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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Getting to the heart of a Wisconsin theater with Jeff Herbst, Part 3

Critic At Large

Northern Sky Theater artistic director

On top of everything, Jeff Herbst likes to perform. (Len Villano for Northern Sky Theater)

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – Jeff Herbst been in the leading role of a Broadway musical, performed in regional theaters around the country – even as Ken, Barbie’s sweetheart in a Macy’s parade – and sung, danced and acted in a slew of shows for Northern Sky Theater, where he is in the creative driver’s seat. A key question for him is this:

Why theater in the first place?

“I have a lot of interests,” he said by telephone from his home in Fort Worth, Texas. “I have a broad range of interests, and I could see myself being a lot of different things.

“Whenever I took any sort of aptitude test when I was younger, I shone in science because I have an inquisitive mind. In a lot of ways, my mind is right brained. I’m really good at math. I love doing spread sheets. I’m very involved in the finances of Northern Sky, like a lot of artistic directors. That whole area of my brain – puzzle solving – is a lot of what I take great pleasure in.

“So that part of me has always been always involved in the artistic side, but the truth is, when I first started singing and got an inkling of what it meant to express myself in that way, there was never another choice. It’s just the truth. I never… There never was any other choice.

“As soon as I hit middle school and then into high school – even though I was involved with the math club and I was involved with the French club and I was in all the sports and I was on the varsity basketball team – it was always performing that felt like it was my calling. Like, ‘Oh yeah, that’s what I’m going to do.’

“And there was never any doubt for me about, ‘Oh yeah, obviously, OBVIOUSLY, the thing that I’m doing is I’m applying to be in a music/theater program when I’m an undergrad.’ And then the next thing was, ‘Obviously, for me, the next thing that I’m doing is I’m going to grad school,’ and the out of that, ‘Obviously, the thing for me is I’m going to do this professionally.’

“There was just never any other path that shone as clearly as that. And it was easy for me to walk down that path.

“Unlike a lot of people who struggle to figure it out, I was lucky because I had a certain amount of talent – and you have to have a certain amount of talent. I was lucky because when I was starting out, I had a certain kind of appeal that producers wanted and were willing to hire. So, you know, I lucked out that that path was available to me. But the path was clear, and, so, theater was just a no-brainer.”

Jeff Herbst lives in Fort Worth in the off season of Northern Sky Theater. That season of outdoor performances in Peninsula State Park Amphitheater northeast of Fish Creek and the new Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater southeast of Fish Creek is really off this year – wiped out in summer – due to the coronavirus COVID-19.

He took a look at the overall picture in the interview, which took place two days after Northern Sky announced its summer shutdown:

“I know it’s just inevitable that there are a bunch of people not being able to do what they’re hoping they still think they might be able to do. But every company has to make that decision in their own way, in their own time. Nobody’s forcing anybody to make these decisions, obviously. “The handwriting is just on the wall, I think, in a lot of ways. It’s not like any of the artists – and I called 60 people to talk to them directly about the fact that we would not be able to give them employment this year, which we know is a terrible, terrible thing.

“People’s livelihood is dependent upon what Northern Sky does and what Peninsula Players does, etcetera. But in making those calls, it felt like the responsible thing to do at the same time.

“I know that none of those people are going to find a replacement for what we were offering them because if anybody else were able to perform, we would be able to perform. I just know that until people feel safe to gather in large crowds, it’s just not going to be possible for us to expect that we’re going to have the ability to do the kind of performing that we’ve been accustomed to. And I don’t know when that’s going to happen. I don’t think anybody knows for sure yet.”

(Northern Sky Theater)

Being in charge comes with an unexpected price sometimes. But mostly for Jeff Herbst, the ride is exhilarating.

It is something he aspired to but didn’t quite aspire to exactly. He envisioned himself being involved in theater but probably not as an artistic director in a theater in Door County.

“Never, never. No, no,” he said. “It happened to me when I was fairly young, so it’s hard for me to look back and not say, ‘Oh, well, no, in fact you were destined for that because it happened so young.’

“When I was in grad school and moved to New York and started working professionally, I was like every other actor there. I got myself an agent, and my agent was sending me out for all kinds of calls. I was doing television auditions, and I was doing theater auditions, and I was doing ad auditions. One of my first gigs was with Mattel doing the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parade as Ken, you know, from Barbie. It was very commercial.

