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DENNIS WHIPPLE
GREAT Theatre

Dennis Whipple
GREAT Theatre

Class of 2013

Dennis Whipple had established GREAT Theatre by his early 20s and grew it to the third-largest children's theater in Minnesota. It brings more than 50,000 people to St. Cloud each year.

What are you doing now?

Executive artistic director at GREAT Theatre, Waite Park. Chair of St. Cloud School District 742 Board of Education.

How did the 5 Under 40 award affect your life?

The recognition from peers and mentors that I really respect was a great motivator to keep working to help make St. Cloud even GREATer through public service. I am very proud to live, work and play in greater St. Cloud.

Other big changes since you received the award?

GREAT Theatre announced a $1.78 million Setting The Stage Campaign, which will bring all production work (costumes, sets, rehearsals, administration, camps) under one roof and ensure that performances remain at the Paramount Theatre and College of St. Benedict/St. John's University. We're over halfway to our goal and appreciate our giving community.

What will make the St. Cloud area greater in coming years?

St. Cloud School District 742 is seeking community support to vote yes on a building referendum Nov. 3. This project will truly transform our local public education system by building on a legacy of strong education to meet the 21st century education needs of all young people.



2013 Interview

Originally ran: January 19, 2014

Dennis Whipple knew his destiny would involve a stage, but teachers explained that he didn't need to be on it.

So instead of acting, he started the Great River Educational Arts Theatre more than 15 years ago, when he was in his early 20s. Within its first decade, it grew to include almost 3,000 season members.

The organization, which uses the Paramount Theatre in downtown St. Cloud, has produced more than 120 shows — including five world premiere productions. Last year, more than 18,000 students from Central Minnesota attended its school matinees. It provides more than 1,400 youth the opportunity to perform each year.

In 2012, Whipple expanded operations to include the GREAT Theatre Company, which engages two productions each year to reach those who have outgrown the children's theater. This year, both "Les Miserables" and "White Christmas" were sold out.

Whipple, who was elected to the St. Cloud school board in 2012, oversees 11 full-time employees and 90 contracted artists. Joanne Dorsher, a former president of GREAT's board of directors, said if the organization had to pay Whipple what he was worth "we wouldn't exist."

Under Whipple's leadership, the only children's theater in outstate Minnesota is just finishing its run of "The Wizard of Oz" and soon will stage "To Kill A Mockingbird." The organization also has developed the Immigration Theatre Residency, collaborating with local schools to teach about immigration through a theater experience.

What is the source of your interest in the theater and the performing arts?

"It definitely comes from my parents. ... Early on, my parents got me involved in opportunities in theater and so it just kind of stuck with me. I did my first show at an early age. At that point, all I wanted to do was be on stage. I went to the Perpich Center (for Arts Education) and my intent was to be the greatest actor ever. But I found out I wasn't. ... But my teachers identified that (I) have a personality that's more drawn into directing or being in charge. ...

"They said, ‘Let's have you try teaching with these middle school kids.' And I did costumes and some directing and set design. I got to try a bunch of other parts and that's where I kind of grounded my interest in that ‘I want to be in charge of all of it. I want to tell everybody what to do.' ...

"My acting teacher said, ‘Not well suited for adult drama. Better suited for children's theater.' ... I think my (style) comes from my hope that I'd never grow up. That I'll always be a kid. There's a part of me that isn't interested in being an adult, not that I am one at times. It just kind of clicked."

How did you introduce and expand GREAT Theatre?

"I started at GREAT Theatre when I was 21. It was a group of parents and a group of kids and a bunch of us finally got together and said, ‘Let's create a theater company that lets kids create the shows. Let's have kids direct and build sets and make costumes.' That's how it started, all volunteer, back in 1998. Then it grew and grew and grew and we got more official and boards of directors. Eventually, in 2001, I became the first paid staff and I've been here ever since. ...

