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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Remembering Herb Williams, maestro of theater

A theater in Marinette bears the name of one of the region’s watershed directors.
Herbert L. Williams
Herbert L. Williams

PHOTO: Among his phenomenal array of theatrical experiences, Herbert L. Williams performed the leading role of the philosophical milkman Tevye in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof” in a 1977 production at Theatre on the Bay, of which he was artistic director. Theatre on the Bay photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Herb Williams brought riches to thousands of area theatergoers.

Herb Williams enriched the lives of hundreds of actors.

Herb Williams made a difference.

One man.

One soul.

Herbert L. Williams died Wednesday, March 19, in Green Bay at the age of 79. At his pinnacle, he was artistic director of Theatre on the Bay at the University of Wisconsin-Marinette. Herbert L. Williams was so admired that the main theater there was named for him many years ago. A memorial service is tentatively scheduled July 26 on campus.

Herb Williams acted and directed at other theaters throughout the region, with notable associations with Green Bay Community Theater, Evergreen Productions of Green Bay and Attic Theatre of Appleton. He may have directed more plays than anyone in the region's theater history.

Soul. Herb Williams looked to the soul of humanity in his favorite plays. He had something he wanted to say. To tell. To express.

Herb Williams was a funny guy, a thoughtful guy, an intense guy, a knowing guy.

Herb Williams was one of the people who influenced me to devise a theory, expressed here for the first time: Good play directors create a belief system among cast members in a specific play. The actors believe that the director knows all and has all the answers to a play and/or the world, and they are inspired by him or her to do their best to share the beliefs with the audience. For a brief period of time, the director is like a cleric who heads a congregation. Faith and trust are fused into the belief system. The play may be a stinker, but, by golly, the cast BELIEVES the play is great because the director can do no wrong.

Herb Williams was so good at what he did that some actors followed him from place to place for the opportunity to perform in a production he would direct.

His name became a stamp of quality.

Under Herb Williams, Theatre on the Bay experienced glory years. His productions drew throngs, and summers especially bustled with appealing shows and colorful experiences. He’d direct and act and in general nurture a caring atmosphere.

On a two-year campus well away from hard-core theater, Herb Williams brought entertainment and enlightenment across a vast spectrum. He brought cream of the crop titles that included:

“The Crucible,” “A Streetcar Named Desire,” “The Importance of Being Ernest,” “The Fantasticks,” “The Glass Menagerie,” “The Lion in Winter,” “South Pacific,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” “Barefoot in the Park,” “Mame,” “A Man for All Seasons,” “Anything Goes,” “Arsenic and Old Lace” “Dark of the Moon,” “Kiss Me Kate,” “Born Yesterday,” “Cabaret,” “The Odd Couple,” “Hedda Gabler,” “Hello, Dolly!” “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” “I Do, I Do,” “Butterflies are Free,” “Cactus Flower,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” “Bus Stop,” “Last of the Red Hot Lovers,” “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “A Thousand Clowns,” “And Miss Reardon Drinks a Little,” “Damn Yankees,” “The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie,” “Private Lives,” “Fiddler on the Roof,” “Night of the Iguana,” “Arms and the Man,” “The Sound of Music,” “Godspell,” “Equus,” “Prisoner of Second Avenue,” “Man of La Mancha,” “Camelot,” “A Little Night Music,” “Wait Until Dark,” “Guys and Doll,” “The Diary of Anne Frank,” “Pippin,” “Side by Side by Sondheim,” “The Music Man,” “Same Time Next Year,” “My Fair Lady,” “Flower Drum Song,” “A Christmas Carol,” “The Time of Your Life,” “A Murder is Announced,” “Annie Get Your Gun,” “Plaza Suite,” “Can Can,” “Funny Girl,” “Death Trap,” “The King and I,” “Annie,” “Ain’t Misbehavin’,” “Look Homeward Angel,” “Oklahoma!” “Our Town,” “You Can’t Take It With You,” “The Cherry Orchard,” “Oliver,” “Steel Magnolias,” “West Side Story,” “Grease,” “Amadeus,” “Biloxi Blues,” “Into the Woods,” “42nd Street,” “Harvey,” “A Chorus Line,” “The Man Who Came to Dinner,” “The Sound of Music,” “Meet Me in St. Louis” and “Crimes of the Heart.”

Formidable as that list is, it’s an abbreviation of the productions Herb Williams had a hand in at Theatre on the Bay as artistic director, director or actor. Conditions were right from the 1960s into the 1990s for the Marinette theater scene to flourish, and Herb Williams made it happen. Unique. Charismatic. A leader. A personality. A force. A leading light. Special. What happened happened because of him being a singular person.

In his later years, Herb Williams told me he was picky, only getting involved with plays in the Green Bay area that he really wanted to do. For Green Bay Community Theater, he directed "The Rose Tattoo," "Dark at the Top of the Stairs" and “Equus.” He also acted in Green Bay Community Theater's 2005 production of "Almighty Bob." The intense "Equus" was put on around the time of the death of Herb Williams' brother, further testing his metal. Herb Williams also savored being witty and erudite (as he was in real life) in “The Man Who Came to Dinner” among his much-appreciated work with Evergreen Productions.

My favorite memory of Herb Williams was catching him by surprise. We had a connect-the-dots moment while walking and chatting in a hallway in the UW-Marinette Fine Arts Building. I said something that connected a dot from a time past to the present, and he was momentarily overwhelmed. Herb grabbed his head and reeled and moaned as a light flashed on and he leaned his body against the brick wall for support. We had a fantastic laugh.

Many, many other people have experienced wonderful moments with or from Herb Williams. He was a man apart.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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