COMMUNITY: Stage Adventures Series and Classes at SECT

By Le Bender / Follow @LBenderJr / Image courtesy of Sioux Falls Orpheum Theater Center

Now five seasons in the making, the Stage Adventures series is a scion of the ever-improving Sioux Empire Community Theatre.  It’s no coincidence that this is same length of time in which Patrick Pope has been the Producing Artistic Director for SECT.

I sat down with Pope last week to discuss SECT’s current production of The Giver, enjoy some pizza, and talk about what’s next for youth theatre education in Sioux Falls.

As Pope explained, SECT produces two shows each season (one musical + one straight play) for the purpose of “planting the seeds” of our next generation of actors.  If you’ve never been to one of their Stage Adventure productions, what you’ve been missing is the opportunity to see talented young actors playing the roles of protagonists alongside seasoned adult actors.  Age appropriate casting is critical says Pope.

In addition to these two in-season productions, which Pope sees expanding to three productions in the next five years, the Sioux Empire Community Theatre also provides two musical theatre summer camp intensives.  This summer they will be offering Seussical: The Musical Jr for children grades 1–8, followed by Hairspray for youth grades 6–12.  More information about these summer camps can be found on their website.

And if that wasn’t enough (for Pope it’s most definitely NOT enough), SECT will soon embark on a new educational project aimed at providing more formal training to young actors with its own staff, as well as guest instructors from the University of South Dakota and South Dakota State University.

Student actors will have the option to take a class in one of four disciplines: Acting, Movement, Voice, and Technical Theatre.  Within each discipline, SECT will offer up to five levels of study (Acting 1 – 5, and so on).  The only catch, students won’t be able to advance to the third level of a given discipline without taking classes in the other disciplines.  The same goes for the fifth level of each discipline.

Pope explains that this gatekeeper approach is intended to promote a well-rounded experience for the young actor. Classes will be approximately 90 minutes in length, take place on Saturdays, and run year round with each class lasting one season (Fall/Winter/Spring/Summer).

Pope is planning a special bonus for students completing all twenty classes: a secret “Ensemble” designation and access to a new set of classes focusing on the craft of playwriting.   Because SECT will be collaborating with guest instructors from the university, Pope hopes work out a small scholarship opportunity for those students reaching the “Ensemble” level designation.

Stay tuned to the Sioux Empire Community Theatre website for more details of this exciting opportunity.


REVIEW: A Year With Frog & Toad; Brings the GREEN with Hilarious Family Fare!

“my granddaughter, Kalie, did not want the story to end, and requested a photo with each and every character. That’s how much fun this show was.”

Frog and Toad
By Julie Sauer- Follow @JulieLSauer

The Green Earth Players really brought the GREEN last weekend with their musical production of A Year With Frog and Toad!  Who knew that, just thirty minutes East on I-90, there is quality musical theatre to be had for the whole family!

The production, held in the historic Palace Theatre in downtown Luverne, Minnesota, is a lovely, century old venue, with the gorgeous woodwork of the era.  You would never realize that this is also the local movie theater, but for the first-rate concession stand.  The stage and seating are of modest size, a bit smaller than the Belbas within the Washington Pavilion.  But, when that curtain opened, a lush, green world was revealed and we were transported to the world of Frog and Toad.

The story begins as Frog and Toad are awakening from their winter slumber.  Frog is eager to get moving; Toad, not so much.  I think Toad is my spirit animal.  We follow the two through a year of adventures, through fun times and scary times, meeting lots of local creatures along the way.  Frog and Toad are the stars of the show, with Casey McKenzie’s chipper attitude and lovely voice giving us a Frog that is an intelligent leader.  Shawn Kinsinger is cast as Toad and creates such a repertoire of toad-escent facial expressions that we couldn’t quit laughing.  His mouth was great but, his EYES!  They bugged, rolled, and side-lagged, doing everything to make us believe he really was a toad! These two actors had amazing comic chemistry and timing.

