District steps in to save FACT show

ABOVE: The current state of the seating area at the Fairmont Opera House. Because of the repairs being done, the Fairmont Area School District has granted use of the Performing Arts Center for the Fairmont Area Community Theater (FACT) summer show.

FAIRMONT– A partnership between the Fairmont Area School District and Fairmont Opera House will ensure that the annual Fairmont Area Community Theater (FACT) production still goes on despite the Opera House being closed to the public for repairs.

In the fall of 2023, the Opera House announced that it would need to switch to limited in-house operations to address needed repairs to its roof. However, by the end of 2023, after structural engineers took a good look at the problem, the Opera House said it would be closed to the public for all of 2024 while it worked on raising funds to pay for the needed repairs.

Since then, staff and board members have been doing work behind the scenes to prepare to launch a public fundraising campaign. While programming has largely stopped for the most part, there are some shows, such as FACT, that staff felt was important to continue to offer for the community.

Fairmont Area Schools Superintendent, Andy Traetow, shared that the district and the Opera House have a long and rich history of working together.

“We’ve communicated and worked with the Opera House for many years as a school district– decades even. We have a long running collaborative community partnership,” Traetow said.

The district has allowed use of the Performing Arts Center (PAC) at Fairmont High School for outside organizations such as Community Concert Association and Borchardt Dance Company’s annual recital.

In the early 2000s the FACT performance of “Oklahoma!” was actually held at the PAC when work was being done on the Opera House.

However, Traetow said the partnership took on a whole new level when the Opera House received its most recent unfortunate news.

“Both of us wanted to figure out how we could work together to make sure this happens for our community,” Traetow said. “Once it was established that we would make it happen one way or another, we started talking logistics.”

The Fairmont Opera House’s Director, Blake Potthoff, said that the FACT production has been taking place annually for 40 years at the Opera House and was at the 4H building at the Martin County Fairgrounds for 20 years before that.

“This is the longest consistent community theater programming that occurs. There’s not many like this,” Potthoff said.

Obviously the Opera House wanted to see the summer show take place this year, despite not being able to host it. Traetow said it’s important for the school district to see a community production like this continue to take place as well.

Staff within the district are also crucial to making this partnership work.

Sara Gudahl, an instructor for the district with ties to the Opera House will be directing this summer’s production of “Mary Poppins.” Traetow said having her on board helps make the process more efficient because she and some other school employees involved in the production will have a good level of familiarity with the facilities.

Gudahl also directed the FACT performance at the Fairmont Opera House last summer. It was noted that 1,800 tickets were sold last year for “The Sound of Music.” There were 12 communities represented just in the cast last year with people from all over Martin County and also Winnebago and Blue Earth

“We were pretty excited every time we found a new zip code,” Gudahl said with a laugh.

Potthoff said even with the location change the Opera House is planning on using the same press release, marketing and advertising efforts to reach people.

He pointed out that there are pros and cons to being outside of their regular facility, but said, “we didn’t want to miss the opportunity to be in front of so many people and continue to perpetuate the story and say, ‘we need help because we’re obviously not in our facility.'”

While the primary focus will be on the performance and enjoying it, the secondary focus will be on how people can help get back into the Opera House as quickly as possible.

“It’s all about community engagement,” Potthoff said.

One of the pros of using the PAC is that it can accommodate more than double the amount of people than the Opera House can. Because of that, and also scheduling reasons, the FACT performance will be held Tuesday-Sunday whereas the last few years the production spanned over two long weekends.

Scheduling the production has been no small feat but a payment agreement was worked out that both parties feel comfortable with.

Traetow said that while they have established rental rates at the school, there is some flexibility as he noted this is a unique situation, especially considering the time requirements of the rental.

“Typically you rent by the hour which is a lot different when you have a summer production that needs to run for three months,” Gudahl said.

Potthoff said they estimate about 200 hours in total between practices, rehearsals and performances.

Traetow stressed that the district isn’t looking to make money off the partnership, but wants to ensure that the program would still be in place for the greater community.

“We see our high school theater program growing and kids are graduating and then going into the community with a desire to continue with theater,” Gudahl said.

As Gudahl has directed productions at both the Opera House and the high school, she’s feeling good about being involved in this summer’s unique partnership.

“I feel like the luckiest one because I get both worlds and for them to kind of collide this summer in this space feels nice to me. I’d love to get back to the Opera House as soon as we can, but this is a great close second while we wait to get back in,” Gudahl said.


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