It started with a move to get more local talent seen by more people in the area. It was pushed along by a fledgling playwrights' group, some local musicians and a local poetry group based in Mankato.

The idea was to take original scripts, dance pieces, poetry, music and film and get the performances on a stage in a theater or in places other than a theater.

From that idea, Mankato Mosaic Theatre Company was born. The group has done local performances of scripts from area writers like t.d. barna, Mitch DeDeyn, Claudia Haas, Brendan Etter and Jessica Huang. In 2010, we took a gamble and performed four short plays set in and performed in a coffee shop. All four venues sold out. Next up was Bar Tales - four short plays set in and performed in a bar. Again, all sold out.

We found there was an audience out there that liked the informality of a non-traditional show - something you could go to at the bar, or coffeehouse. You could have supper there before the show. You could have a drink during the show. It was comfortable. And it was fun.

Mosaic has expanded to do variety shows (usually during the holidays) that also feature poetry, dance, short stories, music and short films, all locally written and performed with local talent.

Though most community theaters might be scared about another theater group starting up, our local community theater jumped in and was supportive. What we've found is that Mosaic's audience is slightly different from the traditional community theater audience. It's been a benefit to both. If someone liked Mosaic's performances, they might try out the community theater. If someone liked a community theater performance, they might try Mosaic's performances. Since the first show, some of the same actors in the local theater helped with shows for Mosaic. And if Mosaic recruited a new actor, they might go on to do a role in a Merely Player's performance.

It's given local writers here a boost – t.d. barna and Jacob Kempfert had original plays produced by the local community theater. Area playwright Joeleen Osborne had a hugely successful run of her original play Singles Against Dysfunctional Disorders.

The Minnesota Shorts Play Festival, entering its fifth year, also gives Minnesota writers all over the state a chance to get a script in the festival. (Playwrights in Minnesota still have until April 15 to enter.) It's brought together actors from Mosaic, Minnesota State, Bethany, Gustavus and Merely Players.

All of this homegrown theater has happened during the past five years, and it's starting to take off in new directions. After Mosaic's successful holiday show 50 Shades of Winter, the band providing the music teamed up with a local poet and playwright to produce a musical based on the local band's CD, "What's the Matter with Captain Gravitone?" It's a superhero farce in which Captain Gravitone must stop the evil General Idiocy from making the world "more stupider." Shows are running all over southern Minnesota April 12-27.

Mosaic is now branching to Restaurant Tales - four plays set in a restaurant and performed in restaurants. One is at the local Chankaska winery, another at Pappageorge restaurant and the final at the Mankato Event Center April 24-26.

Without a theater to call home, Mosaic has used churches, director’s homes and the local art gallery for rehearsals. Because the plays are set in the venues, we don't need a set - there are bars, tables and drinks already there for Bar Tales; coffee and goodies at the Coffee Shop Tales; and food and drinks at Restaurant Tales. We just bring the actors and maybe a spotlight for the stage. We've also learned how to make entrances through the audience and it's made the shows much more engaging.

There is definitely room in the theater audience for people who like traditional plays in a theater and the more non-traditional performances in coffee shops and restaurants. It's also expanded opportunities for original material that might not have made it to the traditional "community" theater. The effort has helped promote theater in general in the Mankato area, and everyone has benefited.

Photo: The musical Gravitone is based on music from the local band String Theory (Eli Hoehn, Wayne Schmidt and Jason Helder of St. Peter), along with Mankato actors Kevin Mock, Tommy Emery and Esther Hoffmann.

Editor's note: This article has been slightly revised since its original posting to better reflect the interrelation of Mankato's theater community.