MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Summer on stage

In vacation towns, plays and musicals offer a midsummer's-night diversion.

American Players Theatre in Spring Green.

© Pete Olsen

In Spring Green, American Players Theatre's main stage is outdoors.

In vacation hubs all across the region, summer theaters are launching another season of delicious escapism.

With corps of enthusiastic young actors drawn from all over the nation, they’ll put on Neil Simon, Shakespeare, Agatha Christie and the bouncy musicals vacationers love — "Little Shop of Horrors,’’ "Fiddler on the Roof,'' "Spamalot.''

Light-hearted plays for light-hearted days — it's a formula that works.

Here's the schedule for 2021.

Most summer theaters use a mix of students and professional actors from the Twin Cities or Chicago, who enjoy a bit of moonlighting in resort towns.

Bemidji's Paul Bunyan Playhouse started when an entrepreneur brought a troupe of New York actors to the northern Minnesota town in 1951. 

He set up a theater at a resort on the shore of Lake Bemidji and started a glorious season of summer stock. Four weeks later, he was broke, and the actors were stranded.

But Bemidji's citizens had become hooked on theater. They raised enough money to pay the actors' room and board while they performed the rest of the season's plays, and enough to pay for their tickets home. Then the town raised enough to pay for a season the next year, and the year after that.

Now, the Paul Bunyan Playhouse is Minnesota's oldest professional summer-stock company.

On the shores of Lake L'Homme Dieu in Alexandria, Minn., Theatre L’Homme Dieu was started in 1961 at an old resort, a collaboration between Alexandria and St. Cloud State University.

In the lakes region of northwest Iowa, Okoboji Summer Theater began in an old airplane hangar in 1953, then was bought and expanded by Stephens College of Columbia, Mo.

All summer theaters are in areas with lots of tourists, who come to see a play after a day of sunning or sightseeing.

Spring Green, Wis., is home not only to the classical American Players Theater, whose professional troupe comes mainly from Chicago, but to kitschy House on the Rock.

The Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji.

© Beth Gauper

In Bemidji, the Paul Bunyan Playhouse performs in the Historic Chief Theater.

In Wisconsin's Door County, American Folklore Theatre puts on original musical comedies in an amphitheater ringed by tall red pines in Peninsula State Park.

The Peninsula Players are nearby, in Fish Creek. The troupe put on its first plays in 1935 in the back yard of a Fish Creek motel and is the nation's oldest professional resident summer theater.

Now, it performs on the site of an old boys' camp on the shores of Green Bay, in an open-sided pavilion on the edge of a twinkle-lit cedar forest. Ticket-holders like to stroll there before the play, sipping glasses of wine.

Of the theaters below, only Door County's Northern Sky Theater and American Players Theater in Spring Green perform in the open air; American Players Theater also has an indoor theater.

American Players Theater, Spring Green, Wis. In 2021, it's presenting "An Improbable Fiction, "Rough Crossing,'' and "Cymbeline'' in the Hill Theatre.

In the Touchstone Theatre, "The Mountaintop,'' "An Iliad,'' and "A Phoenix Too Frequent'' will be presented.

The plays are performed in repertory between May 14 and Oct. 3. 608-588-2361.

For more about the area, see Drawn to Spring Green.

Big Top Chautauqua, Bayfield, Wis. It schedules original musical revues, including "Riding the Wind,'' "Take Me to the Islands'' and "Superior!'' and concerts by nationally known performers most nights from June through Labor Day.

In 2021, performers include Martha Redbone, Charlie Berens, Tanya Tucker, Paula Poundstone and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

For more about the area, see Beloved Bayfield.

Commonweal Theatre, Lanesboro, Minn.: This theater occupies a main-street storefront in this bluff-country burg.

In 2021, Commonweal Theatre is presenting in repertory "I Love to Eat," April 17 through June 27; "Dancing Lessons,'' from May 29 through Aug. 29; "The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged) [Revised],'' from June 10 through Oct. 24; "Come Back,'' from Sept. 11 through Nov. 14; and "A Christmas Carol,'' from Nov. 26 through Dec. 19. 

For more about Lanesboro, see The belle of bluff country.

Peninsula Players in Door County.

© Boyd Fellows

In Door County, the Peninsula Players perform on the shores of Green Bay.

Door Shakespeare, Baileys Harbor, Wis. This troupe performs in the gardens of Björklunden, the northern campus of Lawrence University in Appleton, Wis. It will stage "Hamlet'' from June 30 to Aug. 17.

For more about the area, see Baileys Harbor in Door County.

