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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: If it’s Tuesday, Evergreen’s touring play is on the road

The troupe has brought shows to area schoolchildren for generations.

PHOTO: Performing in Evergreen Theatre’s touring play, “Sacramento Fifty Miles,” are, from left, Ann Gray, Kara Martin, Natalie Terrien-Rein, Steve Powers, Jan Fitzpatrick and Ian Wisneski. Warren Gerds photo

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Most every Tuesday at this time of year, dedicated local actors head off to schools to put on a play for schoolchildren. Each year, it’s a different show. Most likely, it’s a different cast. The actors perform only on Tuesday during school hours. Sometimes they put on a morning performance at one school, pack up, drive to another school, set up and do another performance in the afternoon. This has been going on for generations now – hidden in plain sight.

It’s the Evergreen Theatre Tour.

It’s quite the story, and it has stories within its story.

In some cases, children are seeing a live play for the first time.

“Absolutely, absolutely,” says Jan Fitzpatrick, director of this year’s show.

“It’s so important because you need children to experience live theater, and not all of them have that opportunity.”

There are professional productions for hire that come to schools. And students are sometimes bused to touring shows that come to Green Bay’s Weidner Center for the Performing Arts, Appleton’s Fox Cities Performing Arts Center, Manitowoc’s Capitol Civic Center and other community facilities in the region. Evergreen also puts on plays at St. Norbert College in De Pere during the day for school groups to come see.

The Evergreen tour turns things around.

Jan Fitzpatrick says, “This gives schools an opportunity to have the show come to them. There’s not busing involved, any of that. There’s an expense that usually a PTO or a grant will pick up so that we can come to a school. Without it, kids get nothing but TV. And that would be a real shame.”

The performers continually see results.

Jan Fitzpatrick says, “We spend a lot of time at the at-risk schools. Without a doubt, it’s the first opportunity that many of those students have. And then they can’t get enough of it. They want to touch your costume. They want to handle the props. They want to see what’s behind that wall – what does that flat look like on the backside?”

The productions vary from year to year – the “year” being the tour’s season of January to April.

Jan Fitzpatrick says, “Sometimes a tour has gone out that has been geared to middle school. Sometimes we’ll say, ‘Please don’t bring kindergartners. They won’t sit through it, or they won’t get it.’ We’ve done that a couple of times. We always vary the show because we continue to go back to the same schools a lot.”

This year’s production is a musical, “Sacramento Fifty Miles,” and Americanized version of the Grimm Brothers’ famous “The Bremen Town Musicians.” Just as in the original, in which the “musicians” never get to Bremen, the show’s star donkey, dog, cat and rooster never get to Sacramento. Bremen/Sacramento is a worthy goal to which to strive.

I saw the production in dress rehearsal, and it is delightful. Most of the performers have lots and lots of experience, and the characters radiate personality – helped by vivid make-up.

Jan Fitzpatrick says, “This is one of my all-time favorites. I love this show. In one capacity or another, I’ve done this show four times. And I like it because the message is so good. And it’s perfect for touring. It takes very little set, and it’s only six characters, which is great. We’re not a bus and truck. We’re a couple of minivans and moms.”

Set up are performances at Doty Elementary and Tank Elementary in Green Bay, Our Lady of Lourdes in De Pere, Zion Lutheran in Wayside, Denmark Elementary, Wausaukee Elementary and Wrightstown Elementary. A frozen-out date at St. Mary’s in Luxemburg may be rescheduled. Other slots are still open. Slots can be filled into mid-April. Interested teachers/schools/PTOs may contact production coordinator Ruth Novak (novakruth@yahoo.com) or Jan Fitzpatrick (jcfitz1@aol.com).

The concept for the project dates, in a loose way, to the “Great Society” ideal of President Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s. Among numerous projects designed to infuse arts in the community was Green Bay’s Next Door Theatre for children. Next Door Theatre put on plays in theaters and had a touring arm. Eventually, Evergreen Productions absorbed Next Door Theatre, and the youth acting opportunities – and the tours to schools – continued.

It takes some doing for the tour concept to work.

Jan Fitzpatrick says, “You have to have people, first of all, who are interested. You have to have people who have that daytime available – and that knocks out so many, many people. I do think that there are a lot of people who could fit in if they only knew of this. And then you have to be willing to put in that extra effort. It isn’t just learning your lines and your part; you might have to go find your own props or might have to help with the set. When you are doing it, you don’t have a make-up committee. You’re doing your make-up and all that kind of thing. So you have to have that can-do attitude and be willing to put up with those things, and not all actors want to do that.”

The current cast members are free on Tuesdays, sort of. Included are three retirees, two players with flexible schedules and one performer who works at night and has the day open.

The performers for “Sacramento Fifty Miles” are Ian Wisneski as Darby the Dog, Jan Fitzpatrick as Molly the Burro, Natalie Terrien-Rein as Costanza della Contessa the Cat, Ann Gray as Beauregard C. Leghorn the Rooster, Steve Powers as Rocky the Prospector/Robber and Kara Martin as Lodestone the Sidekick Prospector/Robber. Lynn Griebling is the pianist. Mary Haas assisted with costuming. Mark Lychon created the set, a backdrop of the California desert at the time of the 1849 Gold Rush, with a “run-down joint” of a cabin.

Why are these people doing this? Jan Fitzpatrick speaks for herself: “Oh, I just love it. It’s fun. I enjoy the kids. I enjoy directing youngsters. I enjoy performing for youngsters. There’s a line in the show that says, ‘Look what it got us – a couple of fine new friends,’ and that’s what this is all about. It really is. I didn’t know Kara before we started. I didn’t know Lynn before we started. So it’s wonderful.”

Imagine a performance space in a school – maybe it’s a classroom or a little theater or a gymnasium – and you’re hee-hawing as a donkey or clacking castanets as a Spanish cat or worrying about southern-fried chicken as a rooster – and you have a bunch of kids in front of you.

“You know when they’re with you,” Jan Fitzpatrick says, “Kids have no filters. So, if they’re bored, you start to hear the seats go. And they’re wiggling. And they’re picking on the kid sitting next to them. You know if you’ve lost them. The reason I like a musical is because you have a little bit of dialogue, and a song, and you can almost get back with the music. And then if you have the opportunity to include them in the music, then it’s great.”

The performers take time with the students afterwards if they can.

Jan Fitzpatrick says, “If the kids aren’t running off to the cafeteria or to catch a bus, we invite them to look at the props, see that those picks aren’t real. We show them how our costumes go together. We answer questions for them. We love that. At the very least, we try to shake hands or say ‘hi’ to the kids as they leave. You just can’t beat that interaction with them.”

This idea has been kicking around her for a long time.

“This is the best part,” Jan Fitzpatrick says. “Natalie was 14 the very first time Bette Hayes (a pioneer in area children’s theater and force behind perennial productions of Green Bay/De Pere’s ‘The Best Christmas Pageant Ever’) and I did this show… Natalie was 14, and she played the cat. To have her come back and be able to take that same role as an adult with kids of her own is just wonderful. That doesn’t happen very often.”

Somehow it seems the story of the Evergreen Theatre tour will continue.

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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