Featured Image Photo by Calla Defries – Matt Atwood in the role of Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar at Mankato Playhouse.
Known for his beautiful singing voice, Matt Atwood is said to have been born with talent.
He started performing in local collegiate productions when he was still in junior high, but it was in high school when he truly fell in love with singing and acting. During his four years at Mankato East, Matt starred in just about every production. Right after graduation, he and four friends formed the a cappella singing group Home Free.
“We started in December of 2000 as something to do after high school,” Atwood said. “I didn’t go to college. I started doing insurance. The group started getting little gigs here and there.”
After three years doing insurance, Matt was approached by his father and grandfather who asked him why he had given up theater.
“I told them that I was interested in real estate and they said, ‘This is always going to be here,’” he recalled with a laugh. “Basically, they pushed me out of the workforce so I could explore theater. So, I went to MSU and dove in headfirst. I did every single show that I could possibly do there.”
He was about six months away from finishing his four-year degree when Matt decided to audition for Les Misérables at Chanhassen Dinner Theatre.
It’s true. I am here for real estate. I love it. But it took me a while before I realized that I could be both.Matt Atwood
“I never finished my degree at MSU,” Atwood said. “I always thought I would get back at some point. I told myself, ‘as soon as I’m done with this whole theater thing I will go back.’”
Les Misérables ran for six months and the cast performed eight shows a week.
“It was quite a run,” he said with a smile. “Then the director asked if I wanted to stay on for the next show. It was Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. That show ran for eight months and we did eight shows a week.”
Shortly after Joseph wrapped up, Atwood’s group Home Free started a 75-city national tour.
“So, I left the theater to do a capella,” Atwood said. “While we were out on tour, this cruise line started calling to see if we would come perform on their ship. So, we worked that into our tour schedule. They hired us as independent contractors … as entertainers. We would fly out and join the last part of a two-week cruise and then the first part of a new cruise would begin. They timed it so we were able to perform for two different groups of people in one week. It was great.”
In addition to special guest performers like Home Free, the cruise line had a cast on each of its ships who perform four 45-minute shows per week, he explained.
I was also doing Home Free at this time. That’s when I decided it was time to be done with theater. This whole time, I always had it in the back of my mind that I really wanted to get back into real estate and work with my dad.Matt Atwood
“While I was on the cruise ship hanging out with the cast watching them perform, I kind of fell in love with the whole thing,” Atwood said. “The ship that I was on with Home Free just happened to be porting in New York where they were holding auditions to become a member of the cruise ship cast. I literally jumped off the ship and ran to an audition. They called me a week later and said, ‘How quickly can you get on a ship?’ They had a singer drop out.”
Home Free found a substitute for Atwood for the rest of the tour and he spent seven months at sea performing on a cruise ship as a full-time member of their cast.
“They told me that they could find a substitute for the first week,” he said. “So, I jumped off the ship and got there as quickly as I could. The show ran for six months. If you have never been, you need to go. That theater is absolutely incredible.”
After Beauty and the Beast wrapped up Atwood was cast in Forever Plaid at the Old Log Theatre.
“I just went from one to the other,” he said. “I was also doing Home Free at this time. That’s when I decided it was time to be done with theater. This whole time, I always had it in the back of my mind that I really wanted to get back into real estate and work with my dad.”
Then Home Free started booking more gigs at county and state fairs as well as a big Christmas tour, he explained.
“When my dad got diagnosed with cancer, I told the guys this is going to be my last full year with the group,” Atwood said. “I told them that at the end of the Christmas tour, I am going to be done. They found a guy as a replacement. He was actually a member of the cruise ship cast, but not the same one that I was a part of.”
After the Christmas tour was over, Matt went to work for the Atwood companies full-time. A little over two weeks later, he got a call from Chris Rupp, one of the members of Home Free.
