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Our Beginning–A Little Theatre in the Woods

Updated: Mar 26

What started as one man’s dream of a little theatre in the woods has developed into a year-round company that produces incredible theatre each summer and helps communities access theatre statewide through touring education programs, summer performing arts camps, and opportunities on stage for people with disabilities. Black Hills Playhouse (BHP) was founded in 1946 by Dr. Warren M. (Doc) Lee of the University of South Dakota (USD) and serves as one of the longest-running summer stock theatres in the country.


“It really began in the winter and spring of 1945-46,” said Doc. Lee, “the idea of a summer theatre in the Black Hills. It had no name, it was a hazy idea. A VERY hazy idea.”


Doc Lee’s goals were to create high-quality entertainment for people in the Black Hills, bringing theatre to rural communities, while providing training and employment opportunities for students and theatre professionals.


“There is satisfaction seeing students develop,” shared Doc Lee, “but it is frustrating to realize the limit to what you can ever expect to do when you have a maximum of five years.” 


Doc’s dream to continue to mold young theatre professionals beyond their college education, all while bringing quality theatre to rural communities, became a reality, and the BHP continues to be a part of the College of Fine Arts at USD today since its founding in 1946.


The original company worked in rustic conditions without modern facilities, but they performed with the same dedication as today's company members. The company, which included seven men, seven women, and one baby, moved into abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps buildings constructed in 1934. 


“We were willing to compromise on living comforts and almost every other necessity–except our performances!” Said Doc Lee.


Today, the only remaining original building from 1934 is the snack bar and office, located at the head of the BHP campus. The current theatre was built in 1955, and new dormitories for each season’s theatrical company were constructed between 1979 and 1982. In July of 1995, Haberman Hall, an outdoor picnic shelter dedicated to Hap & Ellie Haberman was constructed in 1995 as a project of the BHP Alumni Association. 2008 brought a new rehearsal hall, new scene shop named the Barber Shop, air conditioning in the theater, and a new box office addition. In 2011 a new dining hall was added, along with many other building upgrades. 2013 a new costume shop was built with the help of an international contingent of the National Guard during Golden Coyote operations. And many improvements to the flower beds and grounds have been added to the campus due to work by the Custer Mile High Garden Club and Jeff Kingsbury.


In the early days of the little playhouse in the forest, audiences trekked, sometimes on foot, on dirt and gravel roads, to experience the magic of theatre in beautiful Custer State Park, where tickets cost $1.65. 


Five shows were produced in 1946, and the theatre performed to 2,844 people that first year. Today, the Playhouse draws around 14,000 people annually (as well as a few bison). Thanks to a strong partnership with the South Dakota Department of Game, Fish & Parks and Custer State Park that helps keep infrastucture sound on the property, guests experience a beautiful and truly unique experience at BHP.


​Over the years, many of the students and professionals who worked with Doc Lee moved on with a deepened passion for their art to lead and work at theatre programs throughout the country. A network of BHP alumni continues to support the Playhouse through generous contributions and network opportunities for young professionals. Some notable alumni and Playhouse favorites include Robert Neff Williams, Hap Haberman, Graham Thatcher, Norman Fell, Eric Johnson, Jennie May Donnell, Daamon Krall, Dan Workman, Jeff Kingsbury, Jarrod Emick, and Mary Buss.


Today, Doc. Lee’s original dream of giving young theatre professionals a space to hone their craft has extended beyond USD college graduates. Dan Workman, BHP Artistic Director, and Production Manager, Stephen Azua participated at six audition /interview locations (with help from BHP Alums!) in 2024. In addition, many people submitted electronic applications, with the total pool of applicants reviewed topping over 1100. Skilled and budding actors and theatre technicians of unique and diverse backgrounds vie each year to be a part of the BHP Company and bring nationwide talent to South Dakota every summer. 


BHP is also reaching rural communities like never before through unique year-long educational programs like Dakota Players, a touring children's theatre company that reaches communities of all sizes throughout the state. Every summer students from across the state flock to BHP Jr. Camps at Placerville in the Black Hills, which have enriched thousands of youth.  BHP is also proud to collaborate with LifeScape and DakotAbilities, organizations dedicated to enhancing the independence of individuals with disabilities, which highlight BHP's broader impact on fostering creativity and accessibility. 


All quotes shared from Doc. Lee can be found in the book “One Man's Dream: The History of the Black Hills Playhouse, Custer State Park, Black Hills of South Dakota, 1946-1995” written by Dorothy Delicate. 


To learn more about the magic being made this 78th season at BHP, click here.


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