When David and Lori Holmes walked into the Mankato Event Center earlier this spring, they saw a typical event location filled with tables, a small raised bandstand in the front and a bar running along the side. But for this husband and wife team of theater enthusiasts, there was so much more to envision — namely, the perfect location for a fully functioning dinner theater.
Mankato is 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, Owatonna, Faribault, Northfield and more, within easy driving distance for theater lovers.
But when David and Lori Holmes moved to the area from California, they noticed a gap in the local theater scene: dinner theater productions.
“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.”
A background in theater
David and Lori Holmes have both been 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 Holmes quickly found a teaching position at the Mankato Ballet Company, and the two of them became involved in the local theater scene. Holmes recently directed Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat with the Merely Players, as well as acting in recent shows such as Leading Ladies and Guys and Dolls. Lori Holmes continued to contribute choreography to shows.
According to David Holmes, 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.’”
Starting something new
The couple officially formed Davori Productions, a nonprofit theater company, in January of this year. (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.”
They entered into a one-year lease in May and started working to turn the center into a theater, adding lights and curtains, working on the stage, transforming rooms into a sound booth and costume room. They’ve also put together a board of directors, secured the rights for their 2019-20 season lineup, and reached out to theater colleagues to find a lighting designer, costumer designer and marketer.
“Everything has been going so quickly,” Holmes said. “I’ll direct most shows, and my wife will choreograph most. I might appear in a show occasionally, but we’re doing this so that the community has something that they don’t have [now]. It’s something that we’re passionate about.”
The center seats about 150-170, and Holmes said shows will “use the whole space,” whether it’s wandering between tables during songs or walking past audience members to exit the scene.
“This is going to be a very intimate theater,” he said. “The whole place is a stage.”
He added that the plan is to utilize different caterers in the area, such as Najwa’s Catering and Absolute Custom Catering. Audience members will be able to choose between three options—vegetarian, chicken and beef—and the caterer will then have free rein to create a menu for the evening. Dinner will be plated, not buffet, for an extra touch.
The upcoming season
Davori Productions has already lined up its 2019-20 season and got it started in September, with the goal of performing seven plays. Of those seven, four will be open to the entire community, while three will be reserved for teenagers hoping to develop their theater skills.
Holmes explained that one of their biggest goals is helping area kids become better at their craft, which is how the idea of workshops evolved. There will be three seven-week workshops throughout the year, where kids in 6th-12th grade will meet twice a week and practice everything from dancing to singing to auditioning, as well as learning about behind-the-scenes aspects of theater. Participants will learn from seasoned directors, choreographers, vocal directors and other industry experts. At the end of the workshop, they’ll put on a full musical.
“It’s going to be training,” Holmes said. “We’re taking kids who are passionate about theater. We want kids who want to be here and want to get to the next level.”
That commitment to “the next level” extends to the regular season as well. Whereas some community theater groups make an effort to include anyone who is interested in theater, Holmes said that Davori Productions is more interested in quality shows. 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.”
The theater company held auditions for its first show, Jesus Christ Superstar, in August. Holmes said 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 because it could have been so many possibilities.”
Jesus Christ Superstar opened on Sept. 27 and ran through Oct. 13. After that, shows include Miracle on 34th Street; I love you, you’re perfect, now change; and Forever Plaid. Meanwhile, Broadway Teen Workshop shows include Guys and Dolls Jr., Once on this Island Jr., and Thoroughly Modern Millie Jr.
While the season has barely begun, Holmes said the company is already planning for what comes next.
“We’re already talking about season two,” he said. “We’re here. We’re not just a one-stop theater company that’s here one season. We’re thinking long term. We’re embedded, and that’s what we want people to know—we’re not just a breeze in the wind that’s coming through the Mankato. We’re here long term.”
While Mankato already has a local theatrical group, the Merely Players, Holmes said he doesn’t necessarily think of them as competition, especially because Davori Productions is focusing on dinner theater. In addition, Holmes said that the goal will be a little different, since Davori Productions isn’t exactly a community theater group. That is—they are more focused on putting on high quality shows than offering theatrical opportunities to area actors.
“We don’t want to be competition for the Merely Players,” he said. “We completely respecting Merely Players. What we’re putting on is different than what they’re putting on. They’ll cast everybody. We don’t.”
Holmes added that competition isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either, since it will end up pushing every group to continue to improve and offer better shows.
“We’d love it if three more people with our desire come in and opened theater companies in this community,” he said. “That’s only going to make the theater better if there’s competition. If there’s no competition, you can do a crappy show and people are going to come see it because there’s nothing else. We want to support every aspect of the theater and arts in Mankato. We don’t want to be a competition, but if we are a competition, and it’s making everyone else better, that’s going to be better for the community.”
Davori Productions Co.
Address: Mankato Event Center, 12 Civic Plaza STE 10, Mankato
Facebook: Davori Productions
For more information: https://mankatoplayhouse.com/
Flipping the script
Holmes said the plan was originally to start with a show that featured a smaller cast and end with Jesus Christ Superstar as the season’s ultimate showstopper. He has played Jesus before and always wanted to produce the show himself. But after announcing his first season, Holmes learned that Merely Players was also planning to end its season with the same musical. So Davori Productions flipped its season around.
“We didn’t want to start off with Jesus Christ Superstar because no one knew about us,” Holmes explained. “[Merely Players] weren’t able to change their dates, so we moved ours up.”
Considering how they still attracted more than two dozen people to auditions, Holmes was pretty pleased with the final result—especially because there were so many new faces who had theater experience but who hadn’t been on stage for years.
“That’s our dream—to get people who aren’t currently doing shows to come out and share their talent,” he said.
By Grace Brandt