It's fitting that a play about nature would be performed outside.
Even more fitting that the play — aptly named "Nature" — will be performed in Custer State Park this year, as the park celebrates its 100th birthday.
"Nature" examines the lives and friendship of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, well-known 19th-century authors and philosophers. A nationally touring production by TigerLion Arts, "Nature" is a "walking play," where audience members walk from one set to the next as the story progresses.
The play uses the outdoor landscape to inform and shape the performances, as well as to immerse the audience in the story and help them re-connect with nature.
"In today's world, we are so estranged from our natural environment, and at TigerLion Arts, we feel that humankind must reconnect with nature in order to survive," TigerLion writes on its website.
It's a bit of a departure for the Black Hills Playhouse, according to Darla Drew Lerdal, who is the development operations manager for the Black Hills Playhouse. A local foundation brought "Nature" to the playhouse's attention, and after looking into it, Drew Lerdal said it seemed like a good fit.
"I’m totally excited," Drew Lerdal said. "We’ve never done anything like this."
Established in 1919, Custer State Park is South Dakota's first and largest state park. The 110-square-mile preserve is one of the state's jewels, beloved by locals and tourists for its mix of wildlife, recreation and vistas.
Though Black Hills Playhouse is nestled in Custer State Park, it is an indoor venue. For "Nature," the playhouse partnered with the park, which is allowing the use of a meadow next to the State Game Lodge for the production.
"It’s outside, celebrating what we all love, and that’s the Black Hills," said Drew Lerdal. "It is an ode to the land."
The show will last about 90 minutes, and will involve walking between four sets, which Drew Lerdal said is the equivalent of about six to eight city blocks. As the audience members walk together, Drew Lerdal said there will be "fun things along the way."
There will be golf carts available for people with limited mobility. The show will go on rain or shine, unless severe weather causes safety concerns. There is no provided seating, so attendees are encouraged to bring their own chairs or blankets, as well as water and bug spray.
At the heart of the show is the tumultuous friendship of Emerson and Thoreau. Together, they fathered transcendentalism, a philosophical and social movement in the mid-1800s that pushed back against the rationalism and strict religious views dominating society at the time. Instead, transcendentalists posited that people's knowledge "transcends" logic or the senses, and is best gained through intuition and imagination.
Emerson, in particular, influenced the movement to look to nature as a key source of inspiration. Thoreau, who famously moved to Walden Pond as an experiment in self-reliance and later penned "Walden" about the experience, was an admirer of Emerson's and later became a close friend.
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They are also considered by some as early conservationists, men who appreciated nature and hoped to preserve its benefits. As South Dakota's first state park celebrates its 100th birthday, Drew Lerdal said, "it's not a bad idea to talk about conservation."
"With so many of us turning back to nature to find solace, gratitude ... we have a lot to be grateful for in this area, we’ve got a lot of beauty to celebrate," she said.
If that doesn't exactly sound like a subject to captivate children, not to worry. The play's dynamic and often humorous look at these men and their lives makes it accessible for all ages. Live music, including bagpipes, ancient flutes, drums and choral arrangements, are woven into the show. Drew Lerdal described it as as "edutainment," meaning it educates but also entertains.
"It’s going to go through those thoughtful, intellectual discussions, but in a way that people can relate to them," Drew Lerdal said.
Plus, Drew Lerdal said the open space means children can go to the back of the crowd and move around if they get restless.
The show's 18-person cast is led by Tyson Forbes as Emerson and Jason Rojas as Thoreau. Forbes, who co-wrote the play, is a descendant of Emerson — his four times great-grandson. The only locally cast role is that of Elly Emerson, Ralph Emerson's daughter. TigerLion casts a different girl to play Elly at each touring location.
For this show, Isabelle Naasz, of Rapid City, will play Elly. Naasz is a sixth-grader at St. Thomas More Middle School. She has been active in music and theater productions in the area, including dancing in the Moscow Ballet's Great Russian Nutcracker at the Rapid City Civic Center.
Event organizers expect about 150 people per show but could accommodate up to 300.
The playhouse's regular season typically wraps in mid-August, and Drew Lerdal said people often ask if they can extend their season. But their summer troupe needs to return to college, whether for work or studies, at summer's end, so it's usually not possible. Bringing in "Nature" for the Labor Day weekend allowed the playhouse to extend its season while trying something new.
Show times are at 6 p.m., Aug. 29, 30 and 31 and 2 p.m. Aug. 31 and Sept. 1 in a meadow by the State Game Lodge.
Tickets are $15 for adults, and free for children 18 and younger. Tickets are available online at app.arts-people.com/index.php?ticketing=bhp, or by phone at 255-4141 during normal box office hours. The box office is open from 9:30 a.m. to noon and 1 to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday.
It took about a year of intense planning and fundraising to bring the play to the Black Hills, Drew Lerdal said. Multiple entities, including the Oswald Family Foundation, Black Hills Energy and South Dakota Community Foundation, have supported the playhouse to keep ticket prices low.
Drew Lerdal noted there are only five chances to see this play, which is likely a one-time special event.
"This is not something we plan on bringing in again and again," she said.