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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Getting to the heart of a Wisconsin theater with Jeff Herbst, Part 2

Critic At Large

Northern Sky Theater artistic director

SScene from early production of “Belgians in Heaven” with, from left, Fred Alley, Frederick “Doc” Heide and Jeff Herbst. (American Folklore Theatre)

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – One way to understand Northern Sky Theater is by looking at what it is NOT.

Artistic director for 27 years, Jeff Herbst has the perspective:

“What I say to people is if I don’t have something new to put on the stage, I can’t just go to Samuel French (the play publisher/overseer) and pick out a season. That’s not what people are expecting from us.

“I’ve always wondered, especially when I was sort of doing this by myself and after Fred Alley died, and I thought, ‘Holy… How am I going to come up with all these new works?’

“So we are not just a regular theater company presenting works that have already been done before. We aspire to be something different from that, something that speaks to the audience that comes to see us.

“That’s part of what I’m seeing, too, in people’s response to our having to cancel the outdoor theater season. We are a company that people have a special allegiance to because of what we do, and that’s felt by us, and we know that.

“Why we continue to do what we do and why we continue, I think, to have a loyal following, is because we are not just a regular theater company.”

Jeff Herbst (Northern Sky Theater)

Jeff Herbst spoke by telephone from Fort Worth, Texas, where he resides in the off season of Northern Sky Theater, which presents original musicals in Door County. That season is really off this year – wiped out in summer – due to the coronavirus COVID-19.

A few days before we spoke, he had informed everyone in the company of the cancellation of outdoor performances in Peninsula State Park Amphitheater northeast of Fish Creek and the new Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater southeast of Fish Creek. The topic will arise again later in this column. For now, the focus is on Jeff Herbst’s thoughts on key shows created under his watch. A full list in the first part of this column, linked here:

The list includes 33 musicals. Among that pack of premieres of original work, which was the watershed show? For Jeff Herbst, the answer is not a show but something else – a person.

“The watershed for us as a company – as a group of kind of fledging artists trying to figure the whole thing out in our twenties – was working with Paul Sills. He was absolutely critical for giving us help in how to work as an ensemble.

“In some ways, that included learning how to deal with him, because he could be a really difficult person to work with. He was brilliant – and I didn’t learn more from any other person as an artist as I did working with him – but he had his quirks. Our ability to navigate through that together gave us a lot of building blocks for how to troubleshoot under a lot of different scenarios.

“That was really seminal, and then kind of a next step for us was ‘Lumberjacks in Love’ as a real watershed moment for us. And then ‘Belgians in Heaven.’ Both of those shows gave us an inkling of the kind of popularity that we could attain by doing original musicals.

“The other show that gave us an inkling of that was ‘Bone Dance,’ which again was a direct child, a descendant of Paul Sills’s work. That show, too, showed us that if we hit the right note and we create the right thing, people will be really interested to see what it is that we’ve come up with.

“I think those things gave us a real understanding of, ‘Oh, there’s more here than even we might have imagined.’

“And it gave us license to unleash our creativity and continue to think that we could build on each of those successes with something that would be just as appealing and then more appealing, and, also – always related to those, which I think was part of our success – is that we never strayed too far from the bubble in the way that we evolved and that everything was sort of organic in the way that it unfolded.

“And I think a lot of that is, obviously, because it was the same group of people working together because also because we realized the value of the sort of formula that we were figuring out as we went along.”

Paul Sills. (Paul Sills’ Wisconsin Theater Game Center)

What was it about Paul Sills that helped Jeff Herbst get whatever kernel it was that he somehow felt was missing?

“Well, it was interesting,” Jeff Herbst said. “I had gotten really good training as an actor through grad school, particularly when I was at the Oslo Conservatory (Sarasota, Florida). I had some really good instructors, and there were people there who gave me a real understanding about what it was to seek the truth – you know, one of those seeming clichés that artists will sometimes say but, I mean, it really is kind of a kernel of how you go at, you know, kind of unlocking who you are and how expressive you could be. And Paul Sills had, in my opinion, the best ability to get to the heart of something more quickly, with more precision than anybody I’d ever worked with before.

