The Little Barn That Could (And the Players Who Did!)

Ever wondered how a theatre can thrive in the middle of nowhere? Okay, maybe not exactly “nowhere,” but Lofte Community Theatre is located in Manley, Nebraska, which had a population of 178 in the 2010 census. Their slogan is “Bringing the arts to rural Nebraska,” and it doesn’t get much more rural than Manley. Luckily, the folks behind this ambitious mission were happy to fill us in on its humble beginnings and its continuing legacy.

Diane (Bjornborg) Reece was the new English, speech, and drama teacher at Weeping Water Public Schools from the early to late 1970s. She realized that there was a great deal of talent, not only in the school, but in the surrounding area as well. She envisioned a performance space where anyone interested in performing could gather and do just that. Since the area is agricultural in nature, the obvious setting for this space steered her towards Howard Rathe, who owned a homestead and a large barn on Highway 1, just a few miles from town.

Once he agreed to the project, Howard and his son, Les, did the bulk of the heavy work, volunteering several hours to renovate the old barn. A cement floor was poured, and the interior was power-washed to clean 80 years of collected dirt and grime. The stage and balcony were built, water lines run out to the barn, and the whole building was wired for electricity. This was the beginning of the legacy of the Lofte Community Theatre.

Diane gathered a group of performers and began rehearsals for Godspell. The cast, orchestra, and crew were compiled completely of high school students and others in the community. They borrowed folding chairs from the local funeral home, and put on the show with theater lights comprised of light bulbs and coffee cans.

The show was a hit! The group decided to add two melodramas that year and they, too, were  successes. While the cold weather ended the season, it was obvious that the little theater must continue.

The Born-in-a-Barn Players operated out of the much-loved renovated barn for 29 years.
In 2006, the Lofte constructed a new post-and-beam style performing arts facility. With a successful capital campaign and a construction loan obtained from the United States Department of Agriculture, actors and audience members now enjoy a beautiful climate-controlled venue year-round. Today, the Lofte offers six core season productions, as well as many special events featuring visiting artists. They hold a week-long children’s theater workshop, a free Veterans Day concert, and host high-school one-act play competitions in the fall. Approximately 12,000 visitors come through the doors annually.

Although the postmark is Manley, NE, The Lofte has taken care to avoid the label of a particular community. The Lofte Community Theatre season draws people of all ages, all economic levels, and all employment backgrounds annually.

The core of theatre around the world has always been grassroots efforts, and we at Appearing Locally think the Lofte Community Theatre and the Born-in-a-Barn Players are a great example of that!

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