their bar, The Bunyan, a magical karaoke machine which could increase business … or just further increase tensions between the couples.

The HCCT version of the play stars Seth Smith as the cantankerous bar owner Gunner Johnson, while Kay Baker plays his wife, former Winter Carnival Queen Clara. Bernice Lundstrom, the waitress with dreams of fame, is played by Mandy Whittlesey, while Kyle Hirning plays Kanute Gunderson, who owns a chain of sporting goods stores and is looking to buy the bar from Gunner. Jonathan Kroese is Aarvid Gisselsen, the fast-talking salesman who really wants to sell them a karaoke machine he hawks as a “Life Style System” that spits out the hits of everyone's favorite singer-songwriter, the legendary Sven Yorgensen.

Olson wrote “Don't Hug Me” based on his upbringing in a Norwegian household in Minnesota in a family which expressed sentiment “at arms length, by patting each other on the shoulders.”

“My Dad would say he was the Norwegian who loved his wife so much that he almost told her,” Olson said. “Gunner is a lot like my Dad, but maybe a little more curmudgeonly. For example, Clara says, 'Tell me you love me.' Gunner says, 'I told you I loved you when I married you.'

“This is a couple (Gunner and Clara) which is emotionally unable to communicate with each other, so Clara thinks she can save her marriage and make money by buying the karaoke machine and mayhem ensues.”

Olson, who grew up in Edina, Minnesota, wrote about the people and the area he knew best. He reached out to his brother Paul, chief nephrologist at Allina Medical Clinics in Shakopee, Minnesota, to write the music, which Paul did without knowing anything about the story. The music and lyrics dovetailed perfectly and a show was born.

“Don't Hug Me” premiered in Los Angeles in November 2003 at The Whitefire Theatre. Originally just scheduled to run for six weeks, the play was a smash hit that ran for six months. It won four Artistic Director Achievement Awards in Los Angeles including, Best Original Musical, Best Author Original Play, Best Director, and Best Ensemble Cast.

The play was so successful that Samuel French Publishing encouraged Olson to write a sequel. As of today, there are four sequels, which include “A Don't Hug Me Christmas Carol,” “A Don't Hug Me County Fair,” “Don't Hug Me, I'm Pregnant” and “Don't Hug Me, We're Married.” All of the plays are stand-alone, so audiences don't have to have seen any of the other shows in the series. Olson said he is in the process of writing a sixth play as well. All of the characters in the original “Don't Hug Me” appear in the sequels.

“Don't Hug Me, I'm Pregnant” was performed at The Secret Rose Theatre, which was run by Radamaekers before he came to Texas to head up Hill Country Community Theatre. Playwright and director have known each other for about 13 years as well and have a very great respect for each other.

“I worked with Mike when 'Don't Hug Me, I'm Pregnant' ran at the Secret Rose and it did very well there,” Olson said. “I've known Mike for a very long time and I also know a lot of people who have worked with him as well. He does a great job.
“The Los Angeles theater community is actually a very small community and a friendly environment where the actors and directors all know each other.”

Olson didn't just watch rehearsals Monday. When Hirning was unable to attend, Olson stepped into the role of Kanute and had the cast and crew rolling with his performance, including an off-the-cuff pun regarding a frozen body part and a famous bratwurst company.

He had glowing praise for the cast during intermission.

“They are doing really great and I can tell this is going to be a really fun show,” Olson said. “I was told it was 10 days before they open and for just 10 days before the show is set to open, they are really far along for that. You don't normally see performances that are this well-polished at that time.”

“Don't Hug Me” opens Sept. 15 and runs through Sept. 25.  Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays with Sunday matinees at 2:15 p.m. Admission is $25 for adults and $12 students with a valid ID. The theatre is located at 4003 W FM 2147, Cottonwood Shores.

Tickets are now on sale and reservations can be made by calling 830-798-8944, online at, or at the box office from noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday.

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