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Steve and Cheryl Vopat of Cloquet have directed the Christian-based drama group New Wine since 2004, with Steve handling the technical aspects of their annual productions, including lights, sound and still photography, and Cheryl serving as musical director and all-around go-to gal.

Couple uplifts community by leading annual New Wine tour

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It doesn't take long to think of two words that easily sum up Steve and Cheryl Vopats' life from January through June - New Wine.

New Wine is a longtime Christian-based drama group that attracts high school students from all over the area and has been directed by the Vopats since 2004 at Zion Lutheran Church in Cloquet.

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And according to the couple, working at their parish never gets old.

"We eat, sleep and breathe this," said Steve. "And we're just running with the baton right now."

The theatrical play has been running in Cloquet for 20 years and was started by former Zion pastor Todd Mattson. After Mattson left in 2000, a handful of others took over for a short time until Cheryl was asked to help out in 2004. Steve joined shortly after in 2005.

Cheryl is the director of choral ministry at Zion and started by helping soloists in New Wine productions. Today, she serves as musical director and chief organizer.

"She's the glue," laughed Steve. "She does it all."

Steve, a surgeon at Community Memorial Hospital, is technical director, in charge of the lights, sound, and still photography. Steve also plans the cast's entire tour across the United States. Since 2008, current Zion pastor Loren Schumacher has also been assisting.

"It's a fun thing to do that deals with church," said Steve. "And we wanted to do our part to keep it going once people had left."

This spring, 77 students auditioned for 48 parts in the cast. Students participating this year come mostly from Cloquet and Esko, as well as Barnum.

"We wish so badly that we could keep them all, because everyone is so good," said Cheryl. "But with bus limitations, we can only have so many. Auditions are always the toughest night of the year."

And with their participants already leading busy lives, setting a schedule can be difficult at times.

"The students are all so busy with school, sports and other activities, which is great, but makes it quite challenging to figure out dates," continued Cheryl. "They're definitely in a lot of stuff."

Nonetheless, with their team T-shirts on, "New Winers," as people like to call them, rehearse every Sunday evening at Zion in preparation for their annual coffee house performances at the church every April.

This year's performance, "New Wine, Rhythm and Word," also known as RAW, will be held April 15-18 at Zion. Tickets are $10 each, which includes a dessert gathering after the performance. Tickets can be purchased from performers or at the church.

And as always, Zion will be at standing-room-only capacity over those four days.

"We nearly sell out every year, and that makes it a lot of fun," said Steve. "We get a ton of local support and it's so nice to see everyone come out."

The Vopats also praise parents, who help with fundraisers as well as set up and clean up before and after performances.

"The community help we get is great," Steve continued. "This year's show is exciting. If it all comes together, it'll be very moving."

After their coffee house performances, the cast will take their show on the road June 11-20. They'll stop at local churches and perform en route to Washington D.C.

"The trip is such a blast," said Cheryl. "We never really know where we're going to perform until we get off the bus. But that's the fun of it and these kids are so adaptable, confident and are very composed on stage. They always pull through."

"These are really special kids," added Steve. "They really want to be here."

During their 10-day trip, New Wine conducts roughly half a dozen performances, usually calling it a night in their sleeping bags on church floors.

"There's a lot a of peanut butter and bologna sandwiches along the way, that's for sure," laughed Steve. "If we're lucky, we'll get in two showers."

But that only makes it more of an adventure.

"We always have an award for the one who packs the lightest," said Cheryl. "If it doesn't fit in an airplane compartment, it's too big."

The Vopats' love for New Wine has been handed down to their three boys as well. Cloquet High School graduates Josh and Zack have taken part in the drama for four years. Steve and Cheryl's youngest son Jon, a junior at CHS, is in his third year.

"We all like music and theatre," said Steve.

"It's a great opportunity for our kids," added Cheryl. "And it's really fun."

All that fun hasn't come without hard work, however.

"The work involved with this is tremendous," said Cheryl. "But in the end, every year it's all well worth it. This has all been so great."

As Steve joked, from January to June, the couple sleeps in their Wrenshall home, but basically, that's about all the time they spend there.

To spend a little more time at home, after Jon graduates from high school next year, they hope to take on somewhat of a lesser role in the production.

"We'll be very supportive of the adult leaders who take over after us," said Steve. "When we go, we still want this to be successful for a long time."

And the day they walk away won't be easy.

"I'm a nerd," laughed Steve. "It'll be hard to leave that soundboard."

But for now, the Vopats are just happy to be a part of something they're so passionate about - and they enjoy every performance like it was the first."

"We used to be nervous about the performances," said Steve. "But not anymore, because these kids really bring it. And that reward is so great."

Cheryl agreed without hesitation.

"It's like we have 48 kids," she said. "And that's how it should be. This isn't about us, it's about them. New Wine is about the kids and we wouldn't want it any other way."

"We get so much more out of this than we put in," said Steve. "Seeing the kids up there performing on stage is all worth it. This is our pride and joy. I always get a little choked up."

New Wine continues to accept donations at their coffee house performances in support of their tour. For more information, call 218-879-4647.

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