Dr. Warren M. (Doc) Lee, a theater professor at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, packed up his family and a trailer overloaded with scenery and set pieces and drove west to the Black Hills on Memorial Day weekend in 1946. His goal? Establish South Dakota’s first homegrown professional theater company. Lee moved the theater company into a couple of abandoned Civilian Conservation Corps buildings from 1934, creating a home for high-quality dramatic and musical performances that draw crowds and crew from across the country.
The facilities have improved a lot since Lee and crew first set up shop. A new theater was constructed in 1955 and upgraded in 2008, 2011 and 2016. Outhouses have been replaced by modern bathrooms, buildings have been added, and a successful fundraising campaign in 2011 raised more than $500,000 to make improvements to the playhouse and other structures, including a costume shop, covered picnic area and dorm rooms. Since 2010, more than $1.6 million in improvements have occurred at the Playhouse. Each summer, the historic campus is home to four to five different productions in the 327-person theater with performances happening nightly Tuesday through Sunday (plus afternoon shows on Wednesday and Sunday.) The shows range from dramatic to the absolutely hilarious.