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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: The musical prism of Kent Paulsen of De Pere, Part 2

Critic At Large

College, community and church music director/performer/teacher/overseer, etc.

Kent Paulsen, right, with one of his Knights on Broadway troupes in Birder Hall. (Parent photo)

DE PERE, Wis. (WFRV) – Kent Paulsen has five assignments at St. Norbert College.

“Music Theatre is one of them, to be the music director for the summer production. And then there’s a team of four of us that is the Music Theatre management team that picks the shows and does the budgets and hires the artistic staff – tries to look at the whole program overall.

“Pretty much every summer since 1996, when I was in my first Music Theatre show, I have my spent my summers every night doing shows or rehearsals.

“So this has been a really unusual summer. It’s the first summer I’ve had off, really, for 25 years.

“Music Theatre is where I first met Dudley (Birder). There’s a funny story. I’m kind of leery of telling you because once it’s in print everyone will see it, and they’ll acknowledge this.

“Back in the summer of 1995, when I was relatively new in town, I auditioned for a production of ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat,’ and I didn’t get cast. Well, it turned out they were only looking to replace one person from the production of the summer before. And so I thought, ‘Oh, okay, maybe you have to have a connection at St. Norbert or something like that.’

“So the next summer, I got a call from Dudley Birder. And I had met him just once. He wanted me to come and audition for ‘The King and I,’ and I asked him, ‘Well, Mr. Birder, sir, I don’t mean to be rude, but I auditioned last year and I didn’t even get a callback,’ and he said, ‘Oh, well, you sang great, but, son, you can’t dance.’

“Dudley and I laugh about that story. I just had lunch with him last week, and we laughed about that story again. And then we continue the story by saying he saw me act and sing on stage once, and he’s put me in the pit ever since.

“I’m not sure how many Music Theatre shows I’ve done but I’m closing in on almost 40 over the years.”

This column is a continuation of a look at Kent Paulsen’s activities in music, from church to college to community. The link to the beginning portion: https://www.wearegreenbay.com/critic-at-large/warren-gerds-critic-at-large-the-musical-prism-of-kent-paulsen-of-de-pere-part-1/.

Kent Paulsen wants this known:

“People always say when they look at my bio over the number of things I do that it seems overwhelming or exhausting, and I always want to make sure that I give proper appreciation and thanks to the people who work with me and help make that possible.

“My wife (Emily Terrell Paulsen) is fantastic about that.

“I’ve got a great assistant here at the college, Josh Fields, who takes care of things for the chorale and Music Theatre and Knights on Broadway and the Youth Orchestra.

“The Youth Orchestra Program has a fantastic program manager in Audrey Nowak.

“I’ve got a great accompanist for the chorale in Elaine Moss.

“I’ve got wonderful help at my church from Emily Sculliuffo.

“I am so honored and privileged to work with so many people. It’s easy to lead a team when the team is filled with great people.”

So it’s music, music, music every day for breakfast, lunch and dinner?

“It does seem that way, and my wife is also a fantastic performer and singer. When I’m not doing music, she’s doing music, and sometimes we’re each doing music in different locations.”

With wife Emily. (Family photo)

At home, there’s a matter of the Paulsens keeping track of who, what and where.

“I would say that I’m a little more obsessed about the details of calendaring and scheduling. We use a shared Google calendar that’s color-coded that’s both linked to our computers and phones, and we’re constantly adjusting and tweaking. We do a morning meeting, even if it’s just two-three minutes between us to look at the day’s schedule and calendar.”

Kent Paulsen works across many styles and aspects of music. Is there any that trips his trigger more than others?

“I would say that my answer to that changes all the time, and part of the joy I have with that is I’m not doing one thing long enough to get bored with it.”

Here’s a thought about what Kent Paulsen does with the prominent St. Norbert College entities, Dudley Birder Chorale and Knights on Broadway: Their styles are akin to an apple and an orange – definite and distinctive and tasty in different ways.

“Yes, they’re quite different, and then when I throw in Music Theatre and my church – all different types of music.

