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MICHIGAN CITY — Change is in the air at Dunes Summer Theatre.

Many charming upgrades make the woodsy, out-of-the-way location an even more enticing place to spend a summer afternoon or evening.

And new signs on U.S. 12 and Old Grand Beach Road provide better direction to this hidden gem, which once again has the look and feel of an authentic summer-stock venue.

The theater building has been painted bright white with a contrasting blue mural; cozy cabins that house the actors have been freshly painted; a handicapped ramp has been added, as well as a fire pit; and new umbrellas grace the tables on the patio, giving it an upscale flavor.

Inside the theater, you can’t help but notice more fresh paint, new house lights and track lighting that highlights paintings. New acoustic tiles on all the walls improve sound quality, and there are many more new stage lights.

In addition to the cosmetic changes, there are more that aren’t as obvious, starting with a new roof. There’s a new electrical system, new sound and light boards, and a new HVAC system — which is a really big deal, since the building has never had heat or air-conditioning.

Founded in 1951, it currently is celebrating its 68th season of continuous operation. This “gem in the woods” provides quality professional theater and education programs in an enchanting setting. But over the years, it had become somewhat of an afterthought among area theater- and arts-lovers.

Now on the upswing once again, Dunes Summer Theatre's resurgence is the result of some singular coincidences. Jeffrey Baumgartner, who had quit his Chicago theatrical career and moved to Michiana to paint, became artistic director.

Amy Black became president of the board of directors of the Dunes Arts Foundation, which owns the theater, and is full of plans to bring back the compound as a vibrant arts hub.

Others who joined the board include: Clarence Hulse, Michigan City's economic development director; Esteban Vargas, who consults with small businesses in the automotive industry and has been a tireless DST volunteer; Kathleen Dolio-Thorson, president of KDT Designs, a full-service interior design company; Elise Kermani, artistic director of MiShinnah Productions, a New York City-based nonprofit dedicated to creating cross-genre performance films; Dale Maher, real estate broker and part of The Line Mullins Group of Coldwell Banker; and Samantha Purze, who teaches DST’s summer clay classes for youth and adults.

A major bequest from the estate of the late Eric Nordholm, who had a longtime association with DST, made possible all the improvements the board has made.

Nordholm was a professor of theater at Pacific Lutheran College, attended the Goodman School of Theater and interned at DST from 1946 to 1948 when the theater was called Barnum Summer Theatre (no relation to P.T. Barnum). 

As they started planning the 2018 season, board members decided to return to the Dunes Arts Foundation's beginnings — summer stock.

Since the cabins were rehabbed, the board brought in a resident company of actors who can live on site, and recruited professional guest directors.

Board members also decided to revive the fine arts.

Expanding artistic outlets, luring more people

“Part of what we are trying to accomplish, is to include more 'arts' programming beyond the stage," board President Black said.

"So we remodeled the Clay Cabin and revitalized the clay classes for kids, teens and adults. This summer we're also offering a Craft Clay and Beer night; or, as I like to say:  ‘Paint a pot, and drink a pint.’

"We are also hosting a plein air artist event every other summer. Last summer was our first event, and it was quite a success. We had 40 painters from around the nation come to Michigan City for a three-day event. They competed in a 90-minute Quick Paint event where they spread out their easels and painted around downtown M.C. and painted iconic buildings and happenings such as the Farmer's Market.

"Painters then had two days to paint various places around the area for the chance to win cash prizes. Gregg Hertzlieb, director of the Brauer Museum of Art at Valparaiso University, served as adjudicator of the art work and awarded first, second and third prizes, Honorable Mention and Best of Show," Black said.

"We awarded over $5,000 in cash prizes. The event was sponsored by Horizon Bank, NIPSCO, Sullair, and the Indiana Plein Air Artist Association. Many painters stayed in our cabins and enjoyed the bonfire after the day’s events.”

Baumgartner, who will direct “Smoke and Mirrors,” used his Chicago connections to recruit guest directors for the 2019 season.

Columbia College Chicago’s Susan Padveen will direct “Other Desert Cities.” Award-winning musical director Andrew Holtz will direct “South Pacific. The Goodman Theatre’s award-winning director Steve Scott returns to direct “Working 2012,” with musical direction by Andrew Holtz. They will finish the season with “Billy Bishop Goes to War,” a two-man show directed by John Green, of Columbia College Chicago, with musical direction by Jeff Otto.

