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There's more to the theater than acting
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Actors might be the most visible part of any theater production, but plenty of hands behind the scenes help bring a show to life.

Now, the Pierre Players are holding free workshops for those who want to learn the ropes and potentially volunteer for various areas of interest.

The group’s most recent workshop covered stage lighting, and the next will teach attendees basic set construction during the flat-building session on Dec. 4.

Director Michele Beeler is hoping to offer a different workshop approximately every quarter. Costuming workshops and props workshops might include scavenger hunts using no budget and no Amazon, while make-up workshops might teach beauty and Halloween wound skills.

Jennifer Kanz, one of the directors for Pierre Players, appreciates the hands-on aspect of such workshops. One workshop can save a tremendous amount of time and frustration during the learning curve when you are new to something. With the help of volunteers, a director has to make sure the lighting, sound set, costumes, props and other areas meet the production’s standards in addition to directing actors.

Learning lightingPierre resident Rodger Hartley led the two-day lighting workshop that began on Nov. 20. Hartley is the current technical director for the Black Hills Community Theater in Rapid City.

And Hartley knows many of the ins and outs of working behind the stage. He has been an actor, director, board member and every type of backstage technician, except for a costumer. Now, Hartley looks at things from a lighting perspective.

“Is there anything better than an empty stage — the thing in the whole universe full of the most possibilities,” he asked. “We start with the theater we have — each has its own strengths and its own limitations. All lighting design is a heart-breaking compromise of what you want to do and what you can do. You work with the lights you have. When done right, most audience members can’t tell anything about the lighting — only that it worked for that play. As a lighting designer, the first thing I do when I come into a theater is look up.”

While Hartley found the audience might not look at lighting any deeper than whether it worked, there is far more to it than patrons might expect.

The average Pierre Players production uses 40-50 separate lighting instruments, maybe more with the “specials” such as follow spotlights. Once the instruments are “dead hung” — put in place without focusing or setting up otherwise — then the lighting people do “art” rather than technology by mixing intensities, color gels, backlighting, sharpness, diffusion and other functions of lighting.

The Grand Opera House on South Pierre Street owns nine different types of traditional lighting instruments, plus two different kinds of LEDs. Hartley said one classic antique style light has more value as a stage prop than a stage light.

The Pierre Players’ workhorse of front-stage lights includes 24 of the best instruments commonly available — the ERS (ellipsoidal reflector spot), similar to what lighthouses use. Hartley said the ERS units cost around $900 each and are considered the gold standard for lighting.

Workshop attendees received hands-on lessons during the lighting workshop, armed with a wrench on a band loop and gloves to prevent burns. It’s no surprise how hot the lights can get, given how bright they need to be.

People working on stage use a welder’s lens, so looking at the lights doesn’t hurt their eyes as they help get the sometimes elusive center, or “hot spot,” of each light beam directed through a lens properly.

And the lights aren’t an easy lift. A single ERS weighs around 20 pounds.

“If you have a Ming vase that costs you $900, then you handle this like that,” Hartley said. “Always be careful with any light you use, but the real danger is if you drop it. Don’t get in a rush — you are not going to save any time if you hurt yourself.”

There is plenty of safety features lighting technicians utilize while setting up a production.

All lights have a safety cable as a backup to the C-clamp, so they don’t fall from above. Most instruments have their own single plug-in.

Understanding wattage, volts and ohms details was only quickly discussed, saving the intricacies for more detailed lessons with volunteers who want to get into lighting.

“Here’s what you need to know about electricity — it can kill you,” Hartley said. “I’ve thrown enough breakers in my lifetime to know that it — the math — is important. The Grand Opera House has 62 circuits, 60 possible dimmers, and 144 channels that are on the master lighting board. We have enough, but the problem is they are never where you want them.”

The Pierre Players also have some round LED “smart” units. The theater’s seven LEDs — strip units — are often used for backlighting, typically from ground level rather than above.

“You trip over them, but they don’t fall on your head,” Hartley said.

Lighting is more than just making the actors visible to the audience. Hartley found lighting also adds depth to the production.

“We create atmosphere — inside, outside, day, night,” he said. “We create mood — heavy, light, drama, comedy. Are you literally and realistically trying to light a bar scene or trying to make it feel like a bar? Mainly, don’t make people green — people just don’t look good green.”

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Hillsview helping international study, could see future benefits

The University of Minnesota is conducting an international study on the effects of winter weather on grass, and a green on Pierre’s Hillsview Golf Course is playing its part to help the researchers.

Turfgrass Breeding and Genetics Professor Eric Watkins of the University of Minnesota’s Department of Horticultural Science told the Capital Journal his department is centered on developing cold-climate grasses.

“That’s part of a larger effort we’ve been looking at for a few years,” Watkins said of the project that includes Hillsview. “The project is trying to better understand the environmental factors that are playing a role in winter stresses of turfgrass. So, winter injury. There’s a lot that goes into grass dying in the winter. Ice cover, it could be just really low temperatures... it could be desiccation, which would be more common in South Dakota, which is kind of like a winter drought. But there’s all these factors that play a role in grass dying, but we don’t have a really good handle on what combination of the factors lead to the stress. So, how many days of ice cover under what conditions lead to grass dying, for instance. So that’s what we’re trying to understand with this project.”

To achieve this understanding, Watkins and other researchers at seven American universities and in Norway are monitoring golf greens in the United States, Canada and Scandinavia, in some cases, such as at Hillsview, placing environmental sensing nodes on the greens.