“He just had this detector where he just knew immediately whether or not you were right, whether or not what you were doing had a kernel of truth in it and how that could be expanded. Just getting that glimmer from him was enough for me to go, ‘Ohhh, ohhh! That’s it! Ohhh, that’s it!’ And I’ve just been able to apply that myself in what I do personally in the way I express myself and also in helping others to try to find that sort of self as a director.

“It was just unbelievable the way I immediately kind of got it from Paul Sills, that, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re going for. That’s what’s important here in the way that you express yourself.’

“I know there are other people who just got kind of terrified of him and had the exact opposite experience of feeling liberated. They felt way more oppressed by his style. I felt completely liberated. So I guess I lucked out in that way.”

Looking at key elements in five shows:

“Belgians in Heaven” with Jeff Herbst, left, and Doc Heide. (Company photo)

+ “Belgians in Heaven,” premiered in 1994 and reprised in 1995, 1996, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2006, 2007 and 2012 and was to be brought back this summer.

“I remember doing a third read-through of that show in my apartment in New York City. I can’t remember exactly what the circumstances were in ’94. I think I had been in Florida. I was doing a show. I think Fred Alley was staying at my place while working on ‘The Passage’ because he was doing research on Ellis Island.

“I came back from Florida, and Fred was still there, and Doc Heide came to visit. I think Lee Becker (of the company) was living in New York at that time, too. We all got together in that apartment, and I think that Karen Mal also lived over on the west side at that point. She was available to come over and do that reading, and I think Susanne Nelson, the first Josephine. That was the first time that we did that kind of a remote reading together.

“Doing that reading in my apartment in New York and looking back on it, I think, ‘Oh, that was the beginning of our understanding of doing sort of advance workshopping.’ So I think that was the first time we realized, ‘We can get a lot done before we get together in the spring, and it would be a really good idea if we tried to keep on doing that.”

“Lumberjacks in Love,” 2015 production. (Len Villano for Northern Sky Theater).

+ “Lumberjacks in Love,” premiered in 1996 and was reprised in 1997, 1998, 2000, 2001, 2005, 2008, 2011, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018.

“By the time, I had moved down to Fort Worth from New York, and it was the winter-spring of 1996. That year, I had just been up doing a show at Milwaukee Rep, and I got back and we were planning for the ’96 season. We were not sure at all what we were going to do.

“I get this call again from Fred Alley saying, ‘James (Kaplan), and I are out here in California, and we have this idea for this mail-order bride musical, and it’s about lumberjacks, and here’s a little snippet and here’s a little thing.’

“It was probably March by this point, and we were supposed to go into rehearsal not two months later, and they got this idea for a brand-new musical called ‘Lumberjacks in Love.’ I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, we’ll never be able to get this thing together in time for an opening.’ So that was the beginning of ‘Lumberjacks.’

“And with every single show that I ever directed of Fred Alley – and I think I directed all of his premiere shows except for ‘The Spitfire Grill’ – none of them had an ending when we went into rehearsal, and that included ‘Lumberjacks in Love.’ (I laughed). You laugh.” (And he laughed).

“Guys on Ice,” 2014 production. (Len Villano for Northern Sky Theater)

+ “Guys on Ice,” premiered in 1998 and reprised in 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2007, 2011 and 2014. A recorded version has been broadcast regularly as part of PBS Wisconsin fundraising programming.

“1998 – that’s the sesquicentennial of Wisconsin – the 150th anniversary. Fred said to me, ‘You know, the state is talking about all this grant money that’s available for cultural events and whatnot. I think we should write a musical and apply for a state grant. You know, we’re thinking about something. We’ll make it fit into the cultural theme, blah, blah, blah.’

“And so he contacted Ed Morgan at Milwaukee Repertory Theater and said, ‘You want to get in on a co-production of a show that I’m going to write?’

“Doc Heide at that point was more involved in doing some of the research because initially I think it was going to be a Doc and Fred thing. And then it turned into just Fred doing it, although Doc still has a storyline credit on that show.

“So Fred and Ed Morgan through both American Folklore Theatre and Milwaukee Rep applied for the sesquicentennial grant – lo and behold, get it.

“And Fred writes this musical with James Kaplan that is still flying around the state of Wisconsin. It’s doing more than any other grant recipient of the sesquicentennial money than anything else that was funded that year, I can guarantee you.

“So ‘Guys on Ice’ lives on, and it was, funny enough, and Doug Mancheski (the original Marvin in the story) might deny this, but it was true, on opening night of that show before the first audience, Doug said, ‘This is going to be a bomb.’ Isn’t that funny?”