“I was bright eyed and bushy tailed, and I had my eyes wide open, and I was just ready for anything. All kinds of different things could have evolved. There’s no question about it.

“I remember the reaction from my friend Michael Valenti, who has composed like crazy and has written a number of Broadway shows. He was born and raised in Manhattan. I got hired out of New York to do a show in Fort Worth, and was doing the lead role in that, and I was singing Michael’s music. I called Michael, who was back in New York, and said, ‘Michael, I think I’m going to move from New York, and I’m going to make my base in Fort Worth.’ And he said, ‘You’re crazy. You are crazy.’ I think I was 32. Michael said, ‘You are just – you’re right there. You’re ready to explode in New York City.’ And I said, ‘Yeah, but I have my work in Wisconsin, and I know who I am as an artist, and I don’t want to lose that control. I like it, and I will still continue to do really good work, and I am going to be really happy doing it.’ And I was right.”

Groundbreaking for new headquarters and theater, May 27, 2018. (Northern Sky Theater)

Included for Jeff Herbst in recent years is the opportunity to help instigate the building of a headquarters for the organization, complete with a theater. A new theater on a new site: I don’t know whether that has been done before in Door County.

“I don’t think so,” Jeff Herbst said. “I can almost state with certainty that it has not been done before. The Door Community Auditorium, of course, was built from the ground up, but it serves a different function. So that was something we were really aware of.

“The thing that kept being talked about for so many years was that in northern Door there was not an intimate, less than 500-seat theater anywhere for anybody, and certainly nothing as intimate as the Gould.

“We were obviously clamoring for such a thing, and we started talking about it way back about 2005. We even put together a building committee to explore the idea. They researched it and visited other theater companies, much like what we did right before we built the Gould. A different building committee, but a building committee followed all those same steps of exploration. But the building committee in 2005 came back and said the organization is not ready to launch that kind of a capital campaign yet. More needs to happen with the organization with stability, with all of those things. We did not have a development director at that time. So there were a lot of reasons why the kibosh was put on being able to do such a project in 2005.

“Then I kept sort of planting a seed as things progressed. It was about six years ago when we were doing a long-range planning meeting when I said, ‘I think we’re going to have to get really serious about making sure that there is a permanent home for Northern Sky that includes a theater.’

Barbara and Spencer Gould Theater. (Northern Sky Theater)

“At that point, we didn’t know that it could be a theater like the Gould turned out to be. We thought maybe it really had to be a flex case because we just didn’t know if we had the resources to go as far as we did. But I knew it was going to be critically important for there to be a home base before a whole mess of us who had been involved in Northern Sky for so many years graduate into, you know, not being seminal figures anymore and turn it over to other people who have to make a go of it.

“I think that was the point when the board started to say, ‘Okay, we hear you, and we have to get all of those mechanisms in place. We have to have a development director, and we’ve got to start planting seeds.’

“And that’s what we did over the course of the following couple of years with the name change (American Folklore Theatre to Northern Sky Theater) and then with the exploratory committees, with the park committee, with the building committee, and, of course, eventually with our Constellation Campaign. All of that was really laying the groundwork for making sure that the Gould could happen.

“When we finally did our real nitty gritty kind of due diligence and interviewed a lot of people who had been through that process, we got from those people, ‘Do not build a flex stage, raise more money and build yourself a real theater. You will not regret it.’ That’s when we heard loud and clear that we needed to up the stakes on the capital campaign, raise another $2 million to make sure that we could build the Gould as a really fine theater. And that’s what we got, and that’s what the Gould is.”

Scene from “Boxcar.” (Northern Sky Theater)

Planning and directing aside, Jeff Herbst performs in some shows of Northern Sky Theater.

“It’s mostly precedent because I’m so long with the company, for the company,” he said. “There’s also just a certain need for… You know, I’m available, there are a lot of roles that I can play and I have my own housing in Door County, which is always helpful for our company.

“It’s not a given necessarily. I always have. It’s just kind of part of the equation. There’s not any mandate around any of it, but it’s just sort of expected, I think.”

Plus, he likes performing.

“I do like to. A big change for me came when I finally was able to hire directors to direct show that I was in that I did not have to direct anymore. That has been such a relief and so much more pleasurable for me as an actor than anything I was able to do while I was having to direct myself. It’s a completely different experience and just way more fun, frankly.”

The first parts of this column are here:

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