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New Stage Players tackles Tony-nominated show -- and a pandemic -- in unique setting

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SOUTH SIOUX CITY -- When the New Stage Players present their latest production, they will also be debuting what is, literally, a new stage.

It is all-black, weather-resistant and is located in the backyard of the 3201 Dakota Ave. theater.

However if you ask actor Eric Lohr, who plays the part of Chip Tolentino in the upcoming production of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee," the outdoor stage can get a bit steamy at times.

"Yeah, we'll all have tans before long," he said, before a nighttime dress rehearsal in which temps were topping 90 degrees.

According to director Tim Hess, the decision to stage William Finn and Rachel Sheinkin's Tony Award-nominated musical comedy outdoors was made prior to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) loosened its guidelines toward COVID-19 and confined spaces, like indoor theatrical presentations.

"Staging this show works well for the actors since our outdoor stage is larger than the one inside," the veteran director explained. "It also works for audiences since our backyard has plenty of space to social distance."

One thing that may prove hard to beat is the heat.

Performances of "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee" will take place at 7:30 p.m. Friday through Sunday as well as Thursday, June 18 and June 19. 

"We were going to do a 2 p.m. Sunday matinee at one point," Hess said. "Then, we thought, 'let's move our Sunday show to the evening instead.'"

Which was fine by Lohr, who's been in previous plays but never had acted in an outdoor show before. 

"It is like riding a three-wheeled bike," he said. "It is challenging at first. Eventually, you get used to it."

Lohr plays the part of a Boy Scout going through puberty in a play that revolves around middle schoolers participating in a spelling bee.

Actress Dani Youngberg plays Logainne "Schwarzy" Schwartzandgrubenierre in this New Stage Players production.

"Logainne is the youngest student is the spelling bee but she's trying to act as if she's the most mature person in the group," Youngberg said. "That is an interesting aspect to play with."

Like Lohr, Youngberg had never acted on an outdoor stage.

"Things were interesting to rehearse a scene when you can hear a train passing by a few blocks away," she said with a shrug. "It was a very long train."

Similarly, actress Mary Baker has been keeping tabs on the unexpected disruptions that may occur when acting out-of-doors.

"Loud cars, barking dogs, rabbits running across the field," Baker, who plays overachiever middle schooler Marcy Park, explained. "Those things can happen at any moment."

That may not be a bad thing for "The 25th Annual Putman County Spelling Bee," said Hess.

"The show lends itself to audience participation," he said. "You can come every night of this production and see a performance that is very different at any point."

This is why Hess, who also teaches drama at North High School, chose to stage this play.

"I directed 'Putnam County' four or five years ago at North," he said. "When you revisit a play, it allows you to go deeper."

Hess said the COVID pandemic has hit theatrical troupe like New Stage Players especially hard.

"Everyone here is a volunteer, so it is tough bringing in actors as well as audiences when safety was our biggest concern," he said.

With health restrictions becoming less intrusive, Hess is keeping his fingers crossed for a return to normalcy.

"I know we want to put on more shows," he said. "I think audiences also want to see more entertainment."


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