When David and Lori Holmes decided to open the Mankato Playhouse in 2019, they were taking a risk.
Mankato was already known as an arts and culture powerhouse in southern Minnesota. It has the award-winning theater department of Minnesota State University-Mankato, which puts on sold-out shows several times a year. There’s also the community theater group, the Merely Players, which has been a local staple for almost 40 years. Other theatrical groups are scattered across New Ulm, Fairmont and Northfield, within easy driving distance for theater lovers.
But the Holmes realized that there was still something missing: Dinner theater.
“When we came out here, we saw a huge opportunity for another theater company,” David Holmes said. “Mankato’s big enough to have more theater.”
They opened their first season last fall, with shows that included Jesus Christ Superstar, Miracle on 34th Street and I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change. Productions were staged at the Mankato Event Center, while catering for the meals came from local businesses such as Absolute Custom Catering.
According to Holmes, the first three shows drew surprisingly large audiences—about 130 people on average per performance, with several nights sold out. It looked as though the Mankato Playhouse was set to have a solidly successful first season… and then the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything.
We’ve always wanted to open up a theater company, my wife was like,David HolmesWhy don’t we just do it? We talk about it all the time. Let’s just do it.
As businesses and community organizations across the state shut down in the face of Gov. Walz’s stay-at-home order, the Mankato Playhouse was also forced to close its doors, right before the theatrical group would have started casting for its next show, Forever Plaid. But just because the rest of the 2019-2020 season was postponed doesn’t mean that the Mankato Playhouse is simply waiting for the curtain to go back up onstage. Instead, Holmes and his group of fellow theater enthusiasts have found unique and innovative ways to keep sharing live performances with the Mankato region—even if they’re through a computer screen.
Filling a Gap
Before coming to Mankato, David and Lori Holmes were both involved in theater for more than 20 years. David has acted in and directed more than 100 plays, while Lori has worked as a choreographer for countless productions as well. They met during a production of West Side Story, when David was playing Riff and Lori was both choreographing and unexpectedly taking over the dance role opposite of David. Now, they’ve been together 18 years and have three kids: Mason, Gavin and Mackenzie.
The Holmes family moved to Mankato five years ago when Holmes had a job transfer. Lori quickly found a teaching position at the Mankato Ballet Company, and the two of them became involved in the local theater scene. Holmes directed Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with the Merely Players in 2017, as well as acting in recent shows such as Leading Ladies and Guys and Dolls. Lori continued to contribute choreography to shows.
According to David, opening a theater company has been a dream for years, and he and his wife were encouraged by how much people in southern Minnesota enjoy live arts and entertainment.
“People in this community love theater,” he said. “We’ve always wanted to open up a theater company, [and] my wife was like, ‘Why don’t we just do it? We talk about it all the time. Let’s just do it.’”
The couple officially formed Davori Productions, a nonprofit theater company, in January 2019. They came up with the name by combining their own two first names. From there, they began looking for different venues, eventually coming upon the Mankato Event Center.
Holmes said when he and his wife walked into the space, they immediately noticed its potential.
“Both of us were like, ‘This is a dinner theater,’” he said. “Everybody that we know drives to Chanhassen [for the Chanhassen Dinner Theater]. Let’s do Chanhassen-quality shows here in Mankato and have a dinner theater here in Mankato. We’re doing this so that the community has something that they don’t have [now]. It’s something that we’re passionate about.”
A Higher Caliber
According to Holmes, the Mankato Playhouse is a dinner theater, not a community theater—which means that he’s more interested in casting the perfect actor than ensuring everyone who auditions receives a role. Auditions require people to show up with sheet music, prepared to be professional on stage.
“We want to be a little more professional,” he said. “We’re not necessarily going to be a community theater where everyone is going to audition and everyone gets cast in the show. We’re a theater company in Mankato where the community can audition, but you have to be prepared and you have to be at a certain caliber to get into the show, because our mission is to produce quality, professional entertainment for the community of Mankato. If we just cast anybody who auditions, that just lowers the quality.”
We’re not necessarily going to be a community theater where everyone is going to audition and everyone gets cast in the show …. you have to be prepared and you have to be at a certain caliber ….David Holmes
For the first show, Jesus Christ Superstar, 26 people auditioned, with 19 ultimately cast. Some of those people were actors Holmes had worked with before, but he said many of the faces were new to him.
“The talent that showed up was mind-blowing,” he said. “We knew that there were talented people in the community, and that’s most of the people who auditioned. They just came out of the woodwork to audition for here. Everyone sounded amazing. It was so hard to cast the show ….”
This commitment to high-caliber performances can also be seen in one of the Playhouse’s other priorities: its Broadway Teen workshops. These seven-week workshops meet twice a week after school hours and are open to kids 6th-12th grade. Participants practice everything from dancing to singing to auditioning, as well as learning about behind-the-scenes aspects of theater from seasoned directors, choreographers, vocal directors and other industry experts. At the end of the workshop, they put on a full musical, such as Guys and Dolls, Jr., which was staged in October 2019.
“The kids absolutely love being part of the theater,” Holmes said, adding that about 35 kids have participated in the two workshops so far. “We want kids who want to be here and want to get to the next level.”