“One of the things that I find myself wanting to do to make sure that I keep on top of everything but also keep them distinct in my mind is to try to schedule a specific time of the day, ‘Okay right now I’m going to be just focusing on the chorale’ or ‘This two hours I’m just going to be focusing on Knights on Broadway.’ And I try to keep up all of my lists and songs and activities I need to do separate by each entity so I can keep things clear in my mind.”

A core thought:

“Both for Knights on Broadway and the chorale, I kind of try to think what would be the professional or nationwide equivalent of us if we were on an exploded scale for budget and quality and things like that.

“I spend a lot of time looking at those programs for ideas and inspiration. So, for instance, for the chorale, I try to watch as much as I can of the Boston Pops and their orchestra and choir or the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the St. Olaf Choir, Cincinnati Pops, New York Philharmonic. For Knights on Broadway, I’ll try to watch a lot of revues and things of different places that are way beyond what I’m doing, sort of for inspiration.”

With Knights on Broadway, Kent Paulsen has his toes in the waters of tradition and legacy and the glint of showbiz luster. The troupe has a predecessor, Swinging Knights, that helped launch careers on the regional and national level.

In 1975, the 10th year of that group, founder Dudley Birder said he had his best group to date because there were no stars in it. Previous groups produced a Miss America and international opera stars and professional singers in the popular realm. The “no stars” 1975 group produced, among other notables, the creator of On Stage show troupe, the “Shopko Lady” and a whirlwind I wrote about in this series, Mary Ehlinger.

Alumni of Kent Paulsen’s Knights on Broadway troupes can be found in Let Me Be Frank Productions and Daddy D Productions show troupes – and med school.

Knights on Broadway troupe at homey gathering. (Family photo)

“I think to so many of these students that performing – whether it be in band or choir or music theater or sculpture or painting or acting in a play – is such a fundamental part of them developing the concept of self-expression, that they can’t help but not want to be in the group.

“I’m lucky that I draw from music majors and theater majors and communication majors and pre-med majors and history majors. I’ve never had a group where even half of the students are music majors. They come from all over the campus.

“I think that’s one of the beautiful elements about a place like St. Norbert. We’re not too big, and we’re not too small. We’re just right, so students can be in pre-med and in a sorority and be in Knights on Broadway and have a job off-campus and really get the full gamut of the liberal arts experience both in the classroom and outside of the classroom.”

How did Knights on Broadway happen?

“We’re just finishing up our 12th year. So 13 or 14 years ago, I was asked to come up with a proposal for an idea something like what the Swinging Knights used to be but a little bit different. That had kind of fallen away at the college for I don’t know exactly how many years – 10, 15 years. And so I proposed the idea of Knights on Broadway. And it kind of evolved over the years.

A formal pose.

“There was a year or two between the different academic choir directors at St. Norbert where I was interim director of the choirs. I had spent many years before the Knights on Broadway began working with Dudley Birder in Music Theatre and in the chorale, so I was somewhat familiar with what the Swinging Knights history and tradition were, and there were so many Swinging Knights alumni who were part of those groups that I heard often the stories and the elements of those performances.

“We started doing dinner theater in the Bemis Conference Center dining room. That was at a time when Frank’s Dinner Theatre and all that kind of stuff was taking off, so there was really this movement to do dinner theater. Then at some point, that became more and more financially difficult and logistically and technically to get bigger audiences. It wasn’t working as well.

“Five or six years ago when the college remodeled Birder Hall, the president of the college talked to me about whether that would be a good location for Knights on Broadway to move to do their shows. And so some of the design elements of Birder Hall were done to create a live theatrical performance, obviously not having sets and costumes but having like a live cabaret show. So a lot of the visual elements happened by chance as we were experimenting and getting to know how to use Birder Hall.

Another formal pose.

“One of the things we did when we were doing dinner theater is students would announce what songs were being performed. That was nice, but it kind of interrupted the flow. So we happened upon, ‘Why don’t we just project on the back wall what song is being sung?’ And that kind of expanded to, ‘Well, maybe we would use the use of a video element, a pre-recording and things like that.’

