Fifty years ago, a recruiter for Stephens College spotted an ad in a Minneapolis newspaper for a theater for lease in Spirit Lake, in the rural northwest corner of Iowa just south of Minnesota and east of South Dakota.
Then, as now, theater was a mainstay for Stephens, and the school saw an opportunity to develop a year-round program. A building on the property had been converted into a theater for use by Grinnell College, and Stephens took it over in 1957.
Each year, 30 students about to enter their third and final year of the theater program spend their summer at the Okoboji Summer Theatre, named for two nearby lakes — East and West Okoboji. Led by theater professionals, the students produce nine shows in 10 weeks.
This year, however, is special. Timed with Okoboji’s 50th anniversary, the 440-seat theater has undergone a $250,000 face-lift.
“The highlight of our anniversary is a total renovation of the interior of the theater,” said Beth Leonard, artistic director for Okoboji Summer Theatre and dean of Stephens’ School of Performing Arts. “It used to be an old airplane hangar, and we’ve just opened with a completely new look.”
Student and stage manager Lindsey King said the redone theater has a Frank Lloyd Wright feel. River rock now covers the back wall; other walls are wood-panelled. Dominant colors are gold and green; the seats are rust-colored tweed. The ceiling is vaulted.
“It’s got a little charm to it, and it’s got a homey and small-town feeling,” King said. “It’s comfy and makes everyone feel at home, like they’re in their living room watching a show.”
After a five-year fundraising campaign done by Okoboji through small events like silent auctions and raffles, the theater was unveiled at a ribbon-cutting in June. But the big party is this Friday and Saturday. About 100 alumnae are expected from all over the country for events including special performances, a barbecue, a reception and a gala. People from nearby communities, including Spirit Lake and Okoboji, are also invited.
In celebration of the theater’s 50th anniversary, Stephens led its own campaign, raising more than $650,000. The next major project is construction of a rehearsal hall, which is scheduled to open next summer. Other projects on the front-burner are a new patio and renovations to the theater’s green room. A new Student Endowment Fund will subsidize the cost for one student each season.
To boost fundraising, any alumna who donated $250 would have a seat in the theater named after whomever they wish, said Sarah Berghorn, public relations manager at Stephens. More than half of the seats have been sold; perhaps the most well-known name so far that will appear on a nameplate is Patricia Barry, a soap opera star and Stephens alumna.
Kendra Kay, who handles public relations for Okoboji Summer Theatre, said that about 900 invitations went out.
“We sent invites all over the U.S. and to some foreign countries,” Kay said. “We’ve never thrown a party this big.”
The summer program isn’t being celebrated just for the theater’s new look; it’s being celebrated for what it does for students.
“I think Okoboji contributes to one of the reasons why Stephens has a nationally ranked theater program,” Leonard said. “There are very few other undergraduate training programs that has this for students.”
The Princeton Review, a for-profit company that helps students explore schools and careers, ranked Stephens College sixth in the Best College Theater category for 2007.
Students live at Okoboji, which has expanded to 15 acres, and work alongside professional actors, set designers, directors and costume designers, many of whom are Stephens graduates.
“They come from all over the U.S.,” Kay said. “This year, we have people from California, Kansas City, New York, Texas, Seattle and Minnesota. It gives students the opportunity to work with a lot of professionals.”
Shannon Blankenship-Walls, who graduated from Stephens in 1993, said that working as a scenic designer at Okoboji was a one-of-a-kind experience that sets the school’s theater program apart.
“I remember working with seasoned professionals and them treating me and expecting me to behave like a professional,” said Blankenship-Walls, who now raises money for Stephens in its development office. “That kind of setting really enhances how you succeed in the real world. I wish every profession had an intense training program that sets students on a path toward success.”
The hard work at Okoboji creates a strong sense of community.
“We did ‘Godspell’ the musical, and we were blocking the crucifixion scene three days before opening night. The character of Jesus was going down the line, saying ‘bye’ to everybody, and everyone in the cast started to cry,” King recalled. “This just proved to me what this place means to everybody and how close everyone has become.”
Adam Branson, who spent his first summer at Okoboji in 2002 and returned in 2003, echoed King, remembering the sense of closeness forged in that setting. He said he’ll never forget one tradition.
“They do a pig roast every year,” said Branson, who now lives in New York City. “There is a Pork Court where the males run for queen or princess and the females run for king or prince. People joke around that it’s an actual holiday.”
Third-year theater major Christina Sidiropoulos, who is at Okoboji now, said the word for the summer program is “overwhelming.” Any student can be a part of three shows at one time, performing in one and rehearsing for two others.
“You’re eating, living, breathing theater all the time,” Sidiropoulos said. “And I had this epiphany: This is what I’m supposed to do.”
Missourian reporter Emily Van Zandt contributed to this story.