SMAC Impact Stories

Supporting the Arts ... Enriching Lives

Mark Wilmes: Supporting the Arts, Enriching Lives

Theater has played a major role in the life of Mark Wilmes of Tyler, Minnesota. For more than 30 years Mark has been involved in community theater having served on the board of directors of the Lake Benton Opera House including being the president and artistic director. He has directed numerous productions over these years, both at the opera house and at Tyler High School. As such he has been a mentor to countless individuals in the area. 


A quiet, humble, and unassuming individual, Mark is a titan in his local communities. Since 1997 he worked as a newspaper editor, currently managing editor for Tyler, Lake Benton and Hendricks newspapers. Wilmes has been honored multiple times by the Minnesota Newspaper Association for ad creation, photography and as a columnist. 


What Mark is most proud of in all his work is the transformation he’s witnessed in community members through their participation in community theater. He credits grant funding and support from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council as being “crucial to keeping area organizations open and thriving.” While the grants have supported upgrades to lighting and sound systems, operational expenses, advertising, and production which are all tangible benefits and easy to see; what is unseen is far more impactful and the hidden benefits go much deeper according to Wilmes. 


“I have witnessed many wonderful transformations over the years from people who have come to participate in a play or musical show who were filled with self-doubt and lack of self-worth. They’ve fought through those issues enough to come and do something that frightens them but attracts them just the same.” 


These impacts on individuals and organizations are a vital part of community building, on creating a sense of belonging. Wilmes is a fierce advocate of diversity and inclusivity. All are welcome to participate no matter what their skin color is, what their gender or orientation is, what their ability level is, whether they have a disability or not. Creating a welcoming and safe space for all types of people to come together and create an artform is the hallmark of success in these small community theaters in Southwest Minnesota. 


Another aspect of the impact of grant funding in rural communities is of an economic nature.  Mark knows first-hand that these small communities directly benefit every time a play or musical is produced because it draws individuals and families into town from all over the region. In addition to attending the production, these same people eat at local restaurants, gas up at the convenience store, spend a night or two in local hotels or B&B’s, and more. The economic benefits are tangible for local businesses. 


In an ever more polarized world, community theater is a place to bring people together even if for just a few hours. For the cast and crew, the connections are much stronger. “Friendships developed during these productions last lifetimes” explains Wilmes, “Most of my own friends in life I met through theater.”  People who begin rehearsals as strangers develop strong connections in a matter of mere weeks. 


Proof of the impact on individuals and family members come in the form of letters  

Wilmes has received over the years from individuals thanking Mark for creating the safe space in the theater. “On multiple occasions I’ve received letters years after a show from someone who said they would never be brave enough to be where they are in life right now if it were not for that summer spent working in one of our shows. This is the type of transformation upon which you cannot put a price tag like you can on new lights or microphones.” 


One particular young woman whom Mark had been mentoring over the years was dealing with self-doubt. He had been working with her since the age of eight or nine years old. She was never confident in her talent but couldn’t resist the lure of performing. Wilmes explained, “we kept encouraging her to perform and with every performance she became a little surer of herself.” 


Recently this same young woman from tiny Lake Benton, Minnesota participated in blind auditions on NBC’s “The Voice.” She chose to work with Gwen Stefani and has been a great sense of pride not only to Wilmes and to her family, but to the entire community and region. “When she learned that she was going to be auditioning and subsequently was chosen to continue, she contacted me to thank me for the confidence she gained from participating in our shows over the years.”  


Wilmes continues to be a positive force in the community and is currently focusing efforts to work with high school theater. He credits continued support from the granting system in Minnesota for keeping theater alive in rural communities. “A small community theater is still active in part from the support we have received from the Southwest Minnesota Arts Council. It is about far more than new lights or new speakers. It is about the lives that have been positively impacted, lives that have been changed forever. You cannot put a price on that kind of help.” 


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