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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: New theater company surfaces in Green Bay

The first show will be the musical “Oil City Symphony.”

PHOTO: Theatrical husband-and-wife Mark Silverberg and Mary Ehlinger, who are involved in a start-up, professionally minded theater troupe in Green Bay, pose at the grand piano in their home. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – A new theater troupe has stepped out of the wings and onto the stage in Green Bay. The first show is picked. The venue is picked. The cast is picked. The incorporation status is set – a signal that this is more than a “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show” venture.

Play-by-Play Theatre will present the musical “Oil City Symphony” May 19 to 24 in Robert Lee Brault Playhouse of Green Bay Community Theater. Info: www.gbcommunitytheater.com. In the cast are local performance veterans Kent Paulsen and Scott Greatens and, from the larger performance scene in New York and beyond, Green Bay natives Jessica Tyler Wright and Mary Ehlinger.

For a glimpse at how this happened, time needs to be turned back to a dinner at the home Mark Silverberg and Mary Ehlinger. After performing/creating for 25 years with New York City as home base, the couple moved to Green Bay, Mary Ehlinger’s hometown, a few years earlier. Mary Ehlinger’s father was getting on, and the couple looked warmly on schooling in this area for their daughter and son. Mark Silverberg hosted the dinner for local theatrical folks with whom he, a baritone, had performed in leading roles in big shows of Music Theatre of St. Norbert College in De Pere. Mary Ehlinger was not present at the dinner because she was working; she is musical director of Fireside Dinner Theatre of Fort Atkinson. Among her other musical activities, Mary Ehlinger is composing a show with Milton DeLugg, who has a jillion credits in songwriting and performance.

Here are excerpts of an interview with Mark Silverberg and Mary Ehlinger – in their dining room – that provide a window on what’s happening.

The idea for Play-by-Play Theatre:

Mark Silverberg: “It actually started around this table with friends of ours, friends we have done summer Music Theatre with – Kasey Hott, Parker Drew, Susan and Warren Elliott and Cassidy Ditmer. We were just talking about theater, and we came up with the idea of forming a professional theater.”

Mary Ehlinger: “I wasn’t here. I was out working someplace else. I wasn’t part of this cell. They wanted to do more. They were having such a good time at Music Theatre, and they thought, ‘Oh, just for the summer, can we do more?’ And, yes, there is more around here but, we being the newbies, really weren’t sure. And then Mark said, ‘Well, why don’t we start something? We can do a show that won’t conflict, hopefully, with anybody else. It’ll fill in the spots.’ Eventually, we thought, ‘We can do it play by play, almost a sports reference. It will fill in the pockets, hopefully. That would be the goal.”

Mark Silverberg: “We had this nucleus of people who wanted to form this theater. What we wanted to do was make it ‘professional,’ so everybody gets paid something.”

Mary Ehlinger: “People thought about it. Is this folly? Or will it be fruitful? And it’s not going to be big, major productions but more like small musicals to highlight the talent, at least the people who we know or bring in new people. There’s so much talent here. Not that there aren’t opportunities, but this is to fill in that pocket.”

Mark Silverberg: “There is a core of professional actors and actresses here, and so we want to draw from that and bring in other people from the community who may not necessarily be ‘professional.’ One of the things we want to do is take that talent – there is good talent here – and cultivate and nurture talent and let people hone their craft because that’s what we’ve been doing in New York the last 25 years. I think we can help people with that.”

Mary Ehlinger: “It’d be fun to add another ingredient to the fun of doing a show – to follow through on character development, to show there is rhyme and reason, analyze what’s going on, give purpose and intention of a scene or a song… The talent pool in Green Bay is intense. It’s amazing. I am just stunned by it, and I want to work with these people. I want to learn from them as well as the other way around. I want to create with them because I can see they want to do it. That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I jumped on board with these six people. I said, ‘I would love that. If you guys can muster up the organization, we’ll do it.’”

For me, the name Play-by-Play conjures up thoughts of, “Okay, we do this play. We don’t know what the next play is. It’s going to be whatever comes up.”

Mark Silverberg (clapping his hands): “Yes! You hit the nail on the head. That’s exactly it. We have so many things floating around in our head our heads are about to pop. There is a whole cache of musicals. For one, we’re doing ‘Oil City Symphony,’ where the actors and actresses are also musicians on stage. The people who wrote ‘Oil City Symphony’ also wrote ‘Pump Boys and Dinettes.’ They have a following. Then there’s another show, ‘Smoke on the Mountain,’ which is a bluegrass, gospel-ly kind of show.”

Green Bay Community Theater’s playhouse was chosen because its fits the needs of Play-by-Play in size (just under 200 seats) and availability for Play-by-Play’s goals.

Mary Ehlinger: “Of course, the (Green Bay Community Theater) board had to approve what we were doing. It’s a gamble – making sure that it’s appropriate material, for one thing.”

Mark: Silverberg: “They are just so embracing. They want this to work. Who knows? Maybe we could set up residence in there and just stage our shows between their shows.”

There is a legal side to Play-by-Play.

Mark Silverberg: “I am managing director of Chicago Street Productions, Inc., an LLC. We are incorporated.”

Why incorporate?

Mary Ehlinger: “That’s how you start a theater.”

Mark Silverberg: “We were advised by legal counsel to do this. Make it easier. That way we can get our non-profit status. And it protects us. It protects the theater we’re performing in.”

It protects you in that you don’t acquire the debt?

Mark Silverberg: “Exactly. It’s the corporation that would acquire the debt. And hopefully it will acquire no debt. So make your checks out to Chicago Street Productions, Inc., 1611 Chicago St., Green Bay, WI 54302.”

By incorporating, it tells people the venture is not casual.

Mary Ehlinger: “Right.”

Mark Silverberg: “Exactly. We’re not a fly-by-night theater group. We want this to work. It shows that we’re dedicated to making this fly.”

Mary Ehlinger: “It’s a serious venture started by six people who wanted to contribute to the community.”

Mark Silverberg: “Over delicious dinner and several magnums of wine.”

Is there an artistic director?

Mark Silverberg: “We do not have an artistic director per se. Productions will be voted on by the board.”

Mary Ehlinger: “We have three people on the board, by suggestion by legal counsel – Mark, Parker and me. Then what we have what we call the sounding board, the other four people who helped create the company, who had the idea of the company – Kasey, Cassidy, Susan and Warren. That’s the group that will be deciding on things. And I think it’s going to change from play to play. With this first play, it seems like I’m doing all the creative work. That’s not going to happen into the future.”

Mark Silverberg: “It’s very collaborative.”

Has there been any fundraising to this point?

Mark Silverberg: “We sent out a mass emailing a couple of weeks ago because we had to hit a plateau, the money to put down on (renting) the theater. We sent out a big emailing, and people responded immediately, and we reached our first goal. Now, we’re having a big fundraiser Friday, April 25 (info from Mark Silverberg at mamacama@aol.com or 646-706-6454), and that’s because we have to raise some more money because I have to put money down for royalties and to Equity (the actors’ union) and I have to pay insurance because we have to carry our own insurance rider. Those are the big ones right now.”

Mary Ehlinger: “Down at the Fireside, Ed Flesch, who’s the artistic director at the Fireside, just kind of laughed. The other day he said to me, as we were in the middle of rehearsal and he was having these director headaches and also trying to cast the next shows and is having difficulty, ‘Mary, I hope you don’t have this kind of trouble with Play-by-Play.’ And I said, ‘Honey, we’re not going to go as big as the Fireside. We’re not going to have those troubles.’ But even he’s going to come up and see the show because he’s very excited. He thinks it’s a very cool idea and doesn’t think it’s folly.”

Mark Silverberg: “The support has been incredible. I was bowled over by it.”

As far as a next thing, what would that be dependent upon?

Mark Silverberg: “How well ‘Oil City Symphony’ sells. I think if we do the marketing right, this is going to sell. If we can get a little nest egg going, we have enough for the next one and then keep rolling that over so we don’t have to do fundraisers all the time. Hopefully what we can do is each production have a couple of Equity actors and/or actresses. That’s our goal. If we can’t, we can’t, but Equity is more than happy to work with us.”

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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