“So we’re kind of always just experimenting and tweaking with the balance between live performance and then integrating technology or different visual elements.

“In a regular year, I’m the director, artistic director and kind of put the shows together. Usually in the fall when we come back to school, we audition a new group and then I’ll pick out the music and we’ll rehearse. A lot of times I’ll add some harmonies or do some arrangements for the music.

“In fall, we’ll prepare for our Christmas show that we do in December. In the spring, we start preparing right away in January a full program of Broadway music. We usually do about half of that program in March for our trip to Florida and with our partner Daddy D Productions, and then we do the full show in May.

“My responsibilities would be to audition the group, rehearse, arrange, pick the music. Sometimes I do basic choreography, but anything that’s more complicated then a step touch, I would get a choreographer or someone to help.”

For a student’s audition, “We try to run it like an audition would be for a musical theater company. They have to come in and perform two contrasting pieces. And then I have a round of callbacks where all the students do their audition in front of each other and in front of a panel of judges.

“I always like to bring in some outside talent and outside help just to help make sure that I’m hearing what I’m hearing and that they can kind of agree or provide different perspectives. So we’ve got lots of people from Frank’s and we’ve got Darren’s group (of Daddy D) and we’ve had Knights on Broadway alumni and different faculty members.”

Selecting the music for the individual voices of 12 or so singers takes “probably the biggest amount of time. That is the source of the most amount of stress but also the greatest joy just because I’m always trying to find something new, something different.

“A lot of years I don’t pick music ahead of time until I hear the kids sing. Some of the ensemble numbers I re-arrange different times over different years to fit their voices. But certainly finding the solos is quite a long process.

“I’ve got an extensive list. I try to, every time I hear a song that I like, I’ll send myself an email, and then I’ll keep that on a sheet. And every time someone gives me a suggestion of a song, I just keep that in an email and try to listen to it. So it’s a pretty long and drawn-out process. A lot of the times I’ll try to get the students to engage in helping me find pieces that might work for them for solo moments.

“But it’s really a long process, and I’ve got a really extensive spreadsheet of every song that we’ve ever done for Knights on Broadway. I make sure that if we’re going to do a song again it’s been several years since I’ve done it that no kid will do the same song twice, things like that. So it really takes quite a bit of time.

A backstage moment.

“Usually I have a year’s theme picked out, although the last year or two I haven’t done a theme. Sometimes it’s more specific, and sometimes it’s more general. One year it was songs that came from shows that won the Tony Award for best musical. One year it was songs from musicals that played at the Weidner or PAC on tour because sometimes that gives me a little more of a framework for what shows the students might be looking for to pick songs. But a lot of times a specific or individual featured number that I do will be picked after the group has auditioned.

“There’s great beauty in being able to customize a show every semester for the students who are in the performance as to what’s happening in the world if that’s appropriate. And then there’s a lot of challenges and frustrations in having to wait until I’ve got the ensemble to really pick the right music.

“We frequently meet and talk about ‘How do you pick songs that fit your voice?’ The biggest challenge the singers have is the difference between songs that fit your voice and songs you might like. I certainly am open to them suggesting songs and ideas – and I usually take between five and 10 percent of their ideas – but a lot of times they might suggest a song that will trigger a thought in me, ‘Hey, what do you think about this song?’

“What I’ve had pretty good success with is asking them to recommend songs for someone else in the group so that that way they’re really starting to listen to how does this person’s voice sound and what kind of songs might fit with it.

“I try to encourage people to give me ideas and suggestions, and I learned a long time ago to write them all down and keep them somewhere where I can go back and look at them. I spend a lot of time trying to find groups like the chorale or like Knights on Broadway to listen to what people are doing.

“Every time I go to a program around here, I try to get inspiration or ideas. If I go to a Frank’s Christmas show every year, usually there’s one or two songs I haven’t heard of before, so I’ll send myself an email at intermission and that might show up on a Knights on Broadway Christmas show three years later in a different arrangement.

“The thing that always takes the longest and that causes me the most amount of stress sometimes is I don’t ever decide quickly on songs and repertoire because I’ve always been taught and I’ve always thought that 90 percent of what’s going to happen is based on the quality of the music that you choose for that time, that group, that event, that concert, and it’s up to you to spend the time to get it just right.”