Watkins said the project has funding for the next four years, and hopefully for more after that. He added that the project could expand to nodes on as many as 150 greens around the world.

“The ultimate goal is if we can figure out the different combinations of environmental conditions under which turfgrasses are dying, we can do a few different things,” Watkins said. “One, and this is what I originally was most interested in, we can understand how to develop more winter-hardy grasses... so if we find that a certain kind of a grass is very susceptible to greater than 85 days of ice cover with soil temperatures below a certain level, then we can design experiments to select grasses under those conditions.”

Watkins said he also hopes to give turfgrass managers, or golf course superintendents, the ability to predict when winter injury to grass is going to happen.

“By using the models we’ve developed in this project, we should be able to give the superintendent some sort of warning when winter injury is imminent,” Watkins said. “Right now, golf course superintendents have very little to go on because there’s a lot of unknowns in terms of how these grasses are dying.”

Hillsview Superintendent Bryan Tipton said course staff began recording conditions for the study last November through March.

“Last year, for us, we had one snowfall event that we were able to actually get a measurement on it,” Tipton said. “If I wouldn’t have (done) it in the morning, it was already gone by the afternoon. We just didn’t have any moisture last year.”

Tipton said getting Hillsview’s greens through the winter is likely one of the most difficult parts of his, and most northern superintendents, job.

“Down South, their greens don’t go dormant, they’re playing on them almost all year round,” Tipton said. “For us, you know, we shut down in November, a lot of courses shut down in October. There’s all of these different practices being done. Covers, sand-top dressing, hydromulch, winter watering. Some people have a hot line, they have an irrigation line that’s buried five foot deep below the frost line so they can put a sprinkler base out when it’s above freezing. But nobody really has an answer to why this winter kill happens sometimes, and it’s just trying to put the pieces together.”

The fact that the study is covering considerable ground is exciting, Tipton said, because it will produce much better data than if a university’s single plot were used.

“This one’s really important because it’s going out to hundreds of courses and now they got the data loggers in at all these different greens, with all these different scenarios, I think the research will be much better,” Tipton said. “I mean, it’s going to be a lot more accurate. Having a study done at one location, you’re at the mercy of whatever weather that one location gets, where this study, at hundreds of courses, it’s going to be more real-life.”

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Hughes employees could see increased insurance costs

After considerable debate Monday night, the Hughes County Commission moved in a special meeting to meet again on Nov. 29 to finalize its health insurance plan for 2022.

The commission heard presentations Monday evening from Zach Clark of Pierre’s Clark Insurance — the current agency for Hughes County’s health insurance — and Sonja Nordbye of Sioux Falls’ Risty Benefits and debated all options before ultimately deciding to meet again, allowing time to digest the plans laid out before them.

“Essentially what we’ve got is we’re talking about renewing the existing plan, and then we’ve got an option with the same insurance company to reduce the benefits to the employee, thereby reducing the cost, and then we’ve got an option that would completely change the way we’ve done our insurance — offer only one plan at a standard deductible that’s higher than our base plan and then pay that deductible down to a number that’s a little closer to where we’re offering right now,” Hipple said on Thursday. “And do that, basically a partially-self-insured plan for the county. And then we’ve got a proposal from another entity to do something similar, where we would offer a higher-deductible, lower-cost plan and then pay the deductible down within that process by the county.”

At the heart of the matter is a 28.5 percent increase in rates on Hughes County’s current plan that officials are attempting to avoid. Hughes County changed carriers from Dakotacare to Wellmark in 2017 due to a 24 percent rate adjustment and hasn’t seen increases in 2020 or 2021, according to a proposal distributed by Clark Insurance.

“It will depend on whether they change the parameters of the plan,” Hipple said of whether the county’s insurance costs will ultimately go up. “If they put more risk on the employee, then the county could save money. And then we could also say we’re going to have the same plan, but the employees are going to pay a higher percentage of that cost. So there’s ways for the county to save money, but it’s going to cost somebody something.”

Commissioner Connie Hohn brought up a number of measures Monday that could help the county save on insurance costs, including the notion that the commission receive part-time health insurance benefits instead of the full-time benefits they receive currently.

“Our part-time employees only get part-time health insurance,” Hohn said. “We get the whole premium. We get the whole package. But I don’t feel like we’re working full-time here. So what I’m saying is maybe we should reduce our benefit as part of the savings plan.”

Hughes County budgeted $95,000 for a health insurance cost increase in the coming year. However, the county has seen harder times in 2021 as Hughes County Jail is running below capacity while searching for more correctional officers and the amount the county government is paying for court-appointed attorneys has increased.

“Because of a jail, and because of our court-appointed attorneys, we’re penalizing everybody that works in our county,” Commissioner Tom Rounds said. “I have a real hard time with that. I do. If we do that, we’re not going to have any employees left.”

The next full commission meeting is scheduled for Dec. 6, which Hipple said would be “pushing things” as far as time is concerned. Thus, the commission moved to hold another special meeting on Nov. 29 to allow time for the 2022 plan to be put in place.

“One of the concerns, though, I have, and I’ve had all year is we’re losing employees left and right,” Rounds said.

After insurance discussion ceased, the commission also voted unanimously to raise the pay of county employees 3 percent in the coming year. Hughes County Sheriff Patrick Callahan also announced, and the commission approved, the resignations of three correctional officers and the rescinding of an employment offer to a fourth individual.