The year was 1978. The characters, Russ & Diana Wooley, a newly married couple passionate about the performing arts. The location, Sioux City, Iowa, an area hungry for dinner theatre.
The curtain opened on LAMB Arts Regional Theater in a way many of us probably don’t know. The small Lamb Productions started out conducting dinner theatre performances at the old Hilton Crystal Ballroom. The dinner was served on one end of the room and the stage production was on the other. A challenging endeavor.
“We’d wait for their other events to be over, then build the set and rehearse with only a day or two before a performance. Each production ran for only two weekends. We did 11 productions there,” said Diana Wooley.
“We realized it was too much, and considered leaving Sioux City for a larger city and a different type of venue,” added Russ Wooley.
It was at that time, Marvin and Frances Kline intervened and partnered with the Wooleys to keep Lamb Productions in Sioux City. For the next year-and-half, the company did not know where to go. They looked at several old schools, abandoned churches, and other structures. Then in the fall of 1986, they leased Webster school. The ambitious couple set out to open their first show in January 1987.
“There was a lot to be done. I was rushing around to get the public areas presentable, while Russ was rehearsing and getting the show ready. Then one week before we were to open, I broke my leg and ended up in the hospital. So now, Russ was running the show, getting the venue ready, and running to the hospital to check on me. I look back and am amazed at all the people who came out to help us be ready. Things I had been trying to do all by myself, now volunteers were painting the hallways and ironing curtains,” shared Diana.
Public support for the theater has been constant and what kept the Wooley’s focused on pursuing their passion in Siouxland. Diana worked in various jobs in the public-school systems for 22 years, and yet it was difficult to get into the schools to work with students as a subchapter S corporation. It became clear that ticket sales alone would not be enough to keep the business afloat. In 2006, they became a non-profit organization known as Lamb Arts Regional Theater.
“This change allowed us to do more with kids and outreach. We now had access to other resources,” said Diana.
The next evolution came in the Summer of 2017.
“Anne Westra from the city called; at that time, she was in Economic Development. She told us Channel 9 was moving and the building would be vacant. She asked if Diana and I would be interested in moving the theatre and school to the building. I never knew the complete history of the building. But after that call, I started researching and learned that it opened in 1909 as the first regional auditorium. It was truly a regional entertainment hub. The list of notables who performed there is long. If the alternative was to tear it down? We had to embrace it,” shared Russ.
When the theater opens, it will be a complete restoration to its original purpose. While the façade will reflect the 1909 look, everything on the inside will be new – plumbing, electrical, roof, and the roof were replaced and updated under the guidance of architects specializing in historic theater restorations.
“We are about one-third of the way there. It’s a 17-million-dollar project,” he explained.
Diana shared about the youth programs they’ve conducted to help foster the next generation of performers.
“It’s been so exciting to see kids – now in their mid to late 40’s – send notes or make comments about how much they learned in classes or performances. They are in all kinds of jobs – doctors, lawyers, and teachers who see that learning about theater in their youth has helped in their adult lives,” she said.
While the COVID-19 pandemic has generated some challenges, it has also provided additional opportunities for creativity. The pair was adamant they would still produce theater in a way that keeps the actors and audience safe. They found an online children’s musical, an adult play called “Couples” that was specifically written to be performed via Zoom, and Monologue Madness, which was created by playwrights from all over the country.
However, their favorite outcome of the pandemic has been Pandemic Playlets. This fundraiser encouraged families to recreate familiar fairy tales, record, and submit them for the public to vote on. Diana stated how important it is, especially for young people, to keep creative opportunities available at a time when the world seems bleak and closed in.
“I watched an early class this fall. The students came into the building masked and socially distant with no shine in their eyes, just trudging along. When they left, they were animated, had energy and spark in their eyes – still masked and socially distant, but alive. I’m looking forward to the time when we can have big classes again and maybe even give a hug,” said Diana.
The productions scheduled for this season were all specifically chosen to keep casts small, allowing the actors and audience to be safe. “Our box office software automatically distances people when they purchase tickets. There is also a streaming opportunity for people who don’t want to go out in public,” said Russ.
“Sioux City is an incredible arts area. Our symphony is magnificent. For a community our size, the Art Center has brought in incredible stuff. The Museum and the LaunchPad, add to that” said Diana.
Lamb Arts is truly a regional theater. They have season ticket holders from across the region. The new, bigger venue will allow the organization to bring in big playwrights and larger productions. What the couple believes to be Lamb Art’s biggest contributions to the community are a sense of well-being, health, and humanity.
“The arts are vitally important in a community. They tell us what it is to be human. The arts are part of the heartbeat of a community. They tell us how to relate to each other. People need to be exposed to that. It’s what keeps me going,” concluded Diana.