Accompanying student Savannah Meo. (Family photo)

In a Knights on Broadway performance, Kent Paulsen accompanies all the songs on piano. In the middle of such a workout, what’s in his head?

“One of my conducting teachers in grad school talked about when you’re doing performances and concerts, try to get rid of as many commercials as you can. You know, think of it as you want the audience to be watching a movie, not a television show where you’re constantly interrupted. So even if there is talking, there’s maybe music underneath it or something that just keeps the flow and the momentum going.”

Where his head is “depends on where we are in their performance cycle. Usually in the rehearsals or dress rehearsal, I’m mostly focused on what the students are doing and taking notes in my head about blocking or notes that could be better or positions that could be better or lighting that looks a little funky or logistics and things like that. But once we hit performance, I mostly focus on just enjoying the experience.

“But it’s interesting you say that because if I’m being honest, one of the biggest struggles for a director or a performer – especially for a conductor – is this sort of cognizant dissonance I call it. It’s about living with two or more conflicting thoughts, of wanting to be present in the moment and wanting to be a few seconds ahead of what’s going to happen. I find that the ability to be present in a moment and enjoy the performance is directly proportional to the number of times you rehearsed it without stopping or without problems.

“There’s the challenge in the rehearsal process. You spend months preparing for that first performance – and that first performance is filled with a lot of anxiety and energy – and then after that (the goal is) to maintain that balance between enjoying it and feeling that sense of energy and anxiousness, too.”

For some of the students in Swinging Knights and Knights on Broadway, the experience is that of a friction car – once started, they want to keep on going. Locally, two show troupes are connected. Let Me Be Frank Productions includes Amy Riemer (Swinging Knights), music director and wife of troupe namesake Frank Hermans, along with a flow of former Knights on Broadway. Daddy D Productions is led by husband and wife Darren and Shelly Lahti Johnson (both Swinging Knights) along with a flow of former Knights on Broadway. In each recent year, Kent Paulsen’s current crop of Knights on Broadway has shared a show with Daddy D Productions at Riverside Ballroom in Green Bay.

Look around anyplace, and it’s really hard to find anything like this symbiotic situation.

“Both Frank (Hermans) and Darren (Johnson) say they like to come to my shows to scout out future talent. And then over the years both of them and people from their companies have been in our auditions and they talk to the current students. The students get a little glimpse of, ‘I’m part of something special, but there’s also more.’ There’s also that next level, there’s more that can be done. And I think it’s kind of mutually synergistic.”

Conducting a “Holiday Pops” concert. (Warren Gerds)

As I close a wide loop, this: The fellow who speaks of “mutually synergistic” and “cognizant dissonance” also is analytical about standing on a podium to conduct a choir and an orchestra.

“They’re very different, but there are a lot of similar elements to it. There’s a lot of different philosophies about what conducting is, and I kind of take the approach that conducting is leading the collaborative expression of the ensemble.

“So some of the techniques you would use to get a certain sound that evoke an emotion from a choir would be a little bit different than you would use with an orchestra. The basic elements are still the same, and it’s trying to express as much as you can through nonverbal gesture all of the elements of music that you want to encourage a certain cooperation in musical expression.

“As you are rehearsing a choir, there are elements of the text that you want to make sure are communicated. It involves tuning, balance, diction and vowel shape whereas with an orchestra it may be shaping articulation, bowing or musical expression unique to each instrument. 

“As a conductor of either a choir or orchestra you are the collaborator-in-chief, trying to evoke emotion, expression and musical communication. It’s as if the conductor is in the middle of the communication link between inspiration, the composer, the performers and the audience.”

Speaking at chorale concert. (Frankly Green Bay)

Now we are at the chase, the end, which I bring back to the beginning of this set of columns:

“One of the great lessons that I had is I can’t decide if I’d rather be a music theater director or a choral production director or a church musician or a performer or a singer or a teacher – and that I’m really blessed to be in a position now where I can do all of those.”

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

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