All of the characters were fun; the naughty squirrels creating chaos, the fairy that changed the seasons, the darling mouse, who looked like a princess, but clearly had less than royal thoughts in her head.  The bird trio was a colorful flock that added narration and clarity to the story, usually through song.  My favorite was “Getta Load of Toad”, an upbeat toe tapper.  Two other stand-outs were Turtle, who waxed her shell with Turtle Wax, and the Mail Snail, who brought life to the phrase “snail mail”; very….very…..slowly.  Not so slow was the Act I Finale, “Cookies”, in which the characters could not stop eating freshly baked cookies.  It was like a stage full of “Cookie Monsters”, with crumbs flying into the orchestra pit!

Kalie & the Frog Family

The set for the play was rich with color and movement, representing seasons, a flying kite, a running stream, the homes of our heroes, and, best of all: a snow hill for speed-sledding!  It truly was all believable, so much so that my granddaughter, Kalie (aka Speedy as she was wearing her cape and mask), did not want the story to end, and requested a photo with each and every character. That’s how much fun this show was.  The costumes were also very creatively done, using many common household items to represent parts of the animals’ bodies.

This first rate production is totally worth the thirty minute car ride and will keep your children’s attention throughout.  I urge you to check it out this weekend.

Show runs Friday, March 18th & Saturday, March 19th, with showings at 7:30pm.  Sunday, March 20th is a 2:00pm matinee.  Tickets are $14 for Adults & $7 for kids/students.  They are reserved seating, so, if you want to get tickets ahead, call   (507) 283-4339.  No cards are accepted. It is CASH or CHECK only.  

Not Talking Codpieces; SECT’s “Spamalot” Star, Steckelberg Explains Endowment

DJ Steckelberg, standing center stage in a recent production of Spamalot, is Sioux Empire Community Theatre’s Director of Development

The leadership of the Sioux Empire Community Theatre (SECT) recently announced that we have accomplished an essential fundraising task. Between Nov. 2015 and March 2016 our theatre raised over $10,000 for an endowment challenge.

After an extensive application process, SECT was selected as one of three organizations by the Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation for the Arts Endowment Challenge.

The Arts Endowment Challenge sets lofty goals for the organizations to meet. For us at SECT, this meant that we HAD to raise $10,000 by March 2, 2016. If we had failed to meet that goal, the challenge would have been over and the theatre would have had to reassess its fundraising methods and priorities.

Fortunately this was not the case, our theatre raised more than $10,000 by the end of February and completed this part of the challenge. An endowment for Sioux Empire Community Theatre has been established.  But we’re not through the woods.

So, what is an endowment anyway?  An endowment means that we will have a professionally managed fund that will incur interest and grow through the years. The fund can always be added to and a percentage can be drawn from it for board-designated projects or needs. The Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation will manage this endowment.

The next step for SECT is both exciting and daunting. We must now raise an additional $90,000 by Dec. 31, 2018. When we accomplish this goal the Foundation will add an additional $33,000 to the endowment!  This money will help to ensure the financial future of the organization for the theatre long-term.

This is truly exciting news for our vibrant community theatre. It speaks to how bold the organization’s vision is.  But this is a daring endeavor to undertake and we’ll need all the help we can get out of  the ‘community’ part of our name.

The $90,000 has to be raised in addition to the fundraising we already do to keep the theatre operational.

Operating a theatre of this size is very expensive. With seven major productions and two youth camps produced annually, costs add up quickly. Costs such as facility rentals (SECT rents their facilities from SMG, the company that manages the Orpheum for the City of Sioux Falls), performance rights, construction materials, insurance, marketing, stipends, and salaries are just a small sampling of operational costs. Ticket sales account for approximately 60% of the income with the rest coming from personal donations, corporate sponsorship and grants.

A special task force is being assembled to help with the extra fundraising effort over the next 34 months and counting, but if you want to help out now – here’s where to send your tax-deductible donation:

Sioux Falls Area Community Foundation, (please put “SECT endowment fund” in the memo line) 200 N. Cherapa Place, Sioux Falls, SD 57103. Or you can make a credit card gift at Note: SFACF is charged approximately 2.5% fees for credit card transactions made online.