Thinking Outside the Theater
The Mankato Playhouse’s original goal was to perform seven plays during its opening season, with three reserved for the Broadway Teen workshops. However, because of the COVID-19 situation, the theatrical company was forced to cancel the remainder of its season in late March.
But the Playhouse has been finding ways to deal with the current situation and continue moving forward. Besides taking advantage of extra downtime to work on improvements in the theater space, David Holmes said he’s still been holding auditions for Forever Plaid—just not in person. Instead, anyone who’s interested can send in a video audition. So far, about 10 people have sent in videos, and Holmes said the plan is to have one night of live auditions once it’s safe to do so.
“We’re still looking at putting up Forever Plaid as soon as we can,” he said. “When we have a date to open, we’re going to move forward.”
We knew that there were talented people in the community …. They just came out of the woodwork to audition for … Everyone sounded amazing. It was so hard to cast the show ….David Holmes
Another way that the Mankato Playhouse continued to interact with its theatrical patrons was the “Community Cabaret Benefit Show” on April 17. Holmes co-hosted the event with Matthew Atwood, who recently starred as Jesus in the company’s production of Jesus Christ Superstar. The two-and-a-half-hour show, which was streamed live on Facebook, featured vocal performances by 22 Mankato Playhouse actors, who had taped themselves and sent the videos into the show.
According to Holmes, more than 4,000 viewers tuned into the live event, which raised nearly $2,800 during its stream. The funds were donated in their entirety to the COVID-19 Community Response Fund, which was launched in partnership between the Mankato Area Foundation and the Greater Mankato Area United Way.
“It was a lot of work, but it was a blast,” Holmes said. “I don’t know how many hours that Matt and I put in before we even went live. It was quite the event.”
He added that the hope is to make the community cabaret an annual event, perhaps setting up a live performance that can also be streamed at the same time. He also said he’d be interested in collaborating with all the other theatrical groups in the area to put it on together.
“This is a benefit for the arts in the community, not just one specific theater company,” he said.
The Mankato Playhouse continued with the idea of virtual performances during “Give At Home MN,” a week long event in early May that encouraged people across Minnesota to donate to the charities and nonprofit organizations they support. The event was organized by Give MN, the same group that organizes Give to the Max Day in November.
To help raise awareness of the event, Mankato Playhouse hosted live Facebook events every night from May 1 to May 8. These events were once again hosted by Holmes and Atwood, and they featured one vocal performance every night. The performances were chosen from “fan favorites” that had been featured during the Community Cabaret.
“We decided we were going to go live and keep our face out there in the public and get some donations,” Holmes said. “We just get on there and talk about what the donations are going to [and] the needs of the theater. It was also about giving the people who tune in an understanding of what it entails to put on a show and how much it costs, because a lot of people don’t understand that it costs quite a bit to put on a show. Ticket shows don’t really cover everything that’s needed to keep theater alive. We’re using it as education and entertainment.”
The response has been “really good” so far, Holmes said, with about 15-20 people tuning in every night.
“We try to make it interactive,” he said. “We’re trying to make it so that everyone who tunes in will be entertained. No one knows what we’re going to do, because we don’t know what we’re going to do. Everything is just ad-libbed every time it goes live.”
Looking Toward the Future
While it’s still difficult to know exactly when everything will go back to normal, Holmes said he’s hoping that the Playhouse can be ready to stage Forever Plaid in late summer.
Another big event in the works is the Playhouse’s upcoming Broadway Teen workshop. Holmes announced in early May that he had secured the rights for the new Disney show The Descendants, based on the hit series of Disney channel original movies. The Mankato Playhouse is one of the first theatrical companies to be awarded rights to perform the brand-new show.
“I had to move quickly to get the rights,” Holmes said. “We kind of wanted to get into Disney anyway, but we weren’t really ready for Aladdin or Cinderella right now. The Descendants is extremely popular right now, not only for the kids but a lot of the parents know about The Descendants too. I’m getting a lot of comments from the parents who are excited about it. It’s one of those shows that is going to be exciting for everybody.”
Holmes said the hope is to hold auditions for the show in September. While there are only 30 available parts, he said he’s looking into the possibility of creating two casts if the response is great enough. If this happens, one set of kids will practice on Mondays and Wednesdays, while the other will meet on Tuesdays and Thursdays, and both casts will still perform for a full weekend of shows.
“They’d still get three performances,” he stressed. “But it gives a lot more kids more opportunity.”
Finally, Holmes said the Playhouse is still “pressing forward” for its 2020-2021 season, which officially starts in July. He added that Forever Plaid may be inserted into this season just because of how late it will be eventually be staged. The 2020-2021 season includes The Addams Family, Scrooge, The Last Five Years and A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum.
Davori Productions Co.
Give At Home MN
To help raise awareness, Mankato Playhouse is hosting live Facebook events every night from May 1 to May 8 in collaboration with “Give At Home MN.” These events are hosted by David Holmes and Matthew Atwood, and they feature one vocal performance every night. The performances are chosen from “fan favorites” that had been featured during the Community Cabaret.
“We try to make it interactive,” Holmes said. “We’re trying to make it so that everyone who tunes in will be entertained. No one knows what we’re going to do, because we don’t know what we’re going to do. Everything is just ad-libbed every time it goes live.”