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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Mainstay member of Northern Sky Theater of Door County dies

Critic At Large

Neen Rock

Neen Rock at one of her posts for a theatrical production. (Northern Sky Theater)

FISH CREEK, Wis. (WFRV) – Northern Sky Theater announced the death of Neen Rock, longtime production stage manager and designer for the professional company in Door County.

According to a press release: Neen (Kathleen) Rock died unexpectedly Sunday, Jan. 3 of an apparent cerebral aneurysm at age 59.

She worked at Northern Sky Theater for more than 30 years, and her contributions to the company as a designer, stage manager, mentor and beloved friend were numerous and far-reaching.

Neen Rock began her work with Northern Sky Theater in the late 1980s. She was a lighting consultant, assisting with its first use of theatrical lighting when the company was known as Heritage Ensemble.

The variety of Neen Rock’s playbill credits throughout the 1990s, as the company became American Folklore Theatre, reveals the breadth of her talent and expertise – technical advisor, production coordinator, set decorator and designer of sets, costumes and props.

“Neen was an inventive, resourceful, problem-solving designer with extensive knowledge in all areas of theater,” said artistic director Jeff Herbst. “I worked with Neen for 30 years, and she never ceased to amaze me with how she could make magic out of seemingly nothing.”

Neen Rock contributed design elements to every show the company produced during its first decade, placing her among the handful of artists who forged Northern Sky Theater’s identity from its outset.

Her designs of sets, costumes and props were central to such iconic shows as “Belgians in Heaven,” “Bone Dance,” “Lumberjacks in Love,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Fishing for the Moon” and “Guys on Ice.” Towering bunkbeds and old screen doors, fishing poles and angel wings, skeleton suits and welding masks: Neen Rock imagined, sewed and hammered nearly all of Northern Sky Theater’s most memorable shows into being.

“Her ingenuity in figuring out how to outfit two guys in real snowmobile suits, with trick zippers and Velcro to facilitate choreography, altered lining to keep the actors from over-heating, and embroidered vintage patches for authenticity – that alone puts her in the Northern Sky Hall of Fame,” Herbst said.

In 1999, Neen Rock became Northern Sky Theater’s first-ever production stage manager, coordinating all of the various artistic departments throughout rehearsal, production and performance. In addition to these added stage management responsibilities, Neen Rock continued as the company’s prop designer and builder, adding to her extensive credits with props for dozens of shows including “Loose Lips Sink Ships,” “Packer Fans from Outer Space,” “Muskie Love,” “Victory Farm,” “The Bachelors,” “Dairy Heirs,” “We Like It Where?” and “Dad’s Season Tickets.”

“Neen was our go-to person for just about anything you needed a solution to,” said associate artistic director Molly Rhode. “Her contribution to Northern Sky really cannot be overstated.”

Neen Rock was instrumental in developing Northern Sky Theater’s extensive intern program, serving as a teacher, manager and mentor to hundreds of young actors and technicians over the years. Each spring, she could be seen huddling with her new group of eager theater students, instructing, guiding and molding them into the team they needed to be to tackle their many challenging tasks.

“Our interns are the de facto, all-around crew for Northern Sky. Neen had to turn them from often very green theater practitioners into a well-oiled collective practically overnight,” said artistic advisor Doc Heide, who started working with Neen Rock in the 1980s. “Neen possessed an unparalleled combination of professionalism, hard work and kindness. People not only responded to her, they revered her.”

Neen Rock’s input was crucial in determining the design and layout of Northern Sky Theater’s new creative center and Gould Theater, which opened in fall 2019. Once the new theater was built, she applied her expertise in organizing the storage areas and costume shop.

“There is hardly a thing in the artistic side of the new building that Neen didn’t have a say-so in finding a home for,” said development director Holly Feldman. “Whenever I give tours of the building, Neen’s name comes up. She was thrilled to have everything in one place to make her life and job so much easier. Walk into almost any room, and you’ll see some of Neen’s handiwork.”

The press release adds, “Neen’s singular presence and impact at Northern Sky extended into every area of the organization. Neen was loved by the artists, office personnel, house staff, board members, countless volunteers and patrons with whom she interacted over the years.

“In most theaters, a stage manager is not visible to the audience. But Neen’s stage management post in the park was visible, making her role quite public,” said board chair Cyndy Stiehl. “It was commonplace to see her interacting with fans and volunteers. Fortunately for Northern Sky, she was incredibly warm and friendly in that role, often making a lasting impression, even during brief interactions.”

Said technical director Dave Alley, who worked in tandem with Neen Rock starting in 1988, “Neen was my work wife. My time at Northern Sky is marked by working side by side with Neen, often through dinner and late into the night. She was as dependable and inspirational as they come. We will all miss her tremendously.”

In addition to her Northern Sky Theater family, Neen had an extensive network of colleagues and friends in Madison, where she grew up. She worked at many venues there, including Children’s Theater of Madison, Madison Ballet, Madison Opera and the Overture Center. She was a proud member of the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees, IATSE Local 251, and Actors’ Equity Association.

Neen Rock, a registered organ donor, gave new life to at least five individuals.

The theater extends its sympathy to Neen’s partner, Brian Smith, and her family.

“We developed long-lasting relationships with Brian and Neen’s family over the years,” Herbst said. “Neen’s mom, Joan, choreographed for us. Her physician dad, ‘Doc’ Rock, was a go-to for any ailments we had. Neen’s niece Libby interned with us. Many in the company worked side by side with Brian over the years, as Neen often recruited him to be part of Northern Sky activities.”

Neen’s obituary can be found here:

Northern Sky Theater is in the process of working with Neen Rock’s siblings and Brian Smith to determine the best way to memorialize her.

“There are just so many ways that she could be remembered,” said managing director Dave Maier. “We will do our best to honor her legacy to ensure that Neen’s contribution is long-remembered.”

Copyright 2021 Nexstar Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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