Now when I talk to the guys from the group, they are a little jealous of the stability that I get to enjoy.Matt Atwood
“He said to me, ‘I know you just retired 15 days ago but we are going on The Sing Off on NBC, do you want to do it,’ and I told him definitely not,” Atwood said. “They won. They won the whole competition. They won $100,000 and a Sony recording contract. After that, they got super famous and now they travel all over the world. People ask me, ‘Don’t you regret that?’ I can honestly say, ‘No … not at all.’ I love that I get to be home with my kids every day. I love doing real estate. Now when I talk to the guys from the group, they are a little jealous of the stability that I get to enjoy.”
Performing was incredible, he said but it was the driving to and from gigs and being away from his family that really pushed him to the breaking point.
“We would drive 10-12 hours a day,” Atwood said. “Don’t get me wrong, they paid us really well, but they were basically paying us to drive. Three weeks after my first child was born, I had to leave on tour, and I didn’t see him for two and a half months. I decided that wasn’t the life that I wanted to live.”
After returning to Mankato full-time, Matt settled into the life he’d always wanted. He spent time with his family. He was home for special events as well as the everyday ordinary things that are somehow even more special. So, for the next several years, he put his energy into growing his family’s business.
Dinner theater in Mankato
Then in January 2019 David Holmes approached him at church and said, “Do you want to start a dinner theater?”
With the help of David’s wife Lori, and a wonderful group of volunteers and board members, Mankato Playhouse was born. Performances are held at Mankato Event Center in the Mankato Place Mall located downtown and the meals are catered by Absolute Catering.
“We wanted to open in September with Jesus Christ Superstar as our first show, but we had to find a venue and a caterer and we had to cast the show,” Atwood said. “David called me after two nights of auditions and said he wanted me to play Jesus. So, I did. It was fun. I’m glad I did it.”
We had 40 groups that chose us for their annual trip instead of Chanhassen. Then COVID hit.Matt Atwood
After their first couple of shows, everything was “roaring nice and hot,” according to Atwood. They were pulling in big groups from all over the state.
“We had 40 groups that chose us for their annual trip instead of Chanhassen,” Atwood said proudly. “Then COVID hit. We did a couple of shows over the past few months with limited capacity. We are trying to put on professional quality shows and the food is amazing. We want it to be the best possible experience. We want this to be something special for Mankato. We want to bring more people to our incredible community.”
Forced to Pivot
Mankato Playhouse is a non-profit theater and although their performances and food are top notch, they are in their infancy as an organization. They were not fully sustainable on ticket sales alone, Atwood said. Since the very beginning, the community has helped them to stay open and offer not only professional Broadway dinner theater but also theater workshops for teens called Broadway Teens.
Broadway Teens are for kids in grades six through 12, who are passionate in the performing arts and are interested in getting additional training, knowledge and experience in musical theater. The workshops are taught by seasoned directors, choreographers, and musicians and include auditioning, rehearsing, and performing a Broadway musical complete with costumes, sets, lights, and sound. Entry into the workshop requires an audition.
At the end of November, Matt and David made an announcement on Facebook Live letting people know that they had to cancel this year’s holiday show, Scrooge, due to COVID-19, but said it is rescheduled for December 2021.
This year, they are also doing a virtual fundraising event on New Year’s Eve called Party at the Playhouse.
“We are setting a goal of $2,021,” Holmes said on Facebook Live. “That is all we are looking to raise.
Holmes also mentioned that they are planning an upcoming teen workshop for March. They are planning to perform SchoolHouse Rock Live Jr. for students in grades 6-12.
“Thank you for sticking with us,” Holmes said. “We are relentless. We are not stopping. We will work with what we’ve got. We will keep rolling with the punches. We will continue to provide professional quality theater for the city of Mankato and the surrounding areas. Thank you for all your support.”
“Being a business owner now, we have 16 offices all around the state, so I am kind of all over the place. But Mankato is my home,” Atwood said. “So being able to create something not for me, but for the community that I love, is really special. Having worked at the Old Log Theatre and Chanhassen, you have to know that I love dinner theater. There was a time when I was starting out in real estate, after I left the theater, when I was trying not to make that part of my identity. I was taking myself too seriously. It’s true. I am here for real estate. I love it. But it took me a while before I realized that I could be both.”