GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV)
What did the coronavirus COVID-19 do to your calendar?
Everybody has an answer.
That of Jeff Entwistle has layers.
Speaking by telephone from his home, he started his two-hour interview with me with this:
“When the cancellations began to happen, I was the final stages of our New York theater trip that I lead on spring break.”
Jeff Entwistle is a theater professor at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay, and he has regularly led students and community members on show-packed, fact-packed excursions to The Great White Way.
“I had already spent $40,000 out of the $49,000 budget from the people paying for their trip. The Wednesday before we were to leave – less than a week – all spring break trips got canceled, all classes.”
My previous columns with Jeff Entwistle are here:
This column, for starters, is about what happened with one member in one department at a university as the pandemic took hold amid preparations for a play.
“At that time,” Jeff Entwistle said, “I think the situation was classes were canceled for both through spring break and a week after. And then we were getting almost daily updates. They were making decisions in the early stages sort of one on top of the other.
“As a theater faculty, we started meeting. It was, ‘Okay, if we get back by this date, we can still do the last show as we had planned… If we get back by this date, we can do a slightly simplified version… If we get back by this date… So we had about four or five performance models worked up because in those early stages, we didn’t know when we would be able to come back. And then eventually all events got canceled in terms of that final outcome.
“So what was to be the very last show that I would design – ‘A Doll’s House, Part 2’ – was canceled completely (although an online reading was since set for 7 p.m. Thursday, May 7, with info at https://cahsseffect.org/dollshouse/). That was interesting. I never thought this was how my last semester before retirement would go.
“For me personally – this is purely personally – it was almost like a blessing in disguise in terms of (situations of practically) every other faculty member on campus. I mean, theater is live, right? Theater is something that we teach live, that we interact with human beings. I mean, to be able to do some of the things… How do you teach students in a scene shop not to be afraid of tools if they’re not able to use tools? So we don’t teach a lot of online classes.
“The only kind of things we tended to offer online are my Intro to Theatre class and a playwriting and dramaturgy classes. One of the new professors from UW-Sheboygan (Thomas Campbell) happens to be a playwright and dramaturg and has a master of fine arts degree in playwriting and a Ph.D in dramaturgy. So he’s able to offer those kind of classes online.
“But for most of the other classes – this is a face-to-face business, this is personal human contact – all these theater faculty members had to take everything that they were teaching and, given two weeks, had to figure out, ‘How are we going to teach this now online to finish out the semester?’
“Well, this semester, I had a course that related to the New York trip, and I had an online Intro to Theatre class. So for me personally, hardly a thing changed except for that initial frustration of missing out on a huge New York trip with students because it’s always one of the amazing journeys to watch them take. I’m still teaching my online Intro to Theatre class just like I was going to be. So for me, it was a much smoother, easier transition.
“But all of that work with that last production… We had built all of the audience platforming because we were going to do that one on the stage in University Theatre. The audience and the actors would all be on stage in a configuration we would create. We had already created all of the audience platforming, and we had just started to create the main playing platform.
“We built a series of barriers like in a courtroom when you have the balustrade in front of where the audience is sitting or in front of the jury. Those little walls were built for all of the audience. And then we had to stop.
“Those things are still sitting there. Depending on what the fall looks like – they may or may not continue on or just scrap it and do something else. Because of the unknown, I suspect they may do… (He ran through various possibilities.) Campus might be open the second half of the fall semester. But again, there’s no final decisions on that yet, but it looks like at the beginning we still may be online. Well, they. I won’t be back.”
Jeff Entwistle has an app on his cell phone. At present, he is less than two weeks away from retirement after 36 years at UWGB.
“The one thing about theater programs is, even when you get change, you’ve got to solve problems all the time. Usually it’s just those problems an individual production brings with it. You know, ‘How do we do this? How do we handle these moments?’ And now it’s just a bigger-picture kind of ‘How do we solve it?’ So certainly that is going to be a challenge.
“In some ways almost a bigger challenge is, ‘How do we get audiences to come back to feel comfortable?’ Talk about the kind of environment that is totally opposite any kind of social distancing. In a theater, you cram people together in a small space.
“It’s going to be interesting in terms of getting things up and running. And this is both for a college campus as well as the rest of the country, quite frankly. You know, when do the people feel comfortable enough to be going back and doing that same kind of thing? So, interesting challenges ahead.”
While his career at UWGB is ending, Jeff Entwistle said he intends to continue involvement with Northeastern Wisconsin Dance Organization and its “Green Bay Nutcracker Ballet” and St. Norbert College Music Theatre’s youth arm, Next Stage, in which he was involved for the first time last year.
“Since the very first year I’ve been here – since the spring of 1985 – I have been doing some kind of performance design work with a community organization or regional, like Pamiro Opera, and things like that. I’ve done that my entire career. It’s been some of the most rewarding work I’ve ever done.”
