I’m the new kid in town in Rapid City, but my partner Alex was born and raised here. When we moved back home to South Dakota, I was ready to see the sights, and he had already been here and done a lot of it. My mission to find fun adventures for us to experience for the first time together led to an unforgettable day at Black Hills Playhouse. It’s an experience you can recreate with your loved one, and here’s how.
Act 1: Make a Grand Entrance
Black Hills Playhouse is a historic summer stock theatre celebrating more than 75 seasons. It started as a dream of Dr. Warren M. (Doc) Lee and the unusual history of the Playhouse is part of the reason locals love it so much. Over time it’s evolved into the intimate 340-seat professional theatre it is today.
To spice things up, Alex and I decided on a midday matinee instead of date night. This way we could admire the natural beauty of the rolling hills before reaching the theatre. I grabbed our Custer State Park pass and printed the directions, so we could enjoy the easy 45-minute drive along meandering country roads. Tucked among the sweet-smelling ponderosa pines, we saw a colorful wood sign featuring the play title, “The Mountaintop”. Just as planned, we arrived early and eager to explore.
Travel Tip: Look at a map and print your directions before heading to the Playhouse. Road construction is expected during the 2022 season and cell phone service can be unreliable in the Black Hills. Planning your route ahead of time can ensure you don’t start your date stressed.
Act 2: Explore the Forested Grounds
A babbling brook flowed under a wooden bridge creating a dreamy scene as Alex offered me his arm. We strolled through the lush grass, listening to the birds serenading us from nests built on the sides of small buildings near the theatre. Like a secret society hidden in the trees, we found people gathering in the beautiful courtyard leading to the main entrance. Season ticketholders reunited with old friends in their love for the arts and welcomed each other at the first show of the summer. I smiled and squeezed Alex’s arm as we waited our turn at the Box Office. Our tickets not only provided us entry to a thought-provoking play about Martin Luther King Jr.’s last night in the Lorraine Motel, but also an opportunity to join a wonderful community of enthusiastic theatregoers.
We looked for traces of history at this famous landmark and discovered the CCC camp sign explaining the original construction of the Camp Lodge. Nearby, in the cool shade of Haberman Hall outdoor picnic area – named after veteran Playhouse company members – we spotted water fountains left from the original bath house now fixtures in vibrant flower beds.
Executive Director Linda Anderson invited our curiosity about the Playhouse and even brought us behind-the-scenes to peek inside the surrounding buildings where company members create and store wardrobe, props, and more. I loved exploring the set shop and learning about the 10-person crew who constructs all production sets for the summer on-site (and without air-conditioning!). We learned that the competitive audition process includes actors as well as technical staff, costume designers, interns and more, constituting a company of 60+ members in one season. Looking behind the curtain gave us a deeper appreciation for the important part this theatre plays in supporting arts and culture in the Black Hills.
As firm believers in supporting the arts ourselves, we headed to the snack bar to make contributions of our own and satisfy our rumbling stomachs before the performance. The charming snack bar offered a variety of menu items, an inside seating area decorated with memorabilia from past performances and a cute open porch outside with small round tables. I held up the line with a long list of items to order and Alex and I filled our arms with soft pretzels, nacho cheese, polish sausages, and drinks. And with that, a tasty lunch was served.
Travel Tip: Custer State Park passes are required for entry to Black Hills Playhouse. Forgot your pass? No problem! You can purchase one at the snack shop.
From the porch, we heard the quiet ring of a bell and a staff member announce, “The house is open.” So, we cleared our table, and walked hand-in-hand to the Playhouse.
Act 3: Share a Unique Live Theatre Experience
Entering the theatre magically transported us from a sunny day in the park to an ominous hotel room in Tennessee. We found our place in the center of the lower level with a great view of the entire stage. The wafting smell of salted popcorn filled the theatre and the lights dimmed to signal the silencing of phones and the start of the show.
For 90-minutes, Alex and I allowed ourselves to be absorbed by the story unfolding on stage. The intimate setting made it almost possible to touch the performers as they engaged in a sprightly pillow fight and sent feathers floating through the air. We held our breath in moments of tension and let go in laughter and tears, relishing in a remarkable live performance. When the cast took their final bow, we lingered awhile longer, not yet ready to leave the theatre behind.
Travel Tip: Reservations are highly recommended! Get your tickets for shows in advance Tuesday – Sunday.
Encore: Come Back to Black Hills Playhouse
Our fun-filled day at the Black Hills Playhouse already inspired plans to return for future shows. Next time, we’ll pack a picnic basket and sit beside the brook before an evening performance. We’ll get a new view from the balcony seats and bring our popcorn in with us, and afterwards, we’ll watch the sunset before driving home.
It’s no question why Black Hills Playhouse remains a hidden treasure in Custer State Park. More than 17,000 guests are expected to enjoy performances this season and we were lucky to be two of them. Summer goes fast, so make sure to catch a show when you visit Rapid City and the Black Hills. Check out the Playhouse website to find out which four or five plays are rotating this season. Start planning your dream vacation and add a performance at the Black Hills Playhouse to your Favorites List.