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The founder and executive director of GREAT Theatre in Waite Park, Minn., is stepping down from his leadership role effective next July.

Dennis Wachtler-Whipple, who has gone by the name Dennis Whipple during his tenure with the theater, plans to move to New York with his husband of 20 years, Scott, who has already relocated there for a new job with Capital One.

"The job opportunity is exciting for him, and Manhattan is very exciting for me," Wachtler-Whipple said. "I never did dream that I would be going and living there, so this is an opportunity we just didn't want to pass up."

Wachtler-Whipple founded GREAT 24 years ago in the St. Cloud suburb. Since then, it has grown from an all-volunteer organization with an annual budget of $30,000 to a team of 14 full-time employees, more than 20 contract artists and a $2.1 million budget.

Since its founding, GREAT has produced 190 shows, including five world premieres and numerous Minnesota premieres such as "Les Miserables," "White Christmas" and "Seussical The Musical."

While Wachtler-Whipple relishes the success of sold-out musicals, one of his favorite memories is opening night of an all-youth production of "Peter Pan" around 1999.

"The paint was still wet when the actors got on the set. That has always stuck with me," he said. "We opened with wet paint. We were lucky to even get it painted."

The nonprofit organization is known for its youth theater camps and Broadway musical performances at the Paramount Center for the Arts in downtown St. Cloud. In July, the theater company performed "Rodgers & Hammerstein's Cinderella" outdoors at the new Ledge Amphitheater in Waite Park. GREAT Theatre plans to make the outdoor show an annual event.

The theater company's board plans to form a search committee to find a successor, and Wachtler-Whipple plans to remain in his role during the search and transition.

"Dennis' ingenuity and incredible drive are unmatchable," said Cassie Miles, GREAT Theatre board chair, in a news release. "His unwavering belief in the power of the arts has given our community a gift bigger than I think even he dreamed possible. For that, there are no words of thanks that can capture the appreciation he deserves."

Wachtler-Whipple said he doesn't have a next chapter lined up yet but said he's open to any and all opportunities.

"I wonder what else there might be out there for me, so I'm remaining really open to where the experience with creativity takes me," he said. "GREAT has done so well, and I think it's ready for its next leader to do the next 25 years. It just feels like I don't know how I was going to find a right time to leave — but this feels like it.

"I couldn't run a theater when we started one, but I can now. Everything that I am today was because of all the people in St. Cloud. It's a wonderful place that I'm really going to miss."

Jenny Berg • 612-673-7299

Twitter: @bergjenny