Jeff Entwistle talked about the role of theater at a university, answering this thought sequence: Universities have theater programs. Why do they have theater programs? What is it about theater? You head out in any direction from Green Bay – or anyplace – there’s a theater there. What is about theater?
“You can reach people’s souls,” Jeff Entwistle said. “You can reach into their hearts, into their minds. When you share stories and tell meaningful stories – like I remember some of the audience leaving ‘Play Nice.’ The audience was like, “What did we just see?’ But it makes you think. And one the things that – my god, I hope they were thinking after that show – was we were doing a play that was talking a lot about child abuse and what kind of things go on. It doesn’t come out in those words in the play, but we’ve got kids afraid of their mother because she’s going to punish them again kind of thing…
“With my Intro to Theatre students who are not involved in theater, I have them break every play down that they’re analyzing so they watch then write a paper on it. They talk about entertainment, they talk about probing the human condition – let’s face it, that’s what theater’s all about, right? How do these stories and these plays do that? I also have them talk about drawing the audience into the action and prompting the audience to think about the play and its meaning. Those four categories.
“Sometimes you do a show like ‘Nunsense’ – great, fun show, but frankly, as far as meaning, it’s pretty there right on the surface. Let’s face it, that show is more about having some music and having some yuks in the theater and sharing good old jokes. Those things draw the audience in, they have their moments that are so funny or so entertaining…
“But you go to the musical ‘Memphis,’ it has these characters in the middle of the segregated South, and this white disc jockey starts playing black music on a major radio station that’s in the middle of the radio dial. And then you’ve got an interracial love affair going on, and it’s challenging society’s norms. I mean, that’s what we’re doing in theater. We’re trying to point up these things.
“Even something like ‘Into the Woods’ that I love. It has all of these fairytale characters, but all of a sudden, they’re all forced to deal with real life and real-world problems and real issues. And it’s not just a fairy tale. So there are ways that you can entertain people and yet make them think so much more deeply about things. And that’s what we’re trying to do.
“We are also a theater program on a university, okay. Now, athletics on any university – huge, right? for bringing people to the campus or making them think about the university, and yet not as many academic programs relate to athletics. It’s all about the show and about sports and entertaining people.
“But theater and music and visual art are one of the only other ways that we bring the public onto a campus. Frankly, theater is one of the only ones in most of those cases where people also pay to come and watch your final experiment. How many science classes invite a paid audience to come in so they can watch the students’ final experiment for a class? Right? We share what we do with the public.
“So we get to do all these things – to explore the entertainment and the probing of the human condition and looking for meaning in a play and trying to bring the audience into the world of the play. We do all of those things, and it makes people feel good. I mean, when you see something that is really meaningful, it touches you inside, and that’s what it’s about.
“And in theater programming in a university, we also get to explore all different types of theater. We are not bound solely by, ‘How much money can I make if I open this play?’ Yes, that’s why we do a musical every year. We’ve got to make sure we can cover our budget. Because the university… it takes $60,000 to do a full season of shows of what we do.
“When I first came here, between music and theater, we had a budget of $24,500. All these years later, theater’s annual budget is $24,500 – still the same amount of money at least in that pouch, and now music budgeted separately. We have to earn that other $40,000 back at the box office in order to pay our bills.
“But at a university, we will never step away from, ‘What are we doing here to try to expose people to?’ So that is why we’re always thinking of doing something that is musical, something that’s a classic and, as a university that is also training young professionals for the business, we try to do a couple of contemporary shows as well because that’s what they’re going to be doing when they get out of college. They’re going to be working a lot more on newer plays…
“A contemporary theater program has also got to explore new works because you have to take the audience there, too. The audience has to experience something like ‘Play Nice,’ shows that make you think in a different way about the world we all live in.”
Another chain of thought: Prior to 1970, there was no four-year campus in Green Bay. Now it’s 50 years later. In those 50 years, there has been a theater program each year, and each year the program had a product, which is a finished student. The finished student goes out into the community, and what happens then? They go into a school and teach there. They go into community theater. They go into the business (which Jeff Entwistle has many UWGB alumni examples, from a local company doing national work to Broadway and LA.). The existence of the university for 50 years has raised what’s happening out in the world for everybody.
“Without question,” Jeff Entwistle said. “That’s one of our missions of the program. It’s always about making sure when our students leave, even if they don’t go off to a huge professional, Broadway or L.A. career, but they go back into their communities and as you say it brings up, elevates what was out there.”
Jeff Entwistle is an upbeat person, and he found an upbeat note in the final days of his UWGB career.
“Well, I did get to perform in the last show. That was kind of fun. I got to do a little cameo performance. I really did enjoy the time during those techs and dresses and all the performances with the students. It was fun to get back on that side again.”