"I couldn't imagine doing this anywhere else because I've lived here so long and I like how this town operates. You kind of get into a rhythm and you don't think about how there isn't a GREAT Theatre in every city or even every state. It's unique here, as much as people come to the shows. We have a lot of people who attend the theater for a city our size and, more than that, we have a lot of people who audition. We recently did job interviews for a position here and people applied from all over the country. The ones we talked to were like, ‘You have 250 audition for your production? We're lucky to get 30.' ...

"I've learn a lot from my mistakes, too. You can learn from a successful ‘Les Miserables' and selling tickets. But I learned a lot more from the times where we learned to manage resources or shows bombed and audiences weren't coming. You have to take risks, and you have to learn from the ones that don't pan out."

How has GREAT Theatre embraced emerging markets and diverse audiences?

"We want to be relevant and represent the community we're in. That's always been our intention. Truthfully, that first day, all the people at the table were white and upper middle class. So you create within that and you may think you're relevant, but it was probably more than four or five years ago where we realized we needed to do more. ... You'd see that audience of kids coming to see the play isn't what we've got back here putting on the production. So we started to explore why the audience looked different from the stories on stage that we were telling. ...

"It began with productions like ‘The Wiz' and ‘Hairspray' and ‘To Kill A Mockingbird' to give actors of color more roles to play. ... We worked with the Centro Hispano (of St. Joseph's Church in Waite Park) to help create an ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe' Spanish play that I directed. There are these communities that already value family. Getting to be a part of that over time will diversify what you see on our stage. ...

"But it takes time to show people you're relevant. I showed up myself to practice every Saturday and Tuesday night to practice for ‘Our Lady of Guadalupe' and I'm sitting there, working and running the sound for 500 people for an entirely Spanish Catholic service. I don't speak Spanish, and I have no idea what was said. But we're trying to prove we're willing to put our hands in and grow these other quality shows and be relevant in the Latino community and all these other areas."

Art education seems to have diminished over the years. As a school board member, how and why should it be a priority?

"My only education came through St. Cloud public schools and the Perpich Center, and theater taught me how to think. The creative part is in all kids. When I went to school, we took tests and had to learn facts and figures, but we were also taught the arts — whether it was music or theater or other different ways of expression — and I feel like that taught me to think. You can tell some of those influences have been lost in the budget crunches and the changes we've gone through.

"I think the public schools are ready to try some new stuff. ... One of the reasons I wanted to get into the public education system was just to be a reminder or give a push to be thinking about how we can use the arts or creativity. The jobs are there. When you look at the kids coming out of GREAT, they can think creatively. We have one kid who graduated from here with a theater degree and she's a pioneer in the 3-D printing industry. Her success came out of set building. ...

"It's communication. No matter how many times you learn this algebra sequence, you're communicating in numbers. The person on stage learns that inner skill of communicating through the characters and the choices they're making. Having a 14-year-old of my own, they're afraid to make choices sometimes. It's scary to be an individual. It's not something we teach and value these days."

How is theater essential to the St. Cloud area?

"First, I believe there's a place where you're drawn to live. In order to be happy, you need all kinds of things — parks and schools and downtowns and jobs. That important part of the cultural aspect of your life and how you participate as a community, we have a lot of ways to participate on stage or in an orchestra or a choir. That's important to our quality of life.

"On the business side, GREAT has been very successful at identifying partnerships with businesses that value the arts as a way for either their employees to be involved or to show their customers that they value nonprofits and kids. ... Theater and the arts can be used for business development. If you're coming here to start a business, you need it all. We're just a part of the culture of this community, but an important part."

Age: 38.

Family: Single with a 14-year-old son.

Education: Perpich Center for Arts Education.

FYI: Whipple started a children's theater when he was 16 and by his early 20s had established GREAT Theatre — the only year-round producer of community theater in the area. His entrepreneurial and marketing skills bring more than 50,000 people to St. Cloud each year.

GREAT is the third-largest children's theater in Minnesota and the only one outside the Twin Cities. He has helped spearhead a no-cost Immigration Theatre Residency in St. Cloud and Sartell fourth-grade classrooms and led an initiative to develop www.aroundthecloud.org. Whipple was elected to the St. Cloud school board in 2012 and volunteers at the Tri-County Humane Society. Find more at www.greattheatre.org.

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