We hope to see support continue to roll in.  If any readers have further questions, please contact me at

– DJ STECKELBERG, Director of Development / Sioux Empire Community Theatre

METRO: Pair a SECT Stage Adventure with A Taste of The Big Apple

By Le Bender – Follow on Twitter @LBenderJr

I recently sat down for lunch with Patrick Pope of the Sioux Empire Community Theatre to discuss their production of The Giver, showing now through March 20, 2016.  If you’re not familiar with the novel or stage adaptation, check out Maxine Houlihan’s synopsis and review here on The Falls Theatre Blog.  The Giver is part of SECT’s Stage Adventure series: theatre that is affordable and accessible for the whole family.

Pope is unapologetically passionate about the future of theatre in South Dakota.  Stay tuned for a feature article about his vision of youth theatre education in Sioux Falls. As the Producing Artistic Director of SECT at The Historic Orpheum Theatre Center, he also has a special interest in the vibrancy of the budding urban landscape that is Downtown Sioux Falls.

We met up at A Taste of the Big Apple in Uptown.  Where is “Uptown” you may ask?  Good question.  I’m still looking for an exact set of boundaries myself.  But from my experience, its the area surrounding Main and Phillips Ave, north of 6th Street toward Falls Park.

In Uptown you will find the Uptown Exchange Lofts and Phillips Ave Lofts.  You know those new gray, cerulean and maroon buildings along the parkway leading to the Falls.  You also have older buildings that have been renovated into residential and commercial spaces, even a church.

Located in the Dakota-Moline Plow Co. & Dempster Mill Mfg building, A Taste of the Big Apple is just off N Main Ave on 4th Street.  If you haven’t spent much time in this part of town lately, I encourage you to go for a stroll and see what’s changed.

CTZF2swVEAANvGlNearby you will find the Museum of Visual Materials and the Icon Lounge.  I enjoy strolling through this part of town on my lunch hour and let me say, there have been some stunning views of the Old Courthouse Museum clock tower during the dead of winter with the low sun in the southern sky.

Entering the Big Apple, you are hit immediately with the smell of fresh pizza dough.  Behind the counter sits a stack of boxes, reminding you that if the weather is too nice, you can always opt to take your pizza to Falls Park for an impromptu picnic.  If you chose to stick around and enjoy the smells, the dining room seats around 50.  There is also a covered patio running the entire length of the south side of the building.

On the menu are thin crust pizzas galore.  In addition to pizza they have calzones, soup and salads, and appetizers.  I’m going to try Grandma’s Knish on a future visit.  Grandmothers have a special way in the kitchen.

Open for lunch and dinner daily, this is a perfect choice if you are taking a group of hungry kids out to eat before or after the show.  Or, as was the case of my meeting with Mr. Pope, it’s a great place to get away for a quiet lunch on a weekday.  FullSizeRender

Not on the menu but available to order at a reasonable price is an individual 7-inch pizza ($7-$8).  On our visit I had the Little Italy’s Garden in this single serving pizza.   It was chock full of roasted tomato, chunky mushrooms, and artichoke: a satisfyingly light lunch option.  At a previous visit my brother, 11-year-old nephew and I split the large (16-inch) New Yorker, a pie that was unctuously cheesy and meaty.

My recommendation:  Get out and see The Giver at the Sioux Empire Community Theatre.  Share the experience with a youngster; and afterward, hoof it over to A Taste of the Big Apple for some delicious pizza.  The kid will thank you for it.

A Taste of the Big Apple
600 North Main Ave
Mon – Sat, 11am-2pm & 5pm-9pm
Sun, 4pm-8pm
Patio Seating: Lots
Vegetarian: Yes
Beer/Wine: Yes & Yes
Parking: Street

REVIEW: The Giver; A Chilling Tale of Conformity Keeps You on Edge of Seat!

By Maxine Houlihan – Follow @MaxineHoulihan

Imagine living in a colorless world where there is no passion, no restlessness, no creativity.  As a person who feels her emotions, often in their extremes, I would never survive.  It is the sensory input, the variety, the reactionary feedback that inspires us to re-invent our future to accommodate change.  But, what if there was no diversity, and we were fiercely prohibited from even thinking about innovation?  What if we were, for all eternity, mandated to “sameness”?  Would we rebel?  Would we comply for the sake of tradition?