Great River Shakespeare Festival, Winona, Minn. In 2021, "The Tempest'' and "Great Expections on the Levee Stage and "Every Brilliant Thing'' on the Winona State University Green will be staged June 23-Aug. 1 in repertory.

Many other events are held in conjunction with the festival, such as free concerts, coffeehouse discussions with cast members, Front Porch Conversations with experts, events at Theatre du Mississippi and walking tours hosted by the Winona County Historical Society.

For details and tickets, call 507-474-7900.

For more about the area, see Afloat in Winona.

Long Lake Theater, Hubbard, Minn. This small theater is in the lakes country near Park Rapids. Call 218-732-0099.

For more, see Summer in Park Rapids.

Mackinac Island Shakespeare Festival, Mackinac Island, Mich. The Starling Shakespeare Company will stage "Romeo and Juliet'' and "Much Ado About Nothing'' in repertory Aug. 4-29 in 2021.

Mantorville Theatre Company, Mantorville, Minn. In the stone 1918 Opera House of this tiny village near Rochester, this company puts on old-fashioned summer melodramas with audience participation. 

They're fun, and tickets are inexpensive. During the year, the company stages modern comedies. 507-635-5420.

Northern Sky Theater in Fish Creek, Wis. This troupe performs in an amphitheater in Peninsula State Park and also in its indoor Gould Theater, east of Fish Creek and just south of the corner of county roads A and F.

In the amphitheater, it will stage "The Fisherman's Daughters'' June 14-July 10; "Tongue 'n' Cheek'' July 12-Aug. 7; and "Whatever Happened to Karl Janko?'' Aug. 9-Sept. 18.

In the Gould, it will perform "Not Even Remotely'' July 12-Aug. 7 and "Naked Radio'' Aug. 23-Nov. 6.

For more about the area, see Fish Creek in Door County.

Northern Sky Theater in Door County.

© Door County Visitor Burea

In Door County, Northern Sky Theater performs in an amphitheater in Peninsula State Park.

Okoboji Summer Theatre in Spirit Lake, Iowa. Stephens College in Missouri stages a different musical or and play weekly from mid-June to mid-August.

The theater also puts on a full schedule of children's plays.

Paul Bunyan Playhouse in Bemidji, Minn. In 2021, it's putting on "All Shook Up,"  June 4-12; "Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' June 18-26; "Grease,'' June 30-July 10; "Sylvia,'' July 16-24; and "Young Frankenstein (West End Edition),'' July 30-Aug. 7.

For more, see Bemidji's behemoths.

Peninsula Players, between Fish Creek and Egg Harbor, Wis. The company performs in a covered pavilion on the shores of Green Bay in Door County. 

In 2021, it's staging "Talley's Folly'' July 20-Aug. 15 and "Romance in D'' Aug. 24-Sept. 19.

Tours are given at 2 p.m. many Sundays. Some performances are followed by talk-backs. Check for other special events. 920-868-3287.

For more about the area, see Egg Harbor in Door County.

Red Barn Theatre in Rice Lake, Wis. In a grove of pine east of town, the Hardscrabble Players have presented plays for 59 seasons.

In 2021, they will present "Ripcord,'' June 16-26; "The World Goes 'Round," July 7-17; "Boys in Autumn,'' July 28-Aug. 7; and "The Fantasticks,'' Aug. 18-28.

St. Croix Festival Theatre, St. Croix Falls, Wis. It stages concerts as well as a theater series.

In 2021, it's staging "Sense and Sensibility," June 12-July 3; "Shipwrecked! An Entertainment," July 10-31; "Brighton Beach Memoirs,'' Aug. 5-22; "Goldilocks on Trial,'' Sept. 17-26; "True West,'' Oct. 9-30; and "The Gift of the Magi,'' Nov. 27-Dec. 19.

For more about the area, see Trail mix in St. Croix Falls.

Theatre l'Homme Dieu in Alexandria, Minn. In 2021, the theater plans to present plays from June 19 to Sept. 11.

For more, see Alexandria's enigma.

Timber Lake Playhouse in Mount Carroll, Ill. This professional troupe has been presenting plays on a large, wooded campus near the shores of Timber Lake since 1962.

In 2021, it's presenting "A Closer Walk With Patsy Cline, June 3-13; "Pippin,'' June 17-27; "The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee,'' July 1-11; "Jesus Christ Superstar,'' July 15-Aug. 1; "The Robber Bridegroom,'' Aug. 5-15; "Ain't Misbehavin','' Aug. 19-29; and "The Buddy Holly Story,'' Sept. 9-19; and "What a Wonderful World,'' Dec. 2-12.


Last updated on June 23, 2021