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Last year, DST’s Theatre for Young Audiences and the Young-at-Heart produced “Charlotte’s Web.” This year, they present a humorous look at an old tale, “Hansel and Gretel go Cajun!”

Becoming a high-caliber regional theater

Los Angeles-based actor David Cowan has just arrived at DST and will stay in one of the cabins for the next five weeks. He will play the role of a Hollywood screenwriter in “Smoke and Mirrors.” He says he’s spending the next year ‘couch surfing,’ going across the country from gig to gig.

Baumgartner said they’d found a talented young man named Philip Torre at the School of the Lyric Opera in Chicago to sing the part of Emile in “South Pacific.” He said Chicago audiences may recognize his name from his performance in Theo-Ubique’s award-winning production of “Sweeney Todd.”

The resident summer-stock cast will arrive in June. They will perform in “South Pacific” and “Working 2012.” In addition, six to eight Michigan City high school students will sing as a supplemental chorus for “South Pacific.”

Baumgartner said the theater has been doing two- and three-week runs, but next year will transition to four-week runs with big-box shows.

“We think we need to be year-round — which is how Dune Arts Foundation started. Our template for the future will probably include a fall show, a family-oriented holiday show, and a spring show in addition to the summer series,” Baumgartner said.

According to Baumgartner, DST audiences are growing.

“When we asked how did you hear about us, the consistent answer in year No. 1 was an ad. The answer in year No. 2 was word-of-mouth. This year, they’re calling to ask, when do we open," he said.

“People used to come as couples; now they’re coming as groups of four and six. Many bring picnic baskets to enjoy during our patio concerts before the performance.”

Looking to the future, board members want to define DST as a regional theater, targeting audiences within a 45-minute drive of the theater. They want to continue to raise the quality of their productions. Finally, they want to challenge their audiences to "own" the theater.

The building has a dance room that needs rehabbing, but that is a capital project for the future, as are plans for the pavilion across the road. With some work, that area could be an outdoor performance/concert space with parking and a picnic area.

While they plan for the future, they continue to honor the past. Baumgartner said he was digging around in a box and found Eric Nordholm's libretto for a production of “South Pacific” with his name and original handwritten notes.

They also found a playbill for a 1951 production of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” in which the late Studs Terkel, a Chicago journalist and personality, played Lennie. Both Baumgartner and Black think it is serendipity that they chose Terkel’s “Working 2012” for this season. Black said the cast will be wearing uniforms and clothing representing Michigan City businesses for the production.

Dunes Summer Theatre's 2019 Season

“Smoke and Mirrors,” a comedy/murder mystery, by Anthony Herrera and Will Osbourne, Directed by Jeffrey Baumgartner, May 31-June 16

“Other Desert Cities,” classic drama, by Jon Robin Baitz, Directed by Susan Padveen, June 28-July 14

“Hansel and Gretel Go Cajun!” fairy-tale fun, Theatre for Young Audiences, Adapted by Mark A. Pence, Directed by Gary Kolack, August 2, 3, 9, 10. All performances at 11 am. Tickets: $5 Children/$10 Adults (Included in Season Ticket Pass)

“South Pacific” by Rodgers and Hammerstein, musical in-concert, Directed by Andrew Holtz, July 26, 27, 28 only (Theatre Gala July 27)

“Working 2012,” a musical, Book by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, (Includes songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, James Taylor, and others), Directed by Steve Scott, Musical Director Andrew Holtz, Aug. 23-Sept. 8

“Billy Bishop Goes to War,” a play with music, by John Gray and Eric Peterson, Directed by John Green, Musical Director Jeff Otto, Sept. 13-22.

Dunes Summer Theatre is located at 288 Shady Oak Drive (off Old Grand Beach Road and U.S. 12), Michigan City. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7 p.m. CST, Sundays at 2 p.m. CST. Box office opens one hour prior to show time. Tickets range from $18-$20. Season tickets and individual show tickets are now on sale. For more information, please visit www.dunesartsfoundation.org or call the Box/Admin Office at (219) 879-7509.

Dunes Summer Theatre is operated by the Dunes Arts Foundation a 501(c)3 non-profit arts organization.

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