These are the questions Lois Lowry poses in her novel “The Giver”, which has been adapted for the stage by Dramatic Publishing Company.  This chilling tale of a suppressed community has been given life by the Sioux Empire Community Theatre, whose actors are ready to mesmerize you on the stage of the Anne Zabel Theatre at the Orpheum.

We are introduced to this nameless community by two identical announcers who pace like sentinels as they watch their human charges, declaring rules in a tin-can tandem that sent a tingle up my spine.  They inspired thoughts of Mr. Spock and his logical monotone; Siri, as she tells me to take the next exit; even Austin Powers’ Fembots, but without the sex appeal.  Karrisa Kummer and Elaina Wegleitner never broke character and I found myself unable to look them in the eye as they passed.

We enter the story as Jonas, a boy of eleven who has no last name, paces anxiously, stressing about the upcoming ceremony where he will give up his childhood and be assigned a lifelong vocation. Outside of his home he is only referred to as “Number Nineteen” of “The Elevens”.  Although they have been assimilated into the culture, Jonas’ family displays a contrasting bit of empathy, but insists that he do as all have done before him.  He and his friends brood over what assignments they will receive, as not all are desirable.

Fast forward to the “Ceremony of  Twelves”, where Jonas’ friends are given ordinary jobs, but Jonas is assigned the title of Receiver of Memories.  This is a revered position that he does not understand, and it’s profound responsibility has the potential to isolate him from life, as he has known it.

Jonas is soon introduced to The Giver, a brooding man who seems vexed with the idea of transmitting all of the world’s memories into Jonas.  You see, Jonas will be the Library of Alexandria, in human form.  Throughout the show I was hypnotized by Jay Wickre as The Giver.  He portrayed true empathy and despair through his movements and facial expressions, but, above all, I was transfixed by his eyes.  They were piercing and emotive and I couldn’t look away.

imagesAs Jonas receives memory after memory, he becomes overwhelmed.  He begins to see the community in a new light; and not a good one. His family and friends don’t understand what he is going through, and he feels support only from The Giver. He questions why the “sameness” is necessary, and is told that it is for the good of the people.  There is a day, a scale-tipping day, when Jonas receives a shocking revelation about his family, and he can no longer accept the status quo.  This twelve-year-old boy must now make a choice that could put him on a perilous new path through the unknown.

This production kept me on the edge of my seat all evening.  Director Andy Heller clearly had the creative vision to assemble a great cast and keep them focused.  What really stood out for me was the talent of the children.  Young Robert Baker, as Jonas, had reams of lines to memorize and he delivered them all with just the right amount of emotion.  I noticed that, the first time he laughed in character, he chose a cackling tone that clearly demonstrated his character’s lack of experience with joy.  Jonas did not know how to laugh.  Noah Bunger was moving as Asher, clearly displaying his angst about life as a “Twelve”.   Olivia Gordon’s Fiona infused her character with a bit more contentment than the others.  It made sense for a young girl who is okay with her world and satisfied with her job.  Cast as little sister Lilly, Cassidy Jennings was adorable in braids and bows, carrying around a stuffed elephant that her character would never have seen in real life.  She successfully portrayed the rebellious nature of a younger child, who is sometimes grumpy, regardless of what her elders say.  Alex Vasquez and Jessica Tebben, who played Jonas’ parents, allowed their characters to display some emotion and empathy for their children.  It showed an adherence to the rules in public, but some parental love within the home.  Cheryl Matthews was pompous, forceful  and condescending as the Chief Elder. It was spot on; she scared me.  Last, but not least was Johanna Merrill as Rosemary, whose story we learn mostly through dialogue.  We don’t see much of her, but, when we do, the sorrow is raw on her face.

The Zabel Theatre was arranged with the stage on one end, set pieces on the floor, and a U-shaped audience surrounding it.  It was easy to see the action from any seat in the house.  Sound effects successfully brought in a sensory effect, and a screen on the stage allowed us to enter Jonas’ mind when he was thinking.

This production of “The Giver” clearly stayed true to the themes in the book. I did not know what to expect, as I have never read it, but this cast drew me in and didn’t let go.  The show runs the next two weekends and can be seen at a very reasonable price. With a running time of just over an hour and no intermission,  I would recommend it for anyone over the age of ten. I think younger kids might struggle with the concept and get fidgety.  See the show, then go get coffee and dessert and talk about it!  

 The Giver runs March 10 – 20, 2016. Thurs., Fri. & Sat. at 7 p.m. and Sat. & Sun. at 2 p.m.

REVIEW: “Theatrical Genesis” at Augustana – 24 hrs to tell a story

By Not The Real George Elliot

Augie Theatre’s first ever 24-hour plays hit the stage on Saturday night, February 27th, at the culmination of the Claire Donaldson New Play Festival. In the spirit of the weekend, Saturday’s show – titled Theatrical Genesis – showcased original works from current Augie students. The catch? The works were all less than a day old.

The idea of a 24-hour play is pretty straightforward: you start with nothing, you get twenty four hours, good luck. Students were divided into teams, each team was given a few prompts (“Prop: deviled eggs” or “Character: a horrible poet”), then each team was given until 7:30pm Saturday to write, rehearse, produce, and perform an original play. The end result, the playbill promises, is “a process that will have you awestruck, laughing, and crying.” I never happened to cry, but the night definitely delivered on the first two.

The concept, especially as Augie presents it, lends itself to comedy. The required props and characters (“Prop: two ears of comically large corn”), as well as the required lines of dialogue added in around the 12-hour mark, all seemed to skew toward laughs. Each of the four plays employed puns, physical comedy, wacky character traits, and tongue-in-cheek nods to the audience. The process was clearly a lot of stress and a lot of fun, and that fun carried over for the audience. All four shows possessed the seat-of-your-pants quality of a good night of improv comedy, and the characters’ frequent self-deprecation worked well for an audience of mainly Augustana community members. Everyone likes to see their friend act the fool.

The more effective shows of the night, however, were the ones who reached beyond the easy punchlines. You can only push the same pun so far, and like a good night of improv comedy, the jokes have to stay fresh. Even knowing the twenty-four hour time limit, I sometimes found myself wishing for more engaging plots, snappier dialogue, a reason to care about the people telling the jokes. Some cast dynamics were off, with actors talking over each other, not connecting at critical moments, or enduring long pauses that stretched out the silence between the laughs.

Some of this can be attributed to limited rehearsals, but sometimes it felt that each actor had a different idea of where the scene was going. There was plenty of great acting onstage, and everyone had a great sense of physicality and comedic timing, but when they were each doing their own thing I sometimes lost the heart of the scene. As a result, only some of the moments in the evening felt fully cohesive, but the ones that did – scenes that owned the silence, or embraced the reckless nature of the format, or committed fully to a wild idea – were some of the most rewarding of the night.

An excellent example is the final show of the night, The Completely Unnecessary Trial of the Piñata, in which the titular piñata (that team’s provided prop, voiced by Erik Friestad) begins his narration as the pole comes smashing into his side. This moment was clear, defined, and packed a surprise factor with a level of polish that brought down the house. We then relived the sentient piñata’s life, all ten hours of it, witnessing plenty of cornball jokes, candy puns, and the ever-useful ax-crazy boss. These elements were present in all the other shows as well, but here they followed a main character who was likable, engaging, even sympathetic. His friendship with a factory worker (Derek Somnis) is more than simple plot designation: the two share an honest moment in a silent warehouse, in the only scene of the night that made me go “aww.”

These moments in Piñata shone, not because the team had better jokes or more insane character archetypes. The moments shone because they were part of a unified story, a thing that I actively cared about, and the team’s commitment reminds us that, even if we only have a day to tell it, we still need to care earnestly about the story we tell.

I hope, fervently so, that Augie continues Theatrical Genesis in the years to come. The night was a riot, well worth attending, not only for the impromptu performances but for the chance to simply witness the birth of original ideas onstage. The Augustana Theatre community possesses an astonishing commitment to theatre in all of its weird little forms, not just traditional cut-and-dry mainstage shows. The students’ willingness to sacrifice a weekend, endure a little sleep deprivation, and do something crazy speaks to a company with a hell of a lot of passion.

I respect that passion. I enjoyed the shows. And I’m excited to see what’s next.

REVIEW: New Musical “Salem” Previewed at Augustana

Jarvis Pennington / Follow @JarviPenni

Let’s be frank: Theatre in South Dakota is very hit or miss. It just comes with having a developing arts scene.

In an environment like that, the prospect of an original musical can be a cause for some apprehension.

Fortunately, in many ways Salem is on to something. Are there problems? Absolutely, but this Sioux Falls original musical with music and lyrics by Luke Tatge and book by Bob Wendland has a lot of potential to work with going forward.

Excerpts from the show were staged by workshop director Jayna Fitzsimmons as part of Augustana University’s Claire Donaldson New Play Festival on Friday night. The presentation seemed to consist of much of the show’s first act and included 14 numbers performed by a collection of Augustana students and alumni, community members and area high schoolers.

Salem, set in the late 1600s, depicts the Salem witch trials of colonial Massachusetts. Wendland and Tatge present a community that is deeply rooted in both Christianity and one another’s affairs.

The music is largely reminiscent of church hymns, which makes sense for this pious group of characters. It’s disappointing, however, not to see some more modern influence come into the songs. The numbers were often beautiful in their own right, but lacked any hook that would make musical theatre artists clamor to put this show on stage.

Meanwhile, the book currently hurts for its simplicity. Rather than tying together the trials and trespasses of characters, we’re hopping from one character’s ordeal to the next.

The action takes off when Hephzibah (played by Sara Crosby) is absent for a Sunday service. This prompts the Minister (Wendland) and Judge (Chase Kramer) to call for her execution.

While seeing the intolerance and paranoia of the Salem community build to a frenzy where missing church is punishable by death might make sense as the witch hunt gets rolling, it felt like a strained starting point.

But despite the kinks and hurdles Salem will face as development continues, it’s fabulous to see this musical being created in South Dakota. The story board can use some doctoring, but the dialogue itself pries into the conflict of finding yourself at odds with someone else’s interpretation of the Bible. The songs need to be paired down, but at times the melodies capture the tragedy of being unjustly ostracized.

At its heart, the persecution Salem seems to be prying at and encouraging us to ponder harkens Arthur Miller’s comparisons to the Red Scare in The Crucible. More importantly, Wendland and Tatge are challenging South Dakota to ask whether there might be a group of people today who “pay a price for just existing in the world.”

As for the staging, Fitzsimmons – who explained in her curtain speech that the group had only a handful of rehearsals to assemble the preview – focused on introducing the script and score. Actors carried scripts and blocking was simple.

On the whole, as the presentation wasn’t just a sing-through or concert reading, some of the performers needed a bit more character and emotion to move us through the story. Crosby, for example, embodied the elderly Hephzibah head-to-toe each time she was on stage, while many principles simply sang their songs and left.

Many of the songs felt at least 60 seconds too long, but it was hard to tell if that was due to the relaxed performances or indicated need for trimming music. We will see how that changes as the production becomes more fully realized.

That said, Chase Kramer, Martha Stai, Ian Curtis and Molly Wilson delivered especially brilliant performances both in vocal chops and solid acting values. Wendland, for those who have never seen him sing at a Bare Bodkins show in the summer, also has a gorgeous tone. And as a whole, the ensemble had a strong presence and sound.

Wendland and Tatge are certainly onto something with Salem, and they are apt caretakers to give its message a forum in Sioux Falls. As they develop the work further, hopefully the story will find its enticing flow and the music will find a way to captivate our attention, because if this preview was any indicator, these men have something worth saying.

Editor’s note:  We hesitated to publish this because we failed that realize Salem was only in the staged-reading phase of development.  We made sure this article was being helpful to the creators by providing feedback the creators could use – or not.  Additionally, we are using this as an opportunity to spark discussion about the play development process.  For readers unfamiliar with developing a new play, here is a good resource.  – Jesse Jensen, Editor-in-Chief