Nicole Mulder had welcomed four staff members to Theatre L'Homme Dieu that morning in June, and by the afternoon their training session had quickly turned into something quite unplanned: bailing water out of the shop area of the theater.

Damage was minimal from the first flood, but heavy rains later that month were another story, with water flowing into the first few rows of the theater and damaging a portion of the stage. It nearly forced the hand of Mulder, the theater's executive director.

Facing the prospect of canceling that night's show, she embraced the artistic tradition that the show must go on.

"The only reason we had a show that day is there was enough cast members to help," Mulder said. "Bright Star" had by far the largest cast of the year, numbering around 35 members along with a crew of about 20 more. "It jeopardized the show, and if we don't have a show, we don't have anything."

The theater, which presents a handful of professional productions and a few concerts each summer, has played a major role in the area’s arts scene since its beginnings nearly 60 years ago. But while TLHD is steeped in tradition, those years have also taken their toll on its aging buildings and its grounds.

"The quality of the art here is amazing," Mulder said. "We want the outside to match that."

Last year two of the cabins that house staff and artists were completely refurbished. That was only a start.

Recently at its season-ending Summer Soirée, plans were unveiled to address areas deemed instrumental in improving not only the facilities, but the entire experience for artists and patrons.

Plans on the table

In August, the theater’s 10-member board of directors approved spending up to $350,000 on a project to solve the drainage issues and improve the grounds. A significant amount of funds have already been raised, Mulder said.

“We knew the parking lot and draining issues had to be fixed first,” said board President Fred Bursch, noting how the flooding this summer made it a big priority. The work includes commercial gutters and drain tile, and excavating work to move water away from the building. Adding a loading dock is also in the plans.

Board members also took many site tours in evaluating how the space on two sides of the theater building would change.

The board began highlighting other safety issues this year, said board member Betty Ravnik, who serves on the building and grounds committee. Those include a narrow dirt road that winds between the lodge and the theater building to a makeshift parking area.

Work on phase I is expected to start this month, with the creation of a two-way paved road leading in and out of the 22-acre campus, and a well-lit, leveled-off, newly-seeded grass parking lot that will hold around 150 cars, along with the creation of six handicapped spots alongside the theater. Plans also call for landscaping that includes a rain garden, burying cables, and a patio area.

“One thing that's wonderful about the new plans is accessibility,” Ravnik said, stressing the handicapped parking spots. Negotiating the way from your car to the theater, looking out for ruts in the road and oncoming traffic stirring up dust, or finding your way in the dark following a play has presented challenges, board members said.

This past year’s schedule proved particularly popular, with 27 sellouts and more than 90 percent of seats for all performances sold. That’s really high for theaters, Mulder said, noting the importance of improving safety for all of those patrons.

An experience

Mulder and the board also want to improve the entire experience, making an evening at the theater more than just showing up five minutes before showtime and leaving when the curtain comes down.

Two years ago, Mulder put four wine barrels out in front of the ticket office for people to gather around. Last year she added four tables and a dozen chairs. They are now filled 45 minutes prior to the shows, she said.

“We’re taking the lead from the community, and improving a space they’re already using,” Mulder said of the community space in front. “They're showing us what they want.”

People who attend a play today want the opportunity to engage with others who share an appreciation for the theater, said board member Jim Pence.

“The quality of the theater encourages interaction," he said.

Instead of immediately taking their seats or rushing home afterward, Pence and his wife enjoy the opportunity to arrive early and engage with other like-minded people over a glass of wine, or exchanging ideas on what they have just seen following the play. So, apparently, do plenty of others.

Creating a patio space will happen next year, once the theater can raise more funds (donations can be made online at tlhd.org) and iron out exactly what shape those plans should take. Mulder said she was at the theater every day this summer and wrote down all of the ideas that were offered. She said those ideas, and ones she continues to receive, will make it into the plans.

As the owner of interior design store Ravnik & Co., Ravnik said she values aesthetics and believes this project will make the theater grounds more lovely, and that in turn will attract younger patrons looking for more on their night out.

“It is this jewel in the woods. It's charming,” Ravnik said of Theatre L’Homme Dieu. “It's a testament to the vision here, how the contractors are stepping up, and the patrons with the soiree. I think they understand the vision, and a lot of that has to do with Nicole.”

Some contractors are making in-kind donations to TLHD to help keep the cost down. One contractor who might never have been to TLHD before told Bursch that he was interested in helping, because this community has a lot to offer.

“I don't want them to think they're coming to a cultural wasteland,” the contractor said.