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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Extra! From a hole in the ground – who’da thunk?

Critic At Large

UWGB connects to growing Northern Sky Theater

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay graduate and Northern Sky Theater co-founder Frederick Heide, right, performs in a past production of “Belgians in Heaven” with Jeff Herbst, artistic director of the Door County company. (Roger Hamilton)

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)

Two men walk down a hill from a farmhouse that serves as their office.

Their destination is a hole in the ground.

Excavating machines are quiet now as they stand at the edge of the hole.

They peer in.

The men are filled with wonder.

They are silent, knowing that from this hole the first building of a university will rise.

They suspect this is the start of something for the greater good.

The time is the late 1960s.

The building of a four-year University of Wisconsin campus in Green Bay is finally a certainty, following a frisky fight from interests elsewhere.

One of the men is Edward W. Weidner. He has come to build a university from scratch.

The other is the first person he hired, Thomas Birmingham, a visionary in his own right in education and the arts.

“We just stood there in awe,” Tom Birmingham told me 30 years later. “It was the most amazing thing to us,” he said with a big laugh.

“It was a big day,” Ed Weidner said, adding a chuckle on hearing the tale.

“Ed started with nothing when he came here, and we were so happy to see something,” Tom Birmingham said.

Soon, the hole will be filled by a building. Students will arrive on a new campus. In 1970, the new university will produce its first product: Graduates.

The graduates will go out and lift the quality of life in the greater community and beyond.

That’s what universities do.

From 1970 to today, the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay has become part of the natural course of living in Northeastern Wisconsin.

The campus is the origin of affirmative advances in many fields.

Here is just one: Northern Sky Theater, the professional company in Door County that produces original musicals unlike any other entity.

The popular theater is on the cusp of a big event, which is the cause of this article of perspective.

The company traces to a single class at the new UWGB.

Frederick Heide knows a lot about the class of then and the theater of now.

“The ‘big event’ is the grand opening on Labor Day weekend of the Northern Sky Theater’s new Creative Center, an $8 million facility near Fish Creek in Door County,” he said.

Heide is a graduate of UWGB. He also is a mainstay of Northern Sky Theater.

He has two nicknames – “Fred,” for obvious reasons, and “Doc,” in reference to his doctoral degree that is outside of theater. (He leads two lives).

Heide said, “The Creative Center will house a 250-seat indoor theater as well as our offices, ticket sales, rehearsal facilities, costume creation and a separate production facility for the creation of sets. We will perform a new Packers-themed musical there through October.”

The show is “Dad’s Season Tickets.” Activity will start with special events Aug. 30, with public performances to follow to Oct. 26.

The new theater is named the Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater, for the lead donors.

Artist rendition of Northern Sky Theater’s new Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater. (Northern Sky Theater)

Heide said, “Not many people realize that Northern Sky Theater, one of the only professional theaters in the United States that solely creates and produces original musicals, grew out of a UWGB course in January 1970.

“David Peterson, a professor at UW-Extension, came to the new UWGB campus to work with students in creating a show titled ‘Song of the Inland Seas’ based on the folk songs and folklore of the Upper Midwest. That summer, he launched a new troupe, the Heritage Ensemble, which performed shows such as this in Wisconsin state parks for the next 20 years – including Peninsula, Governor Dodge and Devil’s Lake.

“Craig Konowalski, a UWGB student at the time, was in that course and performed internationally with the troupe for the next several years, which was run out of Tom Birmingham’s Office of Lectures and Performances.”

Heide grew up in Green Bay.

“After graduating from Green Bay East High School in 1970, I went to UW-Madison for a year but found it big and impersonal,” he said. “A close high school friend, John Hansen – who just passed away this winter – had stayed in Green Bay at UWGB and told glowing stories about its small class sizes, excellent professors, interdisciplinary focus and ecological orientation. I transferred for the start of my sophomore year, and loved it.”

Being new and with frisky faculty drawn from myriad places, the campus fueled eagerness to experiment, including with course names such as Analysis Synthesis (liberal arts on steroids). Some experiments didn’t work. Others did.

Heide joined the Heritage Ensemble in 1972.

“The Heritage Ensemble was a perfect fit for me in every regard,” he said. “In fact, I’m not sure if I’d have ever gotten into professional performance without it.”

One company member was especially notable.

Heide said, “We soon invited Fred Alley – who went on to write the book and lyrics for the international hit musical ‘The Spitfire Grill,’ winner of the Richard Rodgers Award for Best New American Musical – to join us.”

An early edition of Heritage Ensemble that included Fred Heide, left, and Fred Alley, with guitar at right. (University of Wisconsin-Green Bay)

The troupe caught attention and built an audience.

One of my columns along the way for the Green Bay Press-Gazette started like this: “Door County’s Peninsula State Park is home to a troupe worth discovering – or rediscovering. The Heritage Ensemble is distinctively Wisconsin as it stages original shows firmly rooted in the traditional folk music, with theater thrown in to boot.”

In the column, Heide says, “We want to move people, take them into a different place, connect them with a time before.”

Also in the column, Fred Alley says of the park’s amphitheater, “I love this theater, and what we do I think is perfect for this environment – the towering pines and the atmosphere and the stars up above.”

Thus, eventually… Northern Sky Theater. It is named from the Fred Alley album, “Beneath the Northern Sky.”

About the fatal heart attack of the gifted Fred Alley in 2001, Heide would say, “I’ve been feeling this morning like the North Star has been plucked from the sky.”

Of his Heritage Ensemble experience, Heide said, “I had been fascinated for years by American history and started out in college as a history major – or as UWGB would put it, having a ‘history option.’

“The Ensemble was a way to bring history vibrantly alive, through the touching stories of long-forgotten people searching for their own version of the American dream. I was also a big fan of folk music growing up – e.g., Peter, Paul & Mary; Simon & Garfunkel. “Through the Ensemble, I learned that traditional folk music was much grander than just ‘Blow the Man Down’ and ‘Red River Valley;’ our own region had produced a powerful body of work that virtually none of us knew about. These melodies were stirring and memorable; in fact, they had to be because they’d been passed down for centuries without the benefit of sheet music.

“In the Ensemble, we got to perform them with shimmering harmonies surrounded by towering pines under the open sky. 

“Dave Peterson, the Ensemble’s founder, graciously encouraged us to tinker with his shows to improve them. He even offered me the chance to write a show myself – 1984’s ‘Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory’ – and to keep on writing when it was successful. And, of course, the Ensemble brought us into close connection with our devoted fans, who offered unlimited support for our efforts.”

In 1990, Peterson retired and, Heide said, “gave the theater to me and another guy, Gerald Pelrine. We renamed it American Folklore Theatre, now known as Northern Sky Theater.

“The troupe has produced over 50 original musicals in the last three decades, drawing over 40,000 people a year to our shows in Door County. 

“Shows we wrote have become PBS specials – “Guys on Ice” – and are regularly produced across the United States. Northern Sky Theater won the 2012 Governor’s Award for Arts, Culture and Heritage.”

Peninsula State Park Amphitheater will continue to be the summertime home of Northern Sky Theater shows such as the 2019 edition of “Windjammers.” (Len Villano)

Heide has continued with the troupe as a summertime thing. He has a whole another life the rest of the year, teaching at the California School of Professional Psychology. “Doc,” indeed.

He said, “In the Ensemble, we had enough autonomy that we could pursue whatever we wanted, in a gorgeous natural setting with a dedicated audience right here in our beloved home state. Dave allowed us to build the thing up – e.g., launching a playbill to generate extra revenue, constructing our first dressing room, etc.  I never saw any reason to leave.”

Heide has traded off being performer in many shows and creator of some key Northern Sky Theater musicals (summer) with teaching on the faculty of Alliant International University and residing in Berkeley, California (winter).

Along with sharing in conception and research for the hit show “Guys on Ice,” Heide is co-author of some of Northern Sky Theater’s other all-time hit shows – “Guys and Does,” “Packer Fans from Outer Space” and “Belgians in Heaven.”

I asked, “Do you see yourself now, as a teacher, elevating society (my theory)?”

Heide said, “Yes. It may sound hokey, but I do think that Northern Sky helps elevate society. 

“In my own bumbling way, I’ve tried to write shows that would lift people’s spirits, offer interesting alternative perspectives and remind us of who we could be. Several of my psychology colleagues and I have done some research on this. For example, we found that over three-fourths of those who see ‘Belgians in Heaven’ leave wanting to be kinder and more forgiving of those close to them.

“Some years ago, a woman told us she had terminal cancer but could now pass on with lighter heart after seeing ‘Belgians in Heaven.’ And so on.”

The title of the collaborative work is “Do You Hear the People Sing? Musical Theatre and Attitude Change” by Frederick J. Heide, Natalie Porter and Paul K. Saito of Alliant International University.

One statement from the work: “Although musicals hardly need to invoke attitude change as their justification, they warrant further investigation as vehicles to inspire new ways of thinking and being.”

Heide said, “Aside from the content of any one production, the experience of seeing a show with family or friends under the stars seems to help people feel happier and more connected with others. This is especially important in this era of fragmentation.

“It’s also powerful to see shows that are written about the region you live in. ‘A Chorus Line’ is wonderful, but most of us will never audition for a Broadway musical. But we can relate much more personally to a show that celebrates ice-fishing, or deer-hunting, or dairy farming, or our love of the Packers – it is deeply validating of who we are.”

Another question: What role has American Folklore Theatre/Northern Sky Theater had in development of the arts in the region and beyond? 

Heide said, “I’m not sure what our role has been in developing the arts in our region. We hear frequently that we’ve inspired young people to pursue careers in theater, and we give out thousands of free tickets yearly to local students to help acquaint them with their heritage and musical theater. 

“We have offered several writers their first chance to get a show onstage – e.g., Fred Alley, Katie Dahl, Laurie Flanigan-Hegge, Matt Zembrowski, etc. One of our shows – ‘Guys on Ice’ – has had productions by other companies coast-to-coast, and ‘The Spitfire Grill’ has had over 600 productions worldwide. I suspect our impact will expand with this new indoor creative center, offering even more artists an opportunity to realize a unique vision onstage.”

All this is because of a class at a new university that a few years prior was a hole in the ground admired by two men.

Heide said, “I agree with your theory: UWGB has had many unanticipated positive effects on the community, and Northern Sky is an excellent example.”

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