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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: A man for many seasons in Door County professional theater, Part 1

Critic At Large

Greg Vinkler, artistic director of Peninsula Players Theatre

Greg Vinkler, clockwise from top left, in the role of Falstaff with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, in “The Drowsy Chaperone” at Peninsula Players Theatre, with Carmen Roman in “The Lion in Winter” at Peninsula Players, with Bob Thompson in “A Man for All Seasons” at Peninsula Players and in the Peninsula Players stage house in a Len Villano photo.

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV)

Where to start with Greg Vinkler.

Actor?

Director?

Artistic Director?

Chicago?

Door County?

Stratford-Upon Avon?

Let’s go to Broadway. People like Broadway – the Great White Way, the mecca of American theater.

Greg Vinkler gives his regards to Broadway. He acted there for a year-and-a-half as the world-wise Doc in the dynamic “West Side Story,” 2009 version.

“I can’t speak for every actor,” Greg Vinkler said by telephone from his home in Chicago, “but I think most actors in the back of their mind dream about being ‘on Broadway.’ I had certainly always wanted to try New York.

“I moved to New York after I graduated from college, Champaign-Urbana. I didn’t know anything then. I was very naïve. So when this opportunity came up, I welcomed it. By that time (of “West Side Story’), I knew about how to keep working in professional theater. And it was a chance to do something, yes, that I always wanted to do.”

How did the chance come up?

“Todd Schmidt (former managing director of Peninsula Players) left to work at George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, New Jersey. And this is where luck comes in, like many things.

“David Saint was the artistic director of George Street Playhouse, and one of his closest friends was Arthur Laurents (who wrote the book for ‘West Side Story’ and directed the 2009 production). At the time, they were working on this production. I had gone out to look at houses in New Jersey. The first time I went out there, I met David, and he said, ‘Oh, you should audition for “West Side Story”.’ I thought nothing of it because I thought he was just being nice. When I went out a second time, he mentioned it again. I was like, ‘Well, maybe I should take advantage of this.’ I didn’t have an agent out there, but David got me an audition slot. I auditioned for Arthur and, actually, later that afternoon they called me up an offered me the part, which was very exciting. This was while I was at the Players that summer. So when I moved out East in the fall, I had that job. Terrific.”

Publicity photo.

The “Players” Greg Vinkler mentioned is Peninsula Players Theatre, a professional company south of Fish Creek in Door County. The theater has operated in summer and fall since 1935. Greg Vinkler wears the hats of actor and director at the theater along with the top hat, artistic director. He calls the shots on the plays, the players, the directors, the designers and more.

This summer is his crummiest of all in his thirty-something years with the company. The coronavirus COVID-19 caused the company to wipe away its four productions for June through August. Peninsula Players Theatre is one of the mainstays of Door County tourism for the arts, so that move is a big deal.

This is what Greg Vinkler and managing director Brian Kelsey said in announcing the cancellations to patrons:

“Part of what makes Peninsula Players unique among Door County’s arts organizations is the timeline needed to prepare the grounds and buildings for you and our artistic company. Three weeks before rehearsals begin at the top of the season, volunteers and staff arrive to prepare the grounds and dorms for our company members. Then, the actors, interns, carpenters, costumers, and creative teams travel from across the country to live together in a camp-like atmosphere to create an array of theatrical delights for you each season.”

The board of directors and its management team concluded the health and safety of the company, volunteers, community and patrons “must take precedence over all else at this time.”

The present plan is to present a fall production.

Vile as COVID-19 has been, it set some schedules free for extensive interviews such as this, which will be in two parts because of length.

Back to Greg Vinkler on Broadway: How did it happen he continued in the role while wearing the hat of artistic director of Peninsula Players Theatre?

He laughed and said, “Very good question. The first year I was in show, I asked to be released for the summer, but they would only give me a week off. So, I came the week of the opening of the season (mid-June) that year. I asked (veteran director and actor) Tom Mula to be my eyes and artistic ears at the Players when I couldn’t be there. He agreed to do that and agreed to keep tabs on everything. The next year, they gave me most of the summer off from ‘West Side Story,’ so I was back at the Players for that, which was very nice of them, and then went back into the show after the summer.”

Friends visit Greg Vinkler, center, during his stint on Broadway as Doc in “West Side Story.”

While he was in New York City in a show and still being artistic director for Peninsula Players Theatre, Greg Vinkler put together the coming season.

“Yes, I was doing a lot of that in my dressing room there,” he said. “Which was actually what I do here in Chicago, too. It’s all kind of remote that way.”

Looking back on Doc, what were the benefits of that experience?

“There was, of course, a lot of publicity about the show,” Greg Vinkler said. “A lot of eyes were on it.

“I was able, because of the show, to get a New York agent, which is essential there in New York to work in theater and anything else.

“There was a lot of attention on the show, so that was really nice. I made a lot of nice connections. It was interesting to work on something so iconic.

“It ended up being the longest I had been in a show. And that led to other jobs out there while I was out there, which was nice. I met a lot of great people. Plus that production contract paid well.”

Pays well and in New York – that’s pretty good.

“Yes, very much so.”

Backstage, of course, Greg Vinkler met people in the field, and his being artistic director of a theater in the Midwest entered conversations. What often happened is a glimpse of the showbiz life:

“If it came up, I would tell them we don’t audition in New York, we audition in Chicago. And, for the most part, we hire from the Midwest because there’s a very large talent pool in the Midwest. And flying people in from other parts of the country is expensive.”

The theater folks were looking for jobs.

“It was interesting how many people, when I became ‘artistic director,’ wanted to be friends, Facebook friends, or get in touch with me. But that goes with the territory because they want to work.”

Greg Vinkler, rear center in black cap, with a production’s company in an early time at Peninsula Players.

As with Greg Vinkler’s gig on Broadway, his arrival at Peninsula Players Theatre was somewhat happenstance.

“When I started working in Chicago, I probably almost every year auditioned for the Players,” he said. “They had a sort of core company that they used.

“I did ‘Angel Street’ at Northlight Theatre with Bob Thompson (popular Peninsula Players Theatre actor, and a theater professor), and we became friends. He said, ‘I’ve got to get you up to the Players.’ We also did ‘On Golden Pond’ at Northlight.

“And then one summer, I think Bob and Jim (McKenzie, producer) and Tom (Birmingham, general manager) saw ‘Shear Madness’ in Chicago, and they essentially offered the season to that group of actors, that company. I had been in ‘Shear Madness’ before that and knew those people. One of the actresses got in touch with me and said, ‘The Players offered all of us jobs,’ but this one actor was not going up for some reason. So I called Bob, and I said, ‘I hear So-and-So is not going up. I’m available.’ Bob said, ‘Well, let me talk to the other guys,’ and he did and got back to me and said, ‘Come on up.’ So I did. That was in ’88. That was my first season.”

This is what Greg Vinkler has done at Peninsula Players Theatre as actor and director, in reverse sequence:

+ 2019 role: Director for “George Washington’s Teeth.”

+ 2018 roles: Man in “Now and Then” and Man in Chair in “The Drowsy Chaperone.” Director for “Salvage.”

In “The Drowsy Chaperone.” (Len Villano)

+ 2017 roles: Ed in “The Actuary.” Director for “Lord Arthur Savile’s Crime.”

+ 2016 roles: Dan in “Chapatti” and Senator E.W. Higgins in “Alabama Story.” Director for “The Full Monty.”

+ 2015 roles: Ned Newley in “A Real Lulu.” Director for “Outside Mullingar.”

+ 2014 roles: Director for The Mystery of Irma Vep.” Major General Benjamin Butler in “Butler.”

+ 2013 roles: Ottawa in “Saloon” and Felix Geisel in “Ken Ludwig’s The Game’s Afoot.” Director for “Sunday in the Park with George.”

+ 2012 roles: Dorian/Viloa in “Opus.” Director for “Chicago” and “Lombardi.”

+ 2011 roles: Lady Bracknell in “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Director for “God of Carnage.”

+ 2010 roles: Gustave in “Heroes.” Director for “A Little Night Music.”

+ 2008 roles: Director for “The Lady’s Not for Burning.” Sherlock Holmes in “Sherlock Holmes: The Final Adventure.”

+ 2007 roles: Director for “Unnecessary Farce,” Mr. Mushnick in “Little Shop of Horrors” and John Campbell in “Be My Baby.”

+ 2006 roles: Frederick Treves in “The Elephant Man” and Paravacini in “The Mousetrap.”

+ 2005 roles: Captain Josiah Wickett in “The Uneasy Chair” and Andrei Borshevsky in “Red Herring.” Director for “Escanaba in Da Moonlight.”

+ 2004 roles: Jack in “Broadway Bound” and Dr. Zubritsky in “Fools.”

+ 2003 roles: Sir Thomas More in “A Man for All Seasons” and Robert in “Proof.”

With Robert Thompson, right, in “A Man for All Seasons.”

+ 2002 role: Adolph Freitag in “The Last Night of Ballyhoo.”

+ 2001 roles: Eric Swan in “Cash on Delivery,” Gayev (Leonid), Ranyevskaya’s Brother in “The Cherry Orchard” and O.B. Abbott in “Radio Gals.”

+ 2000 role: Serge in “Art.”

+ 1999 roles: Henry II, King of England in “The Lion in Winter” and Dr. David Mortimore in “It Runs in the Family.”

+ 1998 roles: Elgin, the butler in “Spider’s Web.” Aubrey Henry Maitland Allington in “Tons of Money” and Hucklebee, the Boy’s father in “The Fantasticks.”

+ 1997 roles: Antonio Salieri in “Amadeus” and Arthur Kipps in “The Woman in Black.”

+ 1996 roles: Henry Perkins in “Funny Money” and Bela Zangler in “Crazy for You.”

+ 1995 role: Hysterium, slave to Senex and Domina in “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”

+ 1994 roles: Señor Don Pepe Hernandez in “El Grande de Coca-Cola.” Joel, the brother in “Beau Jest” and Henry Higgins in “Pygmalion.”

+ 1993 roles: John Barrymore in “I Hate Hamlet,” George Pigden in “Out of Order” and Jane Twisden, Lorde Edgar Hillcrest in “The Mystery of Irma Vep.”

+ 1992 role: Floyd in “The Fourth Wall.”

+ 1991 roles: William Coles in “Other People’s Money” and Tristram in “Taking Steps.”

+ 1989 role: John Honeyman in “A Walk in the Woods.”

+ 1988 roles: George in “Doubles,” Henry Metcalf in “Return Engagement,” Doctor in “A Streetcar Named Desire” and Simon Slade in “Ten Nights in a Bar Room.”

This was summer. The rest of the year during those years often found Greg Vinkler in the company of Chicago Shakespeare Theater. He has performed in 38 productions, including “Love’s Labor’s Lost,” “Henry V,” “The Merry Wives of Windsor” and “The School of Lies.”

Greg Vinkler’s activity there has evolved because “my work with the Players has sort of taken over a bit. For instance, last season I was in one show at Chicago Shakes, ‘Hamlet.’ And then before that, it was two years in one play, ‘Love’s Labor’s Lost.’ But it’s been an ongoing connection since 1988, which was also was the year that I first worked at Peninsula Players. So that was a big year for me because for a very long time both the Players and Chicago Shakes have been the two main places I work.”

In all cases but one, Greg Vinkler has acted for Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

“I directed a production of ‘Julius Caesar’ early on in the history of the theater when they started doing Shakespeare productions for schools. The year I got involved, the schools – this is crazy – wanted two Shakespeare plays in 90 minutes. So we did ‘Julius Caesar’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet,’ and each one was about 40 minutes long. I directed the ‘Julius Caesar,’ and it was very, very, very painful to cut that down to 40 minutes. But we did, and they sort of got the greatest hits from each show.”

As an actor with Chicago Shakespeare Theater, “My favorite role was Falstaff in the Henry IVs,’ one and two. I’ve done those two shows twice now. But I’ve done a lot of other leading parts. I’ve done King Lear, King John and Malvolio.”

What about Falstaff does Greg Vinkler like?

“He was the most alive character that I ever got to perform. In fact, I felt that he was teaching me about living. Of course, he was always positive. He was a survivor. He was so full of life, more than any other character I played.

“Oftentimes when I was working on him, I just couldn’t figure out how a human being wrote this part because it seems he’s bigger than that.

“Another reason I liked Falstaff was because it was the one role that I did at Stratford-Upon-Avon in England for the Royal Shakespeare Company. That was very, very special, to be able to perform that role in a Shakespeare play where Shakespeare was born and died. That was amazing.”

As Falstaff with Chicago Shakespeare Theater.

What led to the engagement in England?

“That year, the Royal Shakespeare Company planned to do everything that Shakespeare wrote in a year. They invited theaters from all over the world to present productions there, and they asked Chicago Shakespeare to bring both parts of “Henry IV” there. I think we were the only theater that did two shows, actually.”

Greg Vinkler earlier performed in continental Europe.

“I went to grad school at Ohio University in Athens, Ohio, and one of my classmates, Janis Stevens, because of connections, ended up working at one of the two English-speaking theaters in Vienna, the International Theatre. She got in touch with me and asked me if I would be interested in coming over.

“At first, I was “Ooo, that’s too crazy.” And then I was at a point in my career in Chicago where I needed a change, so I said yes.

“I worked at the International Theatre and the English Theatre of Vienna. I was there about two years. We did shows in both of those theaters and then a lot of touring through Europe with them. It was a wonderful way to see that part of the world.”

Greg Vinkler also acted in Singapore.

“I was doing a show at Chicago Shakes, and I got asked by Joe Slowik (part of the directing program at the Goodman School of Drama) at De Paul University. He had agreed to direct a production of ‘A Perfect Ganesh’ by Terrence McNally at Singapore Rep. I think that happened because the artistic director of Singapore Rep at one time worked at Body Politic in Chicago. Joe asked me if I’d be interested in doing it, and I said yes.

“Singapore was a little disappointing because it was so western. It was like being in any major metropolitan city in the U.S. But it was still a great experience. They have a wonderful zoo there. I was able to get to Thailand for the weekend, which was really, really nice, very bali hai South Pacific.”

By being in Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Greg Vinkler is able to keep fresh in assorted ways.

“For me, one of the things as artistic director at the Players, I stay connected with talent that’s in or comes through Chicago – other actors, directors, designers and everything. For that, it’s really, really good. And then we’ve used actors and directors and designers, too, that work at Chicago Shakes.

“It’s also good for me in terms of maintaining my status in the theater world back here (in Chicago) and making those connections. That’s important for the Players.

“It’s great because of a lot of people who work there are very, very good – and because at the Players we require actors who are very talented and have a lot of skills. It’s been great to have that connection. And on top of that, my favorite playwright is Shakespeare. So getting to do him is always wonderful.”

TOMORROW: Explored in Monday’s column are key elements in Greg Vinkler’s job as artistic director and his satisfying roles with Peninsula Players Theatre.

Copyright 2020 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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