Lake Country Faces: Pequot Lakes teacher takes to the stage

Maarja Melander teaches English and theater classes, and she will appear in "Recommended Reading for Girls" being staged Feb. 11-13 in Pequot Lakes

pej Lake Country Faces Maarja Melander.JPG
Maarja Melander poses as a pregnant Jackie Saunders-Moran, the character she plays in "Recommended Reading for Girls," during rehearsal Jan. 26, 2022, in the Pequot Lakes High School auditorium. The Pequot Lakes Community Theater play will be staged Feb. 11-13, 2022.
Nancy Vogt / Echo Journal

PEQUOT LAKES — Joining the Pequot Lakes School District this school year allowed Maarja Melander to combine two passions: teaching and theater.

She’s in her first full year of teaching English and theater classes, and she’s preparing for her first on-stage role in a Pequot Lakes Community Theater production.

Melander plays Jackie Saunders-Moran in “Recommended Reading for Girls,” a drama-comedy that will be staged three times - Friday-Sunday, Feb. 11-13, in the high school auditorium.

After we auditioned, I went home and told my husband that the pregnant lady would be really fun to play.
Maarja Melander

The play centers on sisters Jackie Saunders-Moran and Amy Saunders (played by Karla Johnson) and their mother, Marilyn Saunders (played by Andrea Anderson), who is undergoing chemotherapy. All the heroines from Amy's favorite childhood novels have appeared in her house, and Jackie can see them too.

“I'm excited because I have an adult role, and I haven't played any adults because I’m a young adult,” Melander said before rehearsal Wednesday evening, Jan. 26.


And she landed the adult role she wanted.

“After we auditioned, I went home and told my husband that the pregnant lady would be really fun to play,” Melander said, but she doubted she’d get the part. “So when Jen (Anderson, director) called me and was like, ‘Do you want to be the pregnant lady?’ I was very excited.”

She can relate to the character, too, because her own mother faced a cancer diagnosis a couple of years ago.

‘She's cancer free, praise God. The character I play is the daughter of someone who is going through a cancer journey. And so it definitely hits close to home with my past experiences too,” she said.

Melander discovered her love to perform around age 11, when she got involved in a musical at her church near Big Lake.

“And I've always liked singing. So that was right up my alley. And as I've grown, I've found that I've always had a wild imagination,” Melander said. “So it's been really fun to be able to apply my imagination and my empathetic spirit to acting and taking on different roles.”

Growing up, Melander moved a lot because her parents were missionaries. She didn’t mind moving around so much to places that included Austria and China because her family is so close.

“I have a brother who's only 14 months older than me. So we actually graduated high school together (in China), which is great because that meant that we went through all of this transition together. And other than my husband, he's my best friend,” Melander said of her brother, Jorgen.


She enjoyed theater during her high school years too, including as narrator of “Beauty and the Beast” while living in Vienna, Austria. Jorgen played Belle’s dad, Maurice, in that production.

So my city boy husband married me and we both came up here.
Maarja Melander

Melander was involved in theater at St. Cloud State University, though mostly off-stage. She did play a cranky church lady in “The Best Christmas Pageant Ever.”

She graduated in December 2019 with a degree in teaching English. She taught English language arts to eighth-graders at a charter school in the Twin Cities during spring 2020, but wanted to teach in a public school system.

“So I applied for a job in a city I'd never been to,” Melander said of Pequot Lakes.

“When I got offered the job, I called my fiance and said, ‘How do you feel about moving up north?’ And he hesitated and I said, ‘Well, marry me and let's go.’ So my city boy husband married me and we both came up here.”

In addition to teaching ninth and 10-grade English, Melander teaches two theater courses - Patriots on Stage for eighth-graders and a high school theater class. Both are new this year, and she wrote the curriculum for both.

She was stage manager for the Greater Lakes Area Performing Arts production of “The Tragedy of Romeo and Juliet” last summer, is directing the school’s one-act play, and she helped theater program director Susan Mathison-Young with the school’s fall play.

“She's been such a great mentor and really taken me under her wing and showed me how she's been doing things for so long,” Melander said of Mathison-Young, who was complimentary of Melander as well.


"It is helpful to have a new instructor who is excited and willing to learn about the theater program and directing. I look forward to seeing her further develop over the next few years,” she said in an email.

Asked what she likes best about theater, Melander said: “I like the make believe. And the relationships that you develop with the people in the cast.”

She looks forward to performing with her husband, parents and brother all in the audience.

“I’m excited to show them what I can do,” she said, noting they haven’t seen her in a major role like this. “I'm excited to share this story with them and for them to see me in kind of a new light.”

Melander and her husband, Matthew, are settling in with their cat, Persephone, in Pequot Lakes.

“I absolutely love the community. I absolutely love my students so much. I love the people I work with. I'm really blessed where I am,” she said.

“Recommended Reading for Girls”

When: 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 11-12; 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 13

Where: Pequot Lakes High School auditorium

Tickets: Adults, $14; seniors ages 60+, $12; youth ages 18 and under, $10. Get tickets online at , at the door before the show, or call 218-568-9200.

Recommended for audiences ages 12 and older due to a few instances of language and some mature subject matter.

Nancy Vogt, editor, may be reached at 218-855-5877 or Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at

Nancy Vogt is editor of the Pineandlakes Echo Journal, a weekly newspaper that covers eight communities in the Pequot Lakes-Pine River areas - from Nisswa to Hackensack and Pequot Lakes to Crosslake.

She started as editor of the Lake Country Echo in July 2006, and continued in that role when the Lake Country Echo and the Pine River Journal combined in September 2013 to become the Pineandlakes Echo Journal. She worked for the Brainerd Dispatch from 1992-2006 in various roles.

She covers Nisswa, Pequot Lakes, Lake Shore and Crosslake city councils, as well as writes feature stories, news stories and personal columns (Vogt's Notes). She also takes photos at community events.

Contact her at or 218-855-5877 with story ideas or questions. Be sure to leave a voicemail message!
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