Page from “Guys on Ice” on 1998 opening night in Ephraim with reviewer Warren Gerds’ note in margin, “A fellow can go anytime,” spoken by the character of Fred Alley. (Warren Gerds collection)

+ “Dad’s Season Tickets,” premiered in 2019 as the first production in Northern Sky Theater’s Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater. Is scheduled to be reprised this year, though that is to be determined.

“You know, that’s something. Matt Zembrowski (the show’s author) started coming to see us when he was a teenager, and he got the bug. He got the AFT bug. It’s been a lifelong goal of his to really be involved as a storyteller with us, and, God love him, he has worked at it.

“He first came to me in 2009, when I first hired Matt. He was quite green – full of the same talent, of course, that he has exhibited since. In the ensuing 11 years, he has really honed his craft, and he has really taken to it in a way that has been critically important because I think he’s going to continue to be a really good voice for carrying on Northern Sky and, again, in an organic, evolving way.

“‘Dad’s Season Tickets’ is another highlight of what this company represents. When Matt did ‘Doctor! Doctor! for us, his first show, it was his first real crack at it. He had written a bunch of drafts of different things for me to consider, and I kept saying, ‘Matt, you’re closer, you’re closer, not quite, not quite, you’re closer, you’re closer.’

“Then when we decided to do ‘Doctor! Doctor!’ Molly Rhode, as the director of that piece, really shepherded that piece through together with Matt and gave him all kinds of ideas about rewrites.

World premiere production of “Dad’s Season Tickets.” (Len Villano for Northern Sky Theater).

“Matt was such a good learner that when he came in with his first draft of ‘Dad’s Season Tickets,’ and we read it out loud at the UU (Unitarian Universalist Fellowship) in Ephraim/Sister Bay three years ago, we all looked at one another and said, “That is going to be the opening of the new indoor space.’ And that was after the very first reading of his very first draft.

“A lot changed from then until we produced it, but the seed was there, the kernel was there. We all knew it, and we were excited about it. We all knew that it could be a really, really great opening for the new indoor space, and it proved to be exactly that. And I think that thing’s going to have a lot of legs.

“It’s going to be in the Milwaukee Rep’s Stackner Cabaret as an offering (Nov. 13-Jan. 17). That’s really exciting. It’s exciting for Matt, it’s exciting for Northern Sky, and it’s exciting for Wisconsin to have another homegrown show start to make its rounds.”

“And If Elected,” 2016 production. (Northern Sky Theater)

+ “And If Elected,” premiered possibly in 1972 and has been reprised in presidential election years, and is scheduled this year.

“I didn’t know anything about that show even though Dave Peterson had created it in the ’70s. It was Fred Alley who brought my attention to it in ’92 saying, ‘You know, there’s this show that Dave wrote called “And If Elected.” It’s about presidential campaigns and humor.’

“Fred knew that I was a presidential trivia junkie growing up, so it hit all my buttons. (The two are 1981 graduates of Mount Horeb High School).

“It was Fred’s idea to do a fall show. He was looking for reasons to stick around Door County and wanted to see if there was a possibility of making a little money while we did it.

‘So he and (performer) Karen Mal and I hung out in that all of ’92 and passed out flyers on the streets of Fish Creek and tacked up hand-made posters here, there and everywhere, getting people excited about it.

“Fred did a big rewrite on that show of Dave’s material and organized it in a way that was cleaner, crisper. And then I added some of my own. I’ve changed it, refined it, based on my current understanding of things as the years progressed. But the seed of that monologue was written and performed first in 1992.

“Because of that show’s reach back into my childhood and how it resonates for me on so many levels and has still, I think, really critical pertinent importance, because it gives us perspective, it’s still for me one of the most satisfying and I think important things that I continue to do at Northern Sky, and I look forward to it every four years. Even this year, as terrified as I am about so much of what is happening and going on and my own personal displeasure with the state of things politically, I still think it is an important piece to visit.

“I love that piece, and I think it’s a really good piece and it hits a lot of those elements of Northern Sky that I think are kind of critically important as storytellers and theater artists. So, I’m proud of it.”

Tomorrow, the column continues with Jeff Herbst talking, among other topics, about how theater